Student Union Food Service Passes First Test of School Year
Story by Bob Romantic
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
As first exams go, this was a doozy.
Chapel had just ended, and a wave of people descended en masse on the Student Union last Monday for lunch.
Resident dining manager Allen Dowe and executive chef Bob Spaziani had been through a couple of practice tests when the Student Union opened for lunch and dinner on Thursday and Friday of Welcome Week, and again that weekend for student meals.
But this was the first full day of service for the entire student body, faculty and staff. And it was hitting them all at once.
“It was a lot more hectic than we anticipated,” said Prem Lawrence, general manager for Sodexo Food Service Solutions. “It was an eye-opener and a shock to see that many people on campus.
“But all in all, it was a really successful week showing what we can do and how we can grow with the campus and cater to the needs of the campus.”
On that first full Monday, a record 2,865 people bought meals at the Student Union. For the first week, that number climbed to 14,327 – nearly twice as many as were served (8,421) during the first week of classes in 2011.
The Student Union underwent a major renovation this summer to increase seating capacity, spread out food service to different islands in the dining area, and broaden the menu. The initial reaction has been overwhelming positive.
“It’s so good,” student Presli Bellottie said during Welcome Week. “The service and the food have gotten a lot better. It’s nice to see money going to something that benefits the students.”
Rakeisha Sealy said of the new menu offerings: “It’s just like home cookin’.”
And Jessica Day and Matt Roy chimed in, saying, “It’s really good for cafeteria food.”
That last qualifier – “for cafeteria food” – is the stigma the Student Union is trying hard to overcome.
“We don’t want to be looked at as a cafeteria,” Dowe said. “We want to step it up 10 notches. … We’re trying to build a community where these students feel comfortable in here like it is their living room. We understand that they’re our customers, but they’re also our extended family.”
To avoid the precooked cafeteria fare, the Union offers items such as a new stir-fry station at the 360 Grill, made-to-order sandwiches and salads, and grill items that also are prepared fresh.
The stir-fry station, Spaziani said, is offered at only four or five universities in the country.
“There’s one at NAU (Northern Arizona University), but it’s not quite as nice as ours,” he said. “And I saw one at UC Davis this summer. They were serving 300 people with very little wait.”
There were expected hiccups during the first week: Ice was in short supply during one dinner service; the dessert station, including the yogurt machines, gets picked over pretty quickly; lines can form both outside the front door and inside the Union during peak times; and the dish conveyer belt can get backed up. But steps already have been taken to remedy those situations, such as opening a second cashier’s station at the north entrance to the Union.
“We’re tweaking things every day just to make everything flow smoother,” Spaziani said. “The new Mongolian 360 Grill is the most popular destination and the center salad bar island has also been a destination spot, especially with the fruit and tossed salads. The dessert station is very, very popular. It takes 27 half-gallons to fill a yogurt machine, and we’re turning that over one-and-a-half times a day.”
Sodexo staffing on campus has increased from 40 people in 2011 to 130 this year. Once those employees get more accustomed to their new roles, things will run even smoother, Dowe said.
“The pace is very fast; there’s no time to stop,” Dowe said. “As we get more organized, we’ll be even more prepared.”
Lawrence said they are looking to increase seating capacity. There are currently 540 seats, which are nearly full during peak times. Lawrence said they can have as many as 725 seats, but “it’s just a matter of getting the additional tables that fit the spaces we have available.”
There also are plans to add themed weeks. For example, the week of Sept. 16 will be “Explore India,” with Indian fare added to the menu. A Mexican food theme is also in the works.
That will be a welcome change for Alexis Warner.
“I wish they had more activities so it was more social,” said Warner, a freshman from Tempe. “But I do like the food a lot. It’s like a big buffet. They have a lot of variety of what to eat.”
Looking even farther down the road, Lawrence said they want to add more food stations in their “restaurant destination” concept, which he said goes beyond the food-court presentation many schools use. As the Union continues to expand, a diner featuring comfort food is under consideration where the current grill is located. And a new trattoria, or Italian station, could be added near the spillover seating rooms.
“We want to end up with five or six restaurant destinations to choose from but still with the all-you-can-eat approach,” Lawrence said. “It’s not quite a food court. Here you can pick and choose from as many places as you want.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.