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The University of Chicago piloted a Saturday night free meal program to determine if dining services needs to expand services to weekends
<p>The University of Chicago piloted a Saturday night free meal program to determine if dining services needs to expand services to weekends.</p>

University of Chicago pilots Saturday night dining club

The university-funded pilot was designed to gauge students' interest in a Saturday night, on-campus dining option.

Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood features an eclectic selection of ethnic restaurants, coffee shops, delis, pizzerias and neighborhood pubs.

It’s also home to The University of Chicago where two residential dining commons, 14 cafes and two retail locations run by Aramark, the school’s foodservice provider, cater to more than 3,300 students on meal plans.

“Traditionally, we close residential dining commons on Saturday nights,” says Richard Mason, executive director of UChicago Dining who has been with the school for 16 years. “We offer breakfast and brunch on those days, as well as a number of retail options in the evening and at night.”

Hutchinson Commons is open until 7 p.m. and accepts Maroon Dollars and meal exchanges. Maroon Market and Midway Market are both open until 3 a.m., serving a variety of snacks and frozen options and accepting both Maroon Dollars and meal exchanges. (Midway also includes a Subway restaurant.) Cafe Logan is open until 8 p.m., and Tiffin Cafe is open from 4 p.m. to midnight. Both accept Maroon Dollars.

“Many students use declining balance or meal exchanges to eat in our retail operations,” Mason says. “Or they go out to eat with friends or participate in a Saturday night program through resident life.”

But this fall, UChicago’s dining mix was shaken up when the school funded a pilot called the Saturday Night Social Club, which offered a free family-style meal to students and affiliates who reserved a spot.

“Last year, a group of students came to us because they felt like something was missing from their campus dining experience,” Mason says. “They had used up their declining balance for coffee and snacks and they weren’t interested in participating in any of the Saturday night programs put on by residential staff. They wanted a community dining experience, but they weren’t flush with discretionary money to eat off campus.”

During the fall quarter, the school hosted three Saturday Night Social Clubs. It was free for students currently on a meal plan, while students without a meal plan were charged $10.

“We are learning as we go with this pilot since we’ve never offered something like this before,” Mason says. “For instance, we did a 7 p.m. seating and 9 p.m. seating the second week. It turns out 7 p.m. was a much more popular time than 9 p.m.. And for the first meal, we served family style, but for the second we served buffet style.”

The menu for the third and final meal of the fall pilot was as follows:
•    Roasted Beet and Fennel Salad Tossed in Agave Citrus Dressing served over Baby Kale
•    Grilled Sliced Beef Tenderloin Topped with Wild Mushrooms and Cabernet Demi Glaze
•    Pan-fried and Roasted Chicken Breast Topped with Sage Butter Sauce and Pear Confit
•    Macadamia-crusted Tofu Steak topped with Orange Sauce
•    Roasted Tarragon Butternut Squash
•    Spicy Baked Sweet Potatoes
•    Sautéed Swiss Chard
•    Candied Baby Carrots
•    Chocolate Mousse
•    Hot Chocolate/Hot Cider Bar with assorted toppings and syrups

“The meals are prepared by our catering department and hosted in one of the school’s event spaces,” says Mason, adding that they have an averaged 150 students per club.

At the conclusion of the pilot, Mason and his team will evaluate the program to determine if there is a need for a regular Saturday night dining option on campus.

“Once we get a better understanding of what our students are looking for, we can build a permanent program that would be included in the meal plan,” Mason says. “Maybe that means co-locating a meal next to an on-campus event like a play or a concert to offer a more holistic experience.”

In the meantime, the school will determine if the Saturday Night Social Club pilot gave them enough information to go on, or if they need to extend the pilot into the second quarter.

“We didn’t have any scale of expectations going into this,” Mason adds. “We budgeted for 200 based on Friday night utilization and Saturday night retail traction. Given that there is no financial stake on the student’s part, I think the response has been quite good. We’ve also been collecting data through surveys and we’ll pull that into our campuswide work group to see if where we go from here.”

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