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Spring 2013

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Be our guest

Be Our Guest!

A new culinary center reveals a dramatic evolution in campus dining, where students have huge choices in what they eat

Story by Bert Gambini

The chef hired for the wokery station in UB’s Crossroads Culinary Center (C3) toured the new dining facility with Jeff Brady, executive director of Campus Dining and Shops, a few weeks before its official opening. Seasonings, spices and sauces filled the fully stocked pantry. The chef, walking into the kitchen, reached for one of the items and looked suspiciously at the contents in the clear glass bottle. “Who do you want to use this?” he asked Brady. “This is [about] authentic cuisine. I make my own sauces.”

Brady knew immediately that his decision to hire Steven Chin had been validated.

“We’re going to love having you here,” he told Chin.

An Asian restaurant seems a more likely setting for that scene than a university dining center. But campus dining has changed considerably in the past 20 years, with a sweeping evolution happening in the past five years.

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For many years, university dining meant institutional dining, a business model that was plugged into any establishment that needed to feed large predefined populations. There wasn’t much difference between the menus in public schools and state penitentiaries. In fact, it could be argued that the threat of an inmate revolt led some prison personnel to develop more sophisticated menus than those offered to the nation’s school kids, who could do little more than grumble about the oddly elastic pasta.

“There was no input from the stakeholder,” says Brady. “Absolutely none.”

Even the old service routine had a distasteful familiarity: Patrons pushed fiberglass trays, some still perspiring from a trip through the dishwasher, along stainless steel rails. A food service worker, usually the iconic American lunch lady, plopped down the main course, followed by the sides—a starch, vegetable and salad—each time striking a serving spoon against the plate to produce a sound as metallic as the taste of the green beans.

“The integrity of that food was certainly in question,” Brady says dryly.

Unfortunately, the food offered on one specific day would come back again like a scratch across a record album. Customers wondering about the meat offered on Monday (the kitchen staff was never more specific than identifying as the entrée’s place of origin) would be asking the same questions a week later.

But today, the old cafeteria concept and its pallid offerings are relics. University dining is now about celebrating culture, offering variety and respecting authenticity— and UB is a university leader, with creative presentations, comfortable settings and a customer-centered approach that has transformed student dining into a quality restaurant experience.

Be our GuestComfortable fireside seating greets students near the entrance of UB’s new Crossroads Culinary Center.

Changed expectations

University dining has changed largely because students have changed.

“Their expectations are different today,” says Brady. “Going to college is a social experience, and sitting down with friends to eat a meal is a big part of that.”

Ray Kohl, marketing manager for Campus Dining and Shops, adds that students today are also much better educated about food.

“Cooking shows and television networks dedicated to food and food preparation have introduced concepts and possibilities that students didn’t know about years ago,” he says.

Kohl says the dynamic of home life has changed as well. Sitting down for a family dinner is no longer common. Students are used to eating in restaurants and they have usually visited enough of them to make informed judgments about their quality. That background presents operators with challenges to present certain foods. Brady and Kohl say students want to craft their own dishes, their own way.

But customers also want to see their food being prepared. Part of this desire stems, again, from mass media. Television and social media sites have combined food with showmanship. Cooking has become part performance, and all the food at Crossroads Culinary Center is prepared fresh in front of the guest. At C3, vegetables dance in a skillet with colors as vibrant as the chef’s action behind the stove. The carving stations offer selections pulled only minutes earlier from a rotisserie. The cook’s knife strokes take slices from the cutting board to the guest’s plate with choreographed precision.

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UB also has a large international student population—15 percent of total enrollment—and is among the country’s most internationalized universities. The food choices available on campus not only represent this multicultural population but also inspire a sense of adventure. Students are now willing to try new dishes and expect choices to be available. On any given day they can move from Asian to Italian to Moroccan dishes and more.

But honoring different cultures goes beyond geography and ethnicity, Kohl insists. Culture also reflects eating habits and dietary restrictions.

“We understand the need to address matters such as food allergies and food intolerances. We have a nutritionist on staff to assist those students.”

In fact, C3 has gluten-free offerings, and a vegetarian station creates not only side dishes but also a vegetarian main course.

“We provide nutritional information for all of our dishes online,” says Kohl. “Students can input their menu selections and the site provides the details. We even have a kiosk designed for this specific purpose in William R. Greiner Hall, one of the residence halls on campus.”

UB students clearly like the choices. “Our missed meal factor is 12 percent, compared to other universities where students miss on average between 30 to 40 percent of their meals each semester,” says Brady. “Customer satisfaction is at an all-time high.”

Marché dining

UB’s Campus Dining and Shops features 25 locations; it purchases approximately $6 million of food annually to serve about 17,000 people each day. The Crossroads Culinary Center, which opened in October 2012 and is the newest location, symbolizes the latest trends in university dining.

“Cooking shows and television networks dedicated to food and food preparation have introduced concepts and possibilities that students didn’t know about years ago.”Ray Kohl, marketing manager, Campus Dining and Shops

The nearly $13 million C3 is an expansion and renovation of a 1970s-era dining center in the Red Jacket Quadrangle in the Ellicott Campus on the university’s North Campus. Aside from occupying a partial footprint of the previous dining center, C3 has little in common with its predecessor.

C3 can seat 650 people and serves more than 2,000 people a day during the academic year. The state-of-the-art facility follows a marché concept of dining that is modeled after European open markets. The architectural plan for C3 intentionally avoided creating a single, massive dining space.

From the start, C3 was about combining many unique restaurants within its space. The change from station to station is felt as the décor flows confidently from one concept to another with different lighting, different tables and elevated spaces. Visits to more than 20 award-winning university facilities across the country contributed to C3’s final design. Time spent with executive directors and chefs discussing design, flow and menu options are responsible for C3’s complete culinary experience.

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“This research also gave us ideas about the atmosphere of the place. That is so critical,” says Kohl. “C3 and our other dining centers feature community seating. We offer some quieter, more private dining areas, but our general community layout encourages conversation. It brings people together and makes the meal more of a community affair.”

The pace of student life and the rigors of class schedules result in a regular turnover during the breakfast hours at C3. Students rush in and quickly move out. But the evenings are more relaxed and students are in no hurry, often staying after their meal to have a cup of coffee in the facility’s fireside lounge.

In addition to creating a warm and inviting environment, marché dining brings together many other goals as well, but prioritizes freshness, variety and authenticity.

Chef Chin’s reaction to his original tour with Brady is one example of C3’s goal to present authentic cuisine, but several others are realized by walking through the roughly 34,000- square-foot facility.

Rich Products, the food corporation whose world headquarters are in Buffalo, helped Campus Dining and Shops create a New York-style pizza for one of C3’s stations. Various recipes were developed over 60 days. Two finalists emerged, and a final choice was made by Brady and his staff after they tasted the pizza and listened to customer feedback.

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“When we replaced what had been offered with our new personal New York-style pizza, everyone said, ‘We want this tomorrow!’” Brady recalls.

The process for perfecting the pizza is emblematic of the menu design for each of C3’s seven stations, in which several months’ development and testing went into menu items. For the Italian station, for instance, staffers tested 84 different dishes before deciding on 46 for the actual menu.

What isn’t developed in-house at C3 is examined through research. Brady says his staff closely studies trends, pays attention to restaurants gaining popularity, and is always talking with faculty, staff and students.

“We are creative with our food, but we’re also creative with how we talk to our own customers,” says Brady. “Most trends written about in trade publications deal with what’s emerging nationally, but maybe the demand deals with a local offering, something that’s not part of the national scene. We want to be aware of that.”

Furthermore, information collected anecdotally is combined with a formal survey component. The National Association for College and University Food Services annually puts out a customer-service benchmarking survey that rates locations on roughly 15 categories from quality of the food to location to hours of operation.

“Our numbers have been going up every year,” says Brady. “And in our last survey we beat the national average in most of the categories surveyed.”

Seeing is believing

As television has played a role in shaping students’ expectations about food, the medium also helps C3 efficiently satisfy those expectations.

Thousands of students make thousands of choices each day they walk through C3, and that process takes time. To help students decide, five large-screen digital menu boards display the day’s offerings before students even enter the facility. The televisions feature split screens, with four of the monitors displaying a live feed from some of the stations, capturing a cooking show in miniature that customers can sample once they’re inside.

“Students can see what’s on the menu and how it’s being prepared,” says Brady. “This gives them a chance to decide what they want to eat before they even enter the marché. That means that when we’re serving at capacity, there is never a line that takes longer than 15 minutes to get through.”

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So a student might look up at the television to see the evening’s premier entrée. “Tonight it’s stuffed lobster tail,” says Brady.

The premier entrée is a made-to-order specialty at C3. Students swipe their meal card when entering in order to deduct one dinner from their meal plan. That swipe entitles them to all they care to eat at any of the stations. But the premier entrée is an option for anyone looking for something special. Students who swipe their card a second time, which can be done right at the station, can purchase the night’s premier entrée that includes specially prepared side dishes as well.

Grilled jumbo shrimp, so large they have to be bent back upon themselves in order for the skewer to accommodate their heft, will be offered the following night.

Simply hearing those menu items, “stuffed lobster tail” and “grilled jumbo shrimp,” is enough to conceptualize how far university dining has come from the days of cafeteria lines that moved like assembly lines.

UB continues to focus on the qualities its stakeholders demand, meeting those needs in ways that more closely align with student schedules. UB’s meal plan lets students eat when they want and in whatever dining facility or shop they choose. And hours of operation have been expanded so students have more time in which they can eat their meals, up to four hours now in the case of dinner.

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“We’ve even added a late-night program,” says Brady. “So students studying later in the evening can get something to eat past the dinner hour.”

Brady makes it sound easy, like opening the refrigerator at home.

“In some ways, it is like that,” says Brady. “We want students to feel right at home.” Or at least at home with stuffed lobster tail in the fridge.

Bert Gambini is a writer and multimedia manager for University Communications.

How important is food? Very!

It’s all about flavor and authenticity: Chefs at UB’s Crossroads Culinary Center create mouth-watering dishes that students savor. >watch

 

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Diner scrapes food waste into earth-friendly “Canal,” which also composts recycled napkins.

A Trip Down the Canal

When you’re done eating at C3, UB’s Crossroads Culinary Center, you don’t pitch your food into a trash can; you throw it in the river.

The “Canal,” to be exact, is the name students have given UB’s latest-friendly innovation at the new Ellicott Complex dining facility.

When diners finish their meals, they scrape their food waste into a 32- foot stainless steel channel through which 22 gallons of recirculating water flows every minute. Plates, which are ordered from a local Buffalo china company, are placed on a separate conveyor belt to be washed, and silverware goes into one of two bins below, also to be cleaned for the next hungry customer.

The Canal was designed as a “teaching opportunity” to help students reduce their post-consumer food waste. It also serves as the first step of C3’s food recycling process. On the way to their watery grave, food scraps pass along the Canal to an industrial-size garbage disposal unit, which gives the material a preliminary “chew” before it fills heavy-duty plastic buckets.

From there, it heads to Crossroads’ brand-new food composter—actually called a digester—to be further broken down and dried before the final product is taken across campus to UB’s main composting facility in the Statler Commissary, where it is stored as a high-quality soil amendment available to local gardeners.

All of UB’s dining halls recycle their food waste using one of two digesters (Crossroads has its own). Together, they keep an estimated 675,000 pounds of organic material out of area landfills each year, according to Campus Dining and Shops (CDS). Even chicken bones and dairy can be processed now.

At a “Weigh the Waste” sustainability study just after Thanksgiving, Crossroads diners discarded 391 pounds of waste during one meal. “While we’re able to collect and compost the food waste, there are many energy costs that are lost from the production, transportation, preparation and disposal of food,” explains CDS’s Ray Kohl. Students have naturally been sampling C3’s new menus, he adds, so their consumption is expected to decrease over time.

Food recycling is just one part of CDS’s efforts to go green, including going trayless in 2008, replacing Styrofoam takeout containers with biodegradable materials and recycling its cooking oil into biodiesel. The Crossroads facility is LEED silver certified, meaning it was constructed using a federal environmental building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

—Lauren Newkirk Maynard