St. Norbert College, a small private Catholic college with a usual enrollment of around 2,000 in De Pere, just south of Green Bay in Wisconsin, also boasts one of the country’s highest rated campus dining programs as tabulated by the niche.com Best College Food in America rankings, which are based on student reviews as well as some other data such as meal plan affordability.
“A couple things in our foundation help support our success,” notes Melissa DaPra, director of dining services. “We’re the only Norbertine college in the United States and they have this concept called communio, which is living the mission and living together. Part of that mission is that we’re self-op—employees of the college—and have a lot of control over our destiny. We can pivot to feedback from the students and have a lot of control over our menus—because, after all, everything starts with the menu.”
That proactive responsiveness to customers certainly helps explain the enthusiasm students show for the program through their input to niche.com. So does the menu variety.
“We have a different menu every day for four weeks for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” DaPra says, “and are also very adaptable to feedback and react in a timely way because we have flexibility to do that.”
The menus, she says, are “very recipe based with a lot of scratch cooking—if we can do it by hand, we do it by hand.”
It also helps to have a veteran—and large—culinary team that includes 10 chefs on staff with the head chef, Dan Froelich, having been at the school for 32 years, while his top assistant, Daniel Staats, has 20 years in.
“They are real culinarians who are dedicated to the kind of food they are producing,” Da Pra says proudly.
Plenty of choices
The dining program operates four outlets: the main Ruth’s Marketplace residential dining hall with its all-you-care-to-eat platform, and three retail outlets—Dale’s Sports Lounge, Phil’s Grill & C-Store and Ed’s Coffee Shop.
The multi-station Ruth’s includes a grill, deli, Italian, soup and dessert stations as well as a Wellness station with especially healthy offerings such as lunch salads, vegan bowls, stir-fried vegetables and marinated tofu and an Allergen-Friendly outlet for those needing to avoid specific foods. A Fusion station operating in all dayparts offers items like cheese tortellini asiago casserole and Tibetan butter chicken quinoa bowls for lunch and beef or bean & cheese chimichangas and Southern fried tilapia for dinner while its breakfast menu has the usual egg/potato/pancake/toast/breakfast meat selection with daily specials like Texas or Horchata Almond French toast and Marketplace Sweet Cream Pancakes.
Dale’s has a bar food-type menu, though it doesn’t serve alcohol, with appetizers like cheese curds, hamburger sliders and boneless wings as well as chicken tender, grilled cheese, quesadilla and taco basket combos. Prepared food selections at Phil’s include breakfast specials like breakfast burritos and omelets, grilled and cold sandwiches/subs/wraps, burgers and appetizers like boneless hot wings and French toast sticks. Ed’s, located in the library, has specialty coffee drinks, smoothies, cold Italian sodas and teas, hand-dipped ice cream shakes and a food menu with selections like breakfast all day, pizzas, quesadillas, sandwiches and sweets like muffins and brownies.
A new addition for spring 2021 is the pilot of the GMS Smart Cart, located at the Gehl-Mulva Science Center, offering different plant-rich, energy-sustaining packaged selections each day such as meal boxes, bowls, sandwiches and salads that also demonstrates the expertise and creativity of the culinary staff. The meal boxes range from the Snack Attack (peanut butter, celery, carrot, red grapes, cheddar and rice crackers) and Happy Trails (naan, Nutella, Granny Smith apple, orange and trail mix) to the Smart Start (vanilla Greek yogurt, granola, strawberries, pineapple and blueberries), the Breaking Bread (sun-dried tomato bagel, hard-boiled egg, cucumber and vegetable cream cheese) and the Lunch Bunch (naan, turkey breast, ham, carrot, celery and tzatziki sauce).
Examples of bowl selections include Chicken Chakalaka Buddha Bowl (quinoa, white beans, shawarma chicken, carrot, red cabbage and kale), the Wheatberry Pork Harissa Buddha Bowl (wheatberries, chickpeas, harissa-seasoned pork and vegetables, tahini turmeric sauce, mint and cumin yogurt) and the Steak Carne Asada Buddha Bowl (lettuce, carne asada, Mexican black beans, tortilla strips, pico de gallo, Cojita cheese, carrots, red cabbage and kale). Sandwiches range from Turkey Provolone Ciabatta and Ham & Mozzarella on a Pretzel Roll to Italian Sub and Tuna Salad Croissant while salad examples include Chicken Caesar, Chef (lettuce, spinach, hard-boiled egg, ham, turkey, cheddar, Swiss cheese, tomato, cucumber), Roasted Turkey/Bacon Cobb (lettuce, spinach, bacon, tomato, hard-boiled egg, carrots, turkey), Mediterranean (lettuce, chicken, green and black olives, tomato, cucumber, feta cheese) and Superfoods (kale, blueberries, tomato, carrots, broccoli, cashews, sunflower seeds).
Coping with COVID
St. Norbert’s has a four-year residency requirement, though purchasing a meal plan is mandated only for the first two years. Upperclassmen living on campus have options like townhouses and apartments with cooking facilities but almost all still voluntarily participate in the meal plan program, usually opting for one of the optional plans or the dining dollars, DaPra says. The required meal plan offers unlimited access to Ruth’s along with a generous allotment of $450 in dining dollars per semester that can be spent at the retail outlets.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Norbert saw its enrollment drop about 10%, to around 1,800 for the 2020-2021 school year, when it’s been offering a hybrid class schedule with a mix of in-person and online instruction.
“They made the commitment to have students back on campus and we made the commitment to feed them safely,” DaPra offers. “We developed our own phase 2 plan that primarily involves a hybrid style of dining service in that students can take meals to go or dine in to help accommodate the hybrid class schedule.”
The plan also put a mobile-order platform in place for the first time. The service is only available for the retail outlets “as there’s no really tangible way to make that work in all-you-care-to-eat,” DaPra explains. “We took the philosophy of spreading out the crowds with space and time, so we turned one of our catering venues into a grab-and-go [outlet] where students have the opportunity to get that all-you-care-to-eat menu in a grab-and-go [format]—or they can come to Ruth’s” where grab and go is also available along with limited in-venue seating.
The grab-and-go system for the all-you-care-to-eat dining hall “was trial and error at first, but once they figured out how the system would work and there would be things available every day, they stopped taking everything they could possibly carry,” DaPra observes.
The grab-and-go option did force a compromise on the school’s commitment to sustainability because of the packaging requirements and limitations.
“Prior to COVID we were Styrofoam-free on campus for many years,” DaPra explains, “but we didn’t feel it was safe for our staff to continue with our reusable to-go program, and we also didn’t want students carrying around contaminated boxes, so we did end up going with some mixed material based basically on what we could get.”
Current and future adjustments
Perhaps surprisingly, the grab-and-go option out of Ruth’s was never as popular as one might think, peaking at around 20% of transactions. As a result, the grab-and-go outlet at the catering venue didn’t reopen after spring break, though the option is still offered in Ruth’s for those who want it.
Seating in the dining hall has been maximized while staying within COVID-mandated social distancing limits, thanks to some creative seating arrangements, so that “for a table that sits eight we were able to engineer a way to have it sit three, which is very important because they still get to sit together and dine communally,” DaPra stresses.
There is also extensive outdoor seating when weather permits, as well as in a ballroom that currently has suspended catered events. The retail outlets also have seating available with proper social distancing limitations.
To ensure that crowds didn’t overwhelm the limited seating during peak meal periods, St. Norbert partnered with the online reservation service Open Table in the fall but quickly discovered that it wasn’t necessary as students self-regulated dining hall attendance on their own once they discovered at what times the venue was especially busy.
One COVID-forced change that will definitely continue is the mobile-ordering option in the retail outlets, which currently generates about a fifth of total business according to DaPra. “Students love it and it has continued to build,” she says. “It had been on our bucket list for a while and just accelerated to the top of the list with COVID.”