No matter how much variety you infuse into your campus dining program, it pays to shake things up every now and then.
At the University of Buffalo (UB) in New York, a Guest Restaurant Program—much like a typical guest chef program—does just that. UB invites local restaurants to campus three times a semester to prepare two of their top selling dishes for students in each of the school’s three dining halls. UB pays the restaurant $500 to help cover staffing, and the restaurant gets priceless exposure to a largely untapped customer base.
“Western New York has a diverse restaurant culture,” says Jeff Brady, executive director of UB Campus Dining & Shops. “Our students are very willing to step outside their comfort zone and try new things, too. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we introduce students to some of our local independent restaurants by bringing them into our dining halls to serve their food?’”
In the 2015 fall semester, UB hosted three Guest Restaurant Nights. Each one garnered rave reviews from students and helped to connect local restaurants with the campus dining community.
“It can be a bit overwhelming when we explain that they’ll be feeding 3,000 college students in one Friday night when they’re used to serving about 200 covers in the same amount of time in their restaurants,” Brady says. “But we work closely with the restaurants from the start to make sure they understand how we’ll execute their dishes. We stress that we won’t let them fail.”
To get the process started, Brady and UB’s Executive Chef Neil Plazio peruse local restaurants on popular restaurant review sites. Then they reach out to the chef, owner or general manager to invite them to participate in Guest Restaurant Night. Once the restaurateurs wrap their heads around the idea, UB invites key staff members to campus to tour the operation and get acclimated to campus dining.
During this visit, Plazio carefully explains how the school’s team of culinarians will execute the meal to the restaurant’s exact specifications in all three dining halls simultaneously.
“We ask the restaurant to tell us about their five best-selling dishes,” Brady says. “Then we evaluate which dishes will be best for Guest Restaurant Night based on equipment needs, student preferences and execution.”
Once two dishes are selected, UB hosts a training session where the restaurant chefs come to campus and teach UB culinary staff how to prepare the dish. They then do a soft opening so that dishes can be tweaked as needed.
“We typically give ourselves about six weeks lead time,” Brady says. “That gives us a comfortable amount of time to plan, prepare and execute.”
Ingredients are purchased by UB or supplied by the restaurants, depending on how specialty they are. “That’s one part that has to be tailored to the restaurant each time,” Brady says. “For example, when we did a ramen bar, the restaurant had to make the noodles because a purchased product just didn’t compare to the quality of their handmade noodles.”
UB handles all advertising and promotion in advance of Guest Restaurant Night by running ads inside the school’s transit buses, on table tents and through social media and newsletters.
“We start promoting Guest Restaurant Night at least two weeks in advance,” Brady says.
On the night of the event, UB requires the restaurants to bring three of its key employees—ideally the owner, the chef and the manager—so each one can be stationed at each dining center. They get a table near the station where their dishes are being prepared small-plate style, so that they can interact with students, pass out menus and further connect with the campus community.
“We’ve had students come in and tell the owners how they looked them up and researched the restaurant before coming to Guest Restaurant Night,” Brady says.
At the end of the night, UB staff monitors the dish return carefully to see how successful a meal it was.
“There is very little plate waste on Guest Restaurant Night,” Brady says. “Plus, when we check back in with the restaurants 30 or so days after, they report on how they’re seeing a more customers from campus than ever before.”
Building on the success of the 2015 semester, UB plans to continue Guest Restaurant Night through 2016 spring and beyond.
“Students have asked us to increase the frequency of these events for next year,” Brady says. “And we plan to. Especially since we have more local restaurants calling us, asking how they can participate.”