A station deployed during the dinner period at Stuart Dining Hall on the Boston College (BC) Newton campus, Tapas offers small-portion, shareable selections from a wide range of cuisines, providing the kind of flexibility that allows the BC dining team to experiment and innovate while satisfying students wishing to try different things. (For a video, go here.)
“Students are always hungry for unique foods and dessert options, and responding to this need is a top priority for BC Dining, as our goal for the year is culinary innovation,” says Beth Emery, BC’s director of dining. “We know that small plates are popular in the marketplace and students have asked us to offer options of items that are in smaller portions. Feedback from students indicates that they love to share menu selections with friends, and the tapas station provided this opportunity. In addition, it has provided our cooks with a great chance to offer menu selections from across the globe.”
Implemented in September 2015, the Tapas concept is operated on an a la carte basis at a single station during the dinner meal period (5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday) and is designed to provide students either with a small bite to accompany an entree selection or as a shareable treat for several guests. Stuart is home to freshman students but also located on the law school campus, making it a popular dining choice for law students as well.
The only station of its kind on campus, Tapas menus items include curried chicken empanadas, edamame-spiced puree, seared scallops with strawberry and mango salsa, banana fritters, salt cod and potato cakes and Mediterranean calamari.
Developed jointly by management and staff, the bite-sized tapas menus not only take advantage of the ethnic food trend but also provide a vehicle for creating menu items that utilize quality and unique ingredients like steamed mussels and calamari.
The station can also be utilized as part of BC’s Test Kitchen concept in which BC Dining chefs and culinarians experiment with creative, innovative and trendy recipe ideas. Although there is a three-week cycle menu for Tapas, the staff and management team have the liberty to complement the standard offerings with their own items that accord with a $3.59 to $5.95 price point.
All staff members, from managers to line cooks, cashiers, utility and food servers, are encouraged to submit their recipe ideas for Test Kitchen. One is Keze Whitlow, winner of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association 2015 Line Chef of the Year, whose creations have included Keze’s Tapas, pan-seared scallops over chorizo drizzled with her secret sauce and seafood paella with mussels in an edible plantain boat.
To keep student interest alive, tapas recipes are constantly being adjusted, and new tapas are being created continually. For example, a new direction for the tapas is a focus on sweet and savory including, but not limited to, desserts like the banana fritters.
“The unique ability to experiment with new tapas menu items through Test Kitchen has also kept students hungry, as it essentially allows Stuart to offer a new tapas item every day a student enters Stuart for a meal,” Emery says.
Test Kitchen tapas were developed to not only satisfy students’ palates but also increase the dinner check average, which it has, by about 5 percent. Sales are tracked and feedback from comment cards is evaluated to maintain interest and ensure that the menu remains attractive. This also gives students a sense of ownership of the plates they have voted on to the menu, Emery offers.
New tapas items are regularly featured, complete with with eye-catching pictures, on Boston College’s Instagram, Twitter and website, and are also marketed on digital signage throughout the Stuart dining facility. Samples of the items are also provided to students in the dining seating area and/or within the servery.
“Considering that the goal for BC Dining is culinary innovation, the Tapas concept has certainly been helpful in providing a vehicle for that innovation,” Emery says.
The initial startup costs for the tapas station were minimal, and the project was given the go-ahead as the service area it occupies had been a three-well, self-serve hot/cold food station that was not efficiently being used. A majority of the initial costs were in the purchase of vessels to hold the tapas while the cost of the serving ware (disposable bamboo plates) is factored into the sale price of the tapas.
There were obstacles. For example, the Newton campus is about two miles away from BC’s central campus and the station itself is slightly tucked away inside the dining hall and can easily be missed by busy students, so customers are sometimes unaware of it unless waiting in line for an entree or getting a soup.
To overcome this visibility issue, a cook is placed behind the serving station to talk directly with students and hand out samples. Also drawing interest is the assembly of plates in front of customers, transforming the station into an aesthetically pleasing and interactive dining experience.
The uniqueness of the tapas concept was particularly apparent from the reactions during its initial inception, when freshman students walking into Stuart were treated to a sample of one of the two tapas offerings for the night.
“Curiosity was peaked and previous conversations quickly shifted to food, as students began inquiring about the tapas seen devoured by other students,” Emery recalls. “The students weren’t just taking the free treats though, they were coming back for seconds and purchasing. In fact, they still are purchasing tapas today and are always giving suggestions as to what they may have seen back home or locally, which has opened up a line of communication between dining staff and students.”
As Sharyl Thompson, general manager of Stuart Dining, says, “They [the students] are keeping us busy... after all, it’s what everyone is salivating about!”