Students, staff and faculty members at the University of Connecticut (UConn) have more dining options than residents at some small towns. In addition to dining halls, the campus boasts a food court at the student union with various stations, grab-and-go meals, quick-service restaurants and a full-service restaurant. But diners looking specifically for local, organic, gluten-free or vegetarian options were less than satisfied.
Enter: One Plate, Two Plates. The university opened this quick-service restaurant to replace a Wendy’s at the beginning of the school year and has managed to incorporate local and organic ingredients and meals that satisfy various dietary restrictions.
One Plate, Two Plates might have come together over a few months, mostly over summer break in 2014, but the seeds had been planted a long time ago.
“The nice thing was we already had a significant infrastructure in sourcing local foods, so it wasn’t like we had to start from scratch,” says Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining services at UConn.
That infrastructure dated back 15 years when the university first introduced the Local Routes Program, which helps obtain locally sourced food from farms in the area and works to educate the community on the role of a local food system.
The opening of One Plate, Two Plates was perfectly timed with this year’s UConn Reads, a book selected by the school's community to read and conduct events centered around the book's themes. This year Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a lengthy read on modern agriculture and the politics of today’s food systems, was chosen.
Rob Landolphi, manager for culinary development, thought a lot about food systems when devising the menus for One Plate, Two Plates. Landolphi worked with the school’s vendors Sysco Foods and FreshProint produce and asked lots of questions about what foods were available locally and organically and what options they had for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diners.
“It was nice building the menu like this because we wanted to actually put on the menu the names of the farm and where the product actually came from,” Landolphi says.
Local food at One Plate, Two Plates often means food straight from one of the two farms on the school’s grounds. The specials are frequently made from what the school farmers bring to their door, Landolphi adds. So it was important that they found a chef who could get creative with a bounty, say, of ramps, and who was familiar with gluten-free cooking. Luckily they found the right candidate working at the school’s full-service restaurant, Chuck & Augie’s.
As trendy as clean, local food is, the team was keenly aware that it was replacing a Wendy’s. “We knew based on the clientele that was there that we should probably stick with burgers and fries,” Landolphi says. “So we said, 'OK, we’re still going to do burgers, but we’re going to do an all-natural burger from a farm in Maine and what we’re also going to do is hand-cut fries,' so that was the start of the concept.”
Other menu options include a chopped salad with baby greens, roasted butternut squash, apples, red grapes, toasted walnuts and goat cheese; a wrap with roasted beets, roasted red pepper hummus, baby greens and quinoa wrapped in a sun-dried tomato wrap; a flatbread with agave barbeque antibiotic-free chicken with blue cheese and caramelized onions; and a grilled cheese sandwich made with three different local cheeses.
It was particularly important to serve vegetarian, vegans and those keeping a gluten-free diet. (Landolphi is known as the gluten-free chef and has authored many gluten-free cookbooks.) To do this “we built the menu around a lot of cross-utilization and substitutes," Landolphi says. A vegan can easily get a dish without the cheese, Beyond Meat, a vegetarian protein, can be substituted for chicken, or a taco can be made with a gluten-free tortilla. All of the fryolators are kept gluten-free.
There’s a large community of diners at UConn keeping gluten-free, so these options have been welcomed by students, staff and faculty alike, Pierce says.
The average check is only slightly higher than the other food court options: around $7 for a meal, side and drink, although a grilled cheese and water costs around $5. One Plate, Two Plates is not part of the meal plan because it would cause unfair competition for the other quick-serve restaurants nearby, Pierce says.
“I think people are also willing to pay a little bit more for clean food," Landolphi adds.
And on opening day when a student took a look at the menu and Landolphi heard him say, “'I can’t believe there’s finally legitimate food here,’” he knew they were on to something.