Caribbean cuisine in a college setting is not unusual, but the lengths to which the University at Albany (UA) and dining services provider Sodexo went with its Caribbean concept definitely is.
Calypso, the station in question, is just one of more than a dozen concepts in UA’s Campus Center food court, but not one that was top of mind when the concept mix was originally contemplated. For a photo tour of Calypso, go here.
In fact, Caribbean wasn’t even technically on the ballot when UA Dining surveyed students on what kind of food they would like to see at Campus Center, but it was the beneficiary of a write-in—or more accurately, text-in—campaign in that it received overwhelming support in the real-time texting poll the department conducted.
Much of the support came from students of Caribbean heritage who wanted to see some of the foods they grew up with, which also posed a challenge to the dining staff because these would not be customers who could be placated with semi-authentic knock-offs.
Fortunately for the UA dining team, help was close at hand in the person of Haitian born chef Jude Jerome, who leveraged his personal knowledge of the culinary traditions of his homeland and put together a team that could also create authentic dishes from four other major regional traditions: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The menu isn’t exactly standard college fare, not with dishes like oxtail stew (slow roasted oxtail seasoned with a Jamaican spice blend of allspice, garlic, thyme, scotch bonnet and onion medley), bacalao (salted cod) with stewed eggplant, pernil (slow roasted pork shoulder with herbs), ropa vieja (Cuban shredded stewed beef), Caribbean goat stew (slow roasted goat and carrots lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, ginger and curry), Jamaican curry chicken (spicy chicken simmered in an aromatic blend of garlic, ginger, thyme, onion and hot peppers with a bold curry sauce) and chicharrones de pollo (crispy fried chicken marinated in lime with an extra crunchy coating). Sides include Cuban black beans and fried plantains.
One challenge, Jerome says, is the differences in the cuisines of the different islands, not just because there may be different ingredients that were traditionally available but also cultural differences driven by history.
“It depends on who colonized them,” he notes. “For example, when you talk about Haitian cuisine, you’ll see a lot of French influences while in Jamaica its English along with African.”
There are no compromises as Jerome, left, and his team refuse to skimp, placate or dumb down the brand in any way and all ingredients are sourced as if Calypso were a five-star Caribbean restaurant.
For example, one day in mid-January, certain key ingredients did not get delivered on time. Since most of Calypso’s dishes are slow-cooked to reach their maximum taste profile, several menu items were as a consequence not ready for the 11 a.m. opening. Jerome, instead of just putting out the dishes anyway, decided to delay opening for a couple of hours so not to sacrifice the quality customers have come to expect.
“Everything was fully cooked, but I’m all about tradition and perfection,” he declared.
So, because the dishes are made in authentic ways with authentic ingredients, they have been a big hit with UA’s large Caribbean heritage student population, as well as with other students with adventurous tastes. In fact, because so many students patronize the station several times a day, Calypso offers both weekly specials and different options each day for lunch and dinner to increase variety.
The station has been promoted not only through traditional avenues like signage and social media but also through having its dishes—along with Jerome to answer questions—show up in the residential dining halls at least once a semester to introduce them to students—primarily freshmen—who may not regularly get to Campus Center.
The result of all these efforts has been a minimal-footprint station—at just 160 square feet it is by far the smallest retail venue in the Campus Center—that serves up to 600 customers a day and has experienced a 31% increase in the weekly average number of transactions and a 35% increase in the weekly average check since its debut.
Interestingly, traffic counts only took off after the station started listing ingredients beside the names of the dishes on the menu board. Once ingredients were listed below the name, participation increased 36% within two weeks.
Jerome speculates that this was because the information convinced Caribbean heritage students that the dishes were authentic.
Meanwhile, non-island heritage students were coaxed to try dishes made with exotic ingredients such as ox tails or a dish that translates to “old clothes” with product sampling and “Did You Know” messaging on social media, printed posters and digital monitors that featured the various dishes, their ingredients and some historical and/or culinary commentary.
Given its traffic and revenue numbers, combined with a fairly limited equipment start-up cost of around $40,000, Calypso hit its financial break-even point after only a half semester of operation.
There are other benefits aside from finances. For instance, the morale of the staff at Calypso is noticeably higher, says Kevin D’Onofrio, resident district manager for Sodexo at UA. “They have a huge sense of pride in what they serve and they enjoy teaching unaccustomed students about the different dishes.”