The dining facilities at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University had hardly been updated since they were first built in 1973. So when Director of Housing and Dining Services Kent Dahlquist came on board in 2010, he knew it was time to make some major changes.
Students had long lamented the lack of seating, long lines and inconvenient operating hours. “The majority of our locations closed at 7 p.m. Students wanted later hours,” Dahlquist says. The solution was the newly opened Cub Café, a 4,388-square-foot expansion of Kutztown’s McFarland Student Center that transformed the outdated space into a 24-hour, all-you-care-to-eat market-style dining facility and social hub.
Fresh options, any time
McFarland’s old downstairs retail locations were transformed into signature food stations, including a 24-hour breakfast nook, a self-operated panini press, a grill area with burgers and sandwiches, an expanded coffee shop with lounge seating and The Hearth, which serves hot hoagies, pasta and pizza. Upstairs, Dahlquist introduced new global options, like a Mongolian grill and a sushi bar.
The old buffet-style serving wells were out, too. With students expecting transparency and the ability to customize their meals, Dahlquist brought cooking out of the kitchen and onto the service lines. “Chefs now cook in front of the students and serve fresh food,” he says.
To meet the demand for later hours, Dahlquist traded traditional block-style meal plans for MyTime Dining, which offers students unlimited, 24-hour access to select dining areas. “Students swipe in at the front door, and have full access to both the downstairs and upstairs dining areas,” Dahlquist says.
The expansion also made for easier daytime access. Because the old retail locations were all located on the same side of campus, long lines were always a problem. “So we added the Cub Café on the north side, where the academic buildings are,” Dahlquist says. Having options on both sides of campus helped alleviate the crowding.
A social experience
Students had also expressed concerns over a lack of seating in the dining areas. But instead of just adding more of the same tables, Dahlquist sought to add more casual options—like the glass-enclosed porch area with Adirondack chairs and picnic tables. He also incorporated spaces devoted to socializing. “We wanted someplace the students would want to go, not just to eat, but to hang out and build relationships in. So they didn’t feel like they had to just eat and leave,” he says. The 24-hour dining area offers lounge seating, big-screen TVs, a 10-foot fireplace and a stage area for events like student talent nights. Students can also play pool, shuffleboard and foosball, as well as Xbox and Playstation.
So far, the late-night food-and-fun combo has been a hit. An average of 350 students come through between midnight to 6 a.m., and Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest. “It gives students another place to go. We also have kids who are on the bus loop, and who come back here after they’ve been off campus,” Dahlquist says. Though Aramark, Kutztown’s foodservice vendor, initially had concerns that the late-night crowd could get rowdy, Dahlquist says there haven’t been any behavior issues.
Convincing the skeptics
The new 24-hour dining plans are the same price as the old premium block-style meal plan. Still, not all students were thrilled with the switch. Some initially thought that the old plans offered a better value. “But once we hit the right information, students started getting on board and understanding the value of paying $15 per day for unlimited access, which is what [the price] worked out to,” Dahlquist says. For students who missed being able to use their meal equivalency at retail locations like Chik-fil-A and Starbucks, Dahlquist offered a plan with dining flex dollars. “The dining flex dollars can be used at retail locations or to pay a door rate for a guest for all-you-care-to-eat,” he says.
Both of those hurdles resulted in Kutztown selling fewer meal plans this year than they had hoped for. But resistant upperclassmen are starting to change their minds. “When I talk to students, they acknowledge that they didn’t understand the meal plan change, and that they would encourage people to reconsider,” Dahlquist says. What’s more, first-year students are enthusiastic. “We’re the only university in Pennsylvania offering a 24/7 meal plan, which we find to be a very strong marketing tool,” Dahlquist adds. “For some of the freshmen and their parents, it made a difference in their decision.”