The University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton has operated one of the more creative campus dining programs in the country for years, particularly with its specialized residential dining halls that offer all-vegan (Mean Greens), all-allergen-free (Kitchen West) and sports nutrition focused (Champs) menus. The school added to this array earlier this year with its newest venue, Eagle Landing. For a closer look at these venues, go here.
While Eagle Landing doesn’t have the specialized menu focus of those other dining centers, it does offer a set of seven food concepts that add to the variety offered students, particularly the some 6,000 who reside on campus and hold residential meal plans. For the fall semester and the 2021-22 academic year, UNT is expecting to return more or less to normal pre-pandemic operation with most classes held in person, a full complement of on-campus resident students and dining offered with little or no restrictions on things like seating capacity, says Peter Balabuch, executive director of campus dining services.
“Our administration wants a full campus experience for our students this year and that’s what we will be providing in the dining area,” he offers. Move-in for freshmen begins Aug. 13 and fall classes start 10 days later.
On the dining end, everything is expected to be open and fully staffed, Balabuch says. The department traditionally employs some 1,400 individuals, 170 of them full-timers and the rest hourly workers and students.
“I know many foodservices have staffing problems at the moment, but considering we are starting behind the dime because of the reduced work force we had this spring, we are actually on pace to where we would normally be to get staff in place for fall,” he claims.
Of course, among the outlets to be open is Eagle Landing, which had a soft opening in the spring semester that was interrupted by damage caused by the inclement spring weather that hit Texas, but it is now expected to operate at its full potential, replacing the antiquated—and now closed—Kerr Dining Hall as the fifth all-you-care-to-eat residential dining outlet on campus and adding not only better and more food options but also about 300 more seats in the process.
“Eagle Landing brings a free-standing dining hall to campus and allows us a recommitment to how we do food, which is primarily with an ingredient-based approach that we look to make as much in-house as possible,” Balabuch explains. “It is set up like food court with seven restaurants, with all-you-care-to-eat access to all locations.”
The seven platforms in Eagle Landing are…
Avenue A, offering homestyle entrees and sides like fried chicken, mac and cheese, smoked barbecue and breakfast all day;
Bamboo Basil, an Asian-themed wok concept featuring stir fried rice and noodle dishes;
Cibo Fresco, an Italian cuisine concept menuing pizza, calzones, Stromboli and a daily pasta toss;
Clark Bakery, an outlet for the campus commissary bake shop operation featuring its fresh pastries, warm desserts, ice cream and other sweet treats;
La Mesa, a Latin fusion concept offering south-of-the-border fare like street tacos and burritos served on house-made tortillas;
Leaf, a plant-forward concept offering fresh veggies, salads, soups and numerous 100% plant-based options utilizing ingredients that include greens grown on campus at Mean Green Acres, the dining program’s hydroponic garden and Wood & Grill, with grilled items like both meat-based and plant-based burgers all cooked over a wood grill.
The other four current residential dining outlets (the Clark Bake Shop used to be a sixth but now is used exclusively for bakery production) are the all-vegan Mean Greens; Kitchen West, which features dishes free of the eight most common food allergens; Champs, located in the midst of the campus athletic venues and featuring dishes focused on sports nutrition; and the Bruceteria, the most traditional of the venues with stations menuing hot entrees, pizza, rotisserie chicken, Mediterranean specialties like gyros and dessert and salad bars.
All are all-you-care-to-eat and open to all meal plan holders as well as others paying a door entry fee. Resident students with unlimited plans get universal access as well as a certain amount of flex dollars based on the plan chosen that can be used at campus retail locations. For the 2021-22 school year, the program has streamlined its meal plan offerings to the most popular choices while also reducing the price of its top-line plan.
Five residential dining outlets seem like a lot, but Balabuch defends the approach.
“Especially now that we have Eagle Landing open, we could probably take some of these other dining centers away and still satisfy campus resident dining needs with maybe just two locations,” he concedes. “However, the idea is to add value to the meal plan through a diverse menu offering for resident students and commuters who choose to be part of the meal plan.”
The vegan and allergen-free venues particularly offer that value, especially to students and families concerned about satisfying specific dietary needs in more than just a superficial way.
“Parents of students who have food allergies send us Christmas cards and come to the campus to see us because they are so grateful for what we are doing with Kitchen West,” a formerly traditional dining hall that was converted to its allergen-free approach in late 2019. “Parents are resource to us for information [on food allergy issues and approaches], and they also turn us on to organizations that can help our program get it right in the food we offer,” Balabuch says.
While the newish Eagle Landing will add to the residential dining network, no additions are planned for the retail side when school opens this fall, Balabuch says, but adds the program is in the process of building a new retail venue called The Market in a space next to Eagle Landing that “we hope to open this academic year.” The nearly 3,000-sq.ft. venue will be anchored by a national branded concept and will also offer both grab and go prepared foods made onsite and meal ingredients such as premium deli meats and fresh breads and other bakery products from the campus bakery.
In line with the administration’s desire for a return to the “full campus experience,” operating hours for the dining venues are expected to basically return to pre-pandemic norms, with the exception that Eagle Landing will now offer extended evening residential dining to 9 p.m. seven days a week, something the Kerr facility it replaced didn’t. Meanwhile, the retail food court in the Student Union will stay open until midnight.
One thing the UNT dining program doesn’t currently offer is any kind of remote order option.
“We do rely heavily on [self-order] kiosks in the Student Union, but a lot of our retail is such high [traffic] that my concern is overloading capacity and making it less desirable,” Balabuch explains.
Instead, what the program is focused on is high-quality food, he suggests.
“A lot of what we’ve done is make investments in kitchen equipment that allow us to holistically be a scratch operation while staying safe, such as by keeping our meat and veggie prep rooms separate,” he says. “Meanwhile, we are always continuing to look at new equipment and solutions that can expand efficiency and allow us to do even more scratch cooking.”
Also on tap in the near future are renovations and upgrades of the Mean Greens facility and the program’s hydroponic gardens, he adds.