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Dining Choices Increase At UConn

Dining Choices Increase At UConn

IN WITH THE NEW...: Some of the offerings and decor in the servery of UConn's newest student cafe, Towers Dining Hall. Towers is the latest of three modern marketplace-style cafes opened by the dining services department headed by Director Gerald Weller (inset, r.) and Associate Director Dennis Pierce (l).
HANDS ON: To-order and attractively merchandised food characterize campus dining at UConn today.
FEEDING THE MIND AND BODY: The Bookworms Cafe in the campus library has been a huge hit. Students can even take drinks into the library as long as they use special “spill-proof containers” according to a posted policy at the entrance (inset).

The University of Connecticut used to have a very traditional campus foodservice. Meals were eaten in either large, traditional straight-line dining halls or in individual dorm dining rooms, each with its own production operation. Retail options were limited to the sparse offerings at the student union.

Today, the school's main campus in Storrs boasts three modern marketplace-style cafes, a series of individually branded retail coffee shops, and a variety of other foodservice outlets, some with extended hours. The model retains an emphasis on resident dining since Storrs is a small town with few off-campus alternatives for students. As a result, 9,000 of the 11,000 residents are on some sort of meal plan.

The conversion will continue with a new student union, complete with UConn's first retail food court, scheduled to open in fall 2005.

The foodservice upgrade has been undertaken in conjunction with a dramatic transformation within the university itself: a 20-year, $2.3 billion commitment from the state legislature toward a campus-wide modernization effort intended to convert what had not too long ago been a middling alternative for in-state students with few other higher education options into one of the country's best public universities, as determined by the highly influential US New & World Report College Rankings.

“It's been a very exciting time, a time of great change but we were determined to provide a modern foodservice that reflects the university's growth and expansion,” says veteran dining services director Gerald Weller.

A Move to Marketplaces
The core of board dining at UConn these days is the three marketplace-style dining halls the school built from scratch at a combined cost of almost $30 million over the past six years. Although six other older dining halls remain open across the sprawling campus, the three new venues now carry the bulk of the resident dining load.

Each is somewhat different, reflecting lessons learned from previous constructions.

The oldest is South Dining Hall, opened in 1998 after almost three years of planning and consultation with the Ricca Newmark Design firm and actual construction. Within convenient reach of classrooms as well as a number of residences and administrative offices, the $13 million structure houses the catering offices on the ground floor, a resident board plan dining facility, a take-out operation and the main production kitchen and catering kitchens on the second floor and a ballroom with a seating capacity of 700, along with a catering staging kitchen, on the top floor.

South “was our first attempt at dragging our foodservice out of the 1950s and into the 1990s,” Weller says.

The servery area features soup and salad stations near the entrance and a circular island area with seven stations ringing an open central space where servers are posted. These offer pasta, pizza, rotisserie, wok, bakery, deli and dessert with an emphasis on tasteful presentation and quick service. Facing this ring of stations is a series of other stations set against the surrounding wall: grab-andgo cereals, ice cream and beverages, as well as a grill and a “comfort food” station.

The food offerings at South are fairly basic: standards like beef stroganoff, macaroni and cheese, baked fish sandwiches, Buffalo wings and Mu Shu vegetables with pork characterize the menu on most days. Grilled cheese, cheese and pepperoni pizza, french fries, pasta with marinara sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy and a soup du jour are available every day for lunch and dinner.

“You've got to understand the palate of UConn,” says Associate Director Dennis Pierce. “It's only now growing. When I came here in 1987 from Dartmouth, it was a very traditional blue-collar school, and you could not serve down here what you were serving there. I simply couldn't run the same menu. In fact, we were doing about 85 percent of our menu items from scratch, baking whole turkeys—not just turkey breasts but the whole carcass—and making our own meatloaf. Now, as the school has drawn more students from more places, I think we have achieved a good balance between traditional and cutting edge.”

South is open for hot breakfast every morning at 7 (8 on Sunday) and closes at 7:15. A takeout area in the outer lobby is open for breakfast and lunch during the week for students in a hurry to get to class.

The largest campus dining unit in terms of seating, South was designed to function as a showcase for the upgraded foodservice the campus has planned to implement in greater volume in the coming years.

“We overbuilt it,” Weller concedes. “In the South Campus area, there are 680 beds and we put roughly 700 seats on South's main marketplace level. Normally we don't build dining units to match the number of beds. We plan on turnover, extended meal hours and so forth. But we knew this was the first new dining unit coming down the pike, and would be well-received.”

They were right. One night, South turned 2,700 meals for dinner. “It was like a big magnet,” Weller says. “The place to go and be seen and still the most popular location on campus.”

Learning from Experience
The next “magnet” was positioned on the other end of campus, where Northwest Dining Unit opened in 2000. Costing $9 million to build, Northwest—also a Ricca design— differs from South in ways that reflect awareness of changing campus foodservice needs, such as take-out and late-night dining. While South had a small to-go component, the concept got much bigger play at Northwest, where the deli bar in the board feeding side was backed up to a take-out area on the other side of the divide. That way, to-go grinders could be prepared to order from the same ingredients used to make deli sandwiches in the board dining area on the other side.

“It was a kind of a double-use piece of the line and it proved to be very popular,” Weller says. “We fixed it so it could be open until 11 at night, after the rest of the dining room closed. It was probably also the first real attempt at a consolidated extension of the meal hours.”

“The concept of grab-and-go didn't exist-previously,” adds Pierce. “It was a traditional program. If you had a meal period conflict with an activity, we did have a system in place through which you could get a bag lunch or bag dinner, but it was very limited. But beginning with South, the meal equivalency concept came into play, along with a far greater range of options.”

Seating 450, Northwest mostly replicates South in offering a marketplace type of servery environment. But instead of the central ring of stations, Northwest's design places many of the outlets against the walls, leaving a mostly open middle space. The exceptions are the pasta and pizza stations, which share an island. Unlike at South, however, the pizza station is a made-to-order concept, and there is also a panini grill for making specialty hot sandwiches.

Unlike South, which closes for two hours each afternoon, Northwest is open continuously from 7 am (10:30 on weekends) to 7:15 pm. It serves a limited menu from its salad and deli bars and its pizza, pasta and grill stations during the mid-afternoon. On weekends, a brunch menu is served from 10:30 to 2 and dinner from 4:30 to 7:15.

The Rise of Towers
The capper to the spate of new construction is the campus's third and newest marketplace-style dining unit, Towers Dining, which cost $6 million. It opened last fall in the campus's northeastern corner, providing students three modern dining options at opposite ends of the school.

With the help of David Porter & Associates (now Porter Consulting Worldwide), the department incorporated the lessons it learned through its previous initiatives: more long tables (previous units had a preponderance of four-seaters that students kept ganging together) and more space (and a place to store backpacks) at the entrance to lessen congestion at peak periods.

Towers offers the most diverse range of food options, including a kosher food station called Nosh (see sidebar on p. 48). It has its own kitchen and is overseen by a mashgiach, who certifies that it's all kosher.

Besides the offerings available at the Nosh station, Towers's array of serving stations dish up meal choices that are a bit more exotic than elsewhere on campus: a typical recent dinner offered beef chili, cheese lasagna, chicken marsala, roast beef, seasoned beef stir fry, spinach and feta pizza, stromboli, vegetable lo mein (vegetarian) and vegetable pot stickers (vegan).

Blasts From the Past
In addition to South, Northwest and Towers, UConn retains dining units in six residence complexes, each serving from 250 to as many as a thousand students per meal period. Some have been extensively renovated; others remain pristine examples of an earlier era. Meal options are somewhat more limited than at the new marketplacestyle dining complexes, though the Putnam unit offers an extensive salad bar, and the North Dining Unit, renovated in 2002, has modern grill and deli/salad stations as well as an extended hours grab-and-go outlet.

The “newest” of the old dining units, Putnam was remodeled around 2000 with Porter Consulting's help to break down the walls separating kitchen, serving area and dining room. It now features a spacious, open look. The highlights are its salad bar and a saute station where anything from stir-frys to omelets can be made to order.

The other recently renovated dining unit, North, sits amidst a cluster of 11 residence halls in the school's North Campus section, where more than 1,300 students live. Its take-out grab-and-go window opens for lunch at 11:30 and stays open till as late as 11 on some weeknights.

Like Towers and Northwest, Putnam and North offer “continuous service” (though the menu can be limited in the midmorning and -afternoon hours). All are open from 7 a.m. (10:30 on weekends) to 7:15 p.m..

Ryan Dining Unit, renovated around 1998, sits adjacent to South and features the “Moveable Feasts” retail catering outlet where students can get take-away individual or group meals, and WEBB Site, an extended hours pizza/sandwich/snack shop open until 11 pm on weeknights.

This spring, Dining Services adjusted Ryan's hours following student requests. Dinner was extended from 7:15 to 8:30 on weeknights and WEBB Site opened earlier on weekends with new breakfast options. As a tradeoff, Ryan was closed down for weekends, when traffic was light anyway.

The McMahon and Whitney units are the campus “antiques,” providing a glimpse of the traditional cafeteria model that was formerly the campus norm, while Buckley was upgraded in the late 80s with some portable serving stations and a grill.

The Retail Tale
Board dining has been the tradition at UConn and remains the dining department's backbone. But retail has also been growing steadily, especially with some individuallybranded gourmet coffee shops scattered around campus.

“Through meal equivalency, we've used retail-like operations to extend meal hours and add variety to the meal plans,” Weller says. “Points are included in most meal plans that act like dollars in a la carte venues.”

The first coffee shop, the Union Cafè, opened in the student union, but the key move was an agreement with the campus library to open the highly successful Bookworms Cafe there a few years ago.

Since then, four other coffee shops have opened across campus: Chem Cafè in the chemistry building, Lu's in the family studies building, Up & Atom in the math/sciencebuilding and Jitters in Towers.

All offer various hot and cold beverages like cappuccinos and mochas, along with an assortment of baked goods from the campus's own bakery operation.

Unfortunately, space for any more coffee shops is hard to come by. Weller has his eye on a proposed new fine arts complex at the campus's fairly isolated western end, where close proximity to the local high school might even generate additional walk-in traffic. But that's also near what is the closest approximation to “downtown Storrs,” so “town and gown” issues could come into play, he concedes.

Why expand retail operations so dramatically in a school so culturally wedded to board dining? Weller points to the success of the coffee shops. Sixty percent of the revenue at those units are from meal plan points, he notes. To him, that indicates a market for more flexible meal options among board students. And of course, he adds, there are some 4,000 commuter students on campus each day, as well as more than 3,000 faculty and staff.

In fact, when FM caught up with them this spring, Weller and Pierce were getting ready to attend the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago in May. There, they had some very specific shopping plans.

“We are absolutely looking for some ideas to finally pull the Student Union project together,” Weller said. “We're looking at fairly specific pieces of equipment.”

That equipment would outfit the planned station concepts in the new Union: Tex-Mex, a rotating pizza oven, a grab-and-go outlet and what Pierce describes as a “wall of salad” station where salads would be made to order from dozens of greens and toppings choices.

Also scheduled to move into the new Union complex is the campus's only sitdown restaurant, the Nutmeg Grille. Currently, the restaurant is only open for lunch during the week, primarily serving faculty and staff. Weller wants to extend the hours and “make it a place that the students might want to come to in the evening.”

Another revenue opportunity: concessions for the planned 500-seat movie theater in the new Student Union. All these points of service will accept meal plan points and Husky Bucks as well as cash.

Where now?
Besides the new food court, Weller is exploring other opportunities. The department recently hired a new general catering manager to help the department explore additional opportunities like expanded conferencing services. Another recent hire: a veteran bakery manager to expand the existing in-house bakery's offerings to the coffee shops and catering operation.

“We are also toying with how to get into the c-store business given the large resident population and the remoteness of Storrs,” Weller adds.

Finally, on tap is an examination of the board plan options.

“Four or five years ago, we went from the traditional 14/17/21 meals to a block plan to provide flexibility, and that was really well received,” Weller says. Now, the department is exploring possible other options, like a continuous pass system, to coincide with the opening of the new Student Union.

“When I came here, they couldn't get tofu on the salad bar; now, you might find edamame,” summarizes Pierce. “Then, the whole dinner was cooked at 1 o' clock in the afternoon and stayed in the warmer until serving time. Now, they're preparing food right in front of students, per order. It's run the whole gamut.”

Vital Stats

Name: University of Connecticut Dining Services
Annual Meals Served: 3,485,000
Annual Revenues: $32 million
Catering Revenues (included in above total): $4 million
Dining Outlets: 9 board dining units, 6 coffee shops, 5 retail restaurants, 3 grabandgo outlets
Total Enrollment: 15,184 undergraduate, 7,342 graduate/professional
Residents: approx. 11,000
Students on Board Plan: approx. 9,250
Key Managers: Gerald Weller, director of dining services; Dennis Pierce, associate director

Running a Kosher Station

KOSHER TEAM (l. to r.) “Machgiach” Gustavo Szlukier, Kitchen Assistant Marilyn Delaney and Chef Bruce Haney. (inset) A typical breakfast selection.

When the University of Connecticut Dining Services decided to add a kosher food station to the options at its new Towers dining unit in 2002, the department faced a number of hurdles.

“Cost was a major factor,” says Associate Dining Services Director Dennis Pierce.“Raw product is expensive, as is the necessary oversight.”

Still, the department went ahead and created Nosh, a station that offers certified kosher meal options at all meal periods as part of the servery's range of offerings. Students do not pay extra for choosing the offerings from Nosh.

Specialty kosher products are sourced from a New York-based company called Alle Processing and delivered by the university's primary foodservice distributor, Vistar Corp., five times a week, along with more standard product. The Nosh menu is plugged into the university's menu management system, FoodPRO, which calculates product needs and replenishment schedules, says Food Service Manager Tracey Roy.

Because procurement costs are higher, there's an emphasis on production efficiency at Nosh. Luckily,“Bruce is very good with leftovers,” Roy says.

“Bruce” would be Chef Bruce Haney, a 1969 CIA graduate and 30-year veteran of the university's dining services operations, who was tabbed to manage Nosh despite minimal experience with kosher cuisine.

Haney, who uses a batch-cook approach to minimize overproduction and keep offerings fresh, says he gets menu ideas from a variety of sources, including Jewish cookbooks, students who grew up in kosher households and colleagues at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, which has operated a kosher kitchen for a number of years.

Offerings are fairly ordinary except that because meat and cheese can't be mixed, there are no egg/sausage breakfast sandwiches, for example. Jewish specialties like latke (a kind of pancake), kishka (a sausage) and blintzes appear regularly.

Pierce notes a number of benefits Nosh offers UConn that have offset any cost.

“Because we have it set up in a mainstream servery where anyone can get to it, you're educating students at many levels,” Pierce explains.“They get exposure to another culinary tradition and have exchanges with the people behind the line.

“From an admissions standpoint, it helps make UConn competitive for students from Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, and it strengthens ties with the outside community,” he says.

Pierce adds that the station draws walk-in traffic not only from the Hartford Jewish community but even from farther afield on occasion. Recently, a group of traveling jewelers stopped in because they had heard of the station and wanted to try it.

Working with a Hartford area rabbi, UConn was able to hire a pair of mashgiachs, certified kosher food specialists who not only oversee production but take a hand in formulating menus and cooking. One comes from a retail background and the other from catering, Pierce notes.

A CumbersomeñIf CozyñTradition

YOUR FATHER'S FOODSERVICE: “The Grille,” an early (circa 1937) attempt at extended hours retail food options on the UConn campus.

For almost 50 years after World War II, the University of Connecticut operated an eccentric “separate but equal” campus meal program in which two different on-campus entities managed two distinct sets of board dining operations.

The more conventional one, operating a series of large cafeterias, was managed by the University Food Service (UFS), precursor of today's UConn Dining Services Department. However, another set of nearly 60 mini dining operations, located in individual dorms, was managed independent of UFS by the students in each dorm (collectively known as Associated Student Commissaries).

“Apparently, it started when the GI Bill came out and we were getting all these nontraditional students who were just out of the Army where they'd run messes, knew food procurement and so forth,” explains Associate Dining Services Director Dennis Pierce. “So the university started building residence halls with kitchens on the bottom because they felt that with these students we had the talent and the expertise in-house to run the dining services in each building.”

A cozy inefficiency ruled in the micro dining operations in the dorms. Each had its own pair of fulltime staffers, planned its own menu and did its own purchasing.

“It's a very old fraternity-type model,” Dining Services Director Gerald Weller elaborates.“Meals were served family-style in large dishes. You got there for the meal and you passed the dishes around.”

When UFS took over the micro dining rooms in 1987, it began to change their approach. “We went out and bought a whole bunch of salad bars and converted the dining rooms into self-serve buffets to get away from the family style of service,” Pierce explains.“Part of the problem with the family style is that if you did not get to dinner at 5 o'clock, you didn't eat, and the students' lives were changing.”

Today, none of the micro dining operations remain, except in the memories of those who experienced them. “There was such a strong culture for that small unit,” says Pierce, “because for the student, it was the best of both worlds. The dining facility was on the ground level of your residence hall, so you could come down in your PJs if you wanted, and you knew the chef-manager, so if you wanted something a little extra, he gave you some very personalized attention. People to this day remember who their chefmanagers were. But, of course, it wasn't cost-effective.”

Expanded Catering

CATERING TEAM: Catering Manager Merrill Collins (l.) and Catering General Manager Judy Carson.

It began traumatically but ended triumphantly. In 1994, the University of Connecticut's Dining Services Department had just begun formulating plans for how it might update the campus's stodgy resident dining operations when “we had a trustee stand up in a meeting one day and basically say, ‘You know, has anybody thought about outsourcing?'” recalls Associate Dining Services Director Dennis Pierce.

The incident occurred around the time the state of Connecticut was making its own commitment to upgrading UConn with a massive $2.3 billion initiative.

It was a traumatic interlude, but the Dining Services department not only passed the audit conducted by the hospitality division of Coopers & Lybrandt but received encouragement to pursue something it hadn't even considered as particularly a priority.

“One of their things that came out of their report was that, with the university's growing size and ambitious master plan, dining services had to expand its catering programs,” Pierce says. “At the time, we were really just putting our feet in the water.”

Aiming to wade right in, the department made catering a focus of its planned new dining complex.

When it opened in 1998, South Dining Unit provided UConn with not only its first modern dining unit but a 700-seat ballroom on the top floor with a spectacular view of the campus.

“It immediately became the largest place on campus in which to hold a function,” says Dining Services Director Gerald Weller. “ Previously, for large events, we'd have to close a residence hall dining unit and disrupt the students who ate there.”

The ballroom was the catalyst for expanding the department's in-house catering, which also included hiring a dedicated catering director. Today, on-campus catering generates revenues of around $4 million. Just the activities surrounding the recently concluded commencement generated more than 400 separate catered events of varying sizes, Weller says.

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