What do you do to lessen the crush in your residential dining facilities during peak periods? The University of San Diego (USD) has found a solution to that problem: a smoker/barbecue stand called Embers that sets up right outside the school’s main residential dining venue, Pavilion Dining, at times when crowds are expected. The school can do that because of its region’s very accommodating year-round weather, so it may not work everywhere else.
“Last fall, we had our biggest ever freshman class—about a hundred more first-year students than the prior year—and we were concerned—especially at Pavilion, where at night dinner is our all-you-care-to-eat [AYCTE] time frame—that we were going to have even larger crowds than before, so how are we going to accommodate that?” explains Loryn Johnson, director of marketing for USD auxiliary services about the thinking that led to Embers.
It should be noted that Pavilion is a dual-approach venue in that it offers retail-style a la carte dining during the day but converts to AYCTE for dinner every day and for weekend brunch. All first- and second-year resident students are required to purchase meal plans that give them access to Pavilion’s AYCTE periods and Dining Dollars to use for retail purchases at both Pavilion and select other campus dining venues.
“We liked this concept of an East Texas smoker barbecue on wheels that we could set up outside Pavilion but then also be able to set it up at athletic events,” Johnson says. “It’s come in handy for sure and it gives off these great smells from the burning pecan wood. It’s just a fun concept.”
The menu consists of typical barbecue/smoked items such as ribs, chicken and sides like cole slaw, beans, corn and so forth. That contrasts with the offerings inside Pavilion, where nine separate food stations offer just about everything except barbecue, although there is a grill that produces burgers, chicken sandwiches and such.
“Plus, chefs who do the cooking really like it because it has the smoker right there, plus both a regular flat top gas grill and a charcoal grill, a deep fryer and four burners,” allowing plenty of menu options, adds Charles Ramos, interim director of dining for USD. “It even has an audio system and DirecTV!” he notes.
Embers is designed to intercept students crowding into Pavilion who might like a less crowded—and more immediate—dining experience, “so when customers see that the inside is too crazy, they’ll go outside to that option,” Ramos says.
A typical dinner period will see maybe a hundred students opting for Embers, while a typical dinner rush at Pavilion will see 1,300 to 1,400 customers.
An additional option being contemplated is to have Embers offer pre-packaged grab-and-go meals incorporating the station’s barbecued specialties with sides, Johnson offers. That might appeal especially to faculty and staff, she suggests, as Embers is also situated on the way to one of the campus’s main parking lots, so it could present an attractive take-home meal option for those leaving work.
As a step in that direction, USD’s mobile ordering program, GET Food, may add Embers as a venue the service connects with, she suggests. “So people would be able to go on the app, order their food and then stop by the barbecue stand to pick it up on their way to their car. That’s probably going to be our next evolution with the barbecue.”