Preparing for Opening Day

The fall semester is approaching fast and for returning college and university students, that often means the unveiling of a summer’s worth (or more) of work on a dining hall renovation. Once the renovation is complete, operators face the challenge of putting all the advance planning into action and making the new space actually work for their students. FSD spoke to two operators about how they navigated the tricky transition period for renovated facilities.

Illinois State University, Watterson Commons, RenovationIllinois State University, Normal: Watterson Commons was built in the late 1960s and hadn’t had a back-of-the-house renovation since. Though the front-of-the-house had been renovated in 1996, the entire building still needed a major update in terms of efficiencies, says Steve Wolfe, assistant director and general manager at Watterson Commons.

Wolfe says the $10-million, 18-month renovation was done in six phases, the first of which began during the summer of 2009. As each phase was completed, it was opened and began serving immediately so that another phase could be renovated. All construction was complete by September of 2010.

“Phase one took place during the summer and included the front-of-the-house and one portion of the dining center where the cashiers are located,” Wolfe says. “During fall 2009, phase two included the dish room, the grill and deli area, a prep area and seating space. Phase three took place during winter break and included our Euro/international station and seating space. Phase four was intiated that spring semester and focused on the back-of-the-house. Phase five took place during the summer of 2010 and we did the pizza/pasta station, the salad bar, our action station, the bakery, the entrance and more seating space. Phase six was our private dining room.”

Illinois State University, Watterson Commons, RenovationWolfe says the department made several changes to ensure the renovation process was a smooth one for customers.

“We changed our menus and brought in a lot of products that were already prepared, so all we needed to do was reheat them,” Wolfe says. “For the parts of the dining area that were still open, we reconfigured things a little bit so we could work out of those spaces better to prepare food and keep the dining room running. One challenge was that the seating space was very cramped. We still had seating for about 750 people during the renovation period but it was still packed. You just didn’t have that seat in between for students’ comfort zones. The customers were really good about it.”

As the renovation was underway, Tracy Widergren, marketing coordinator for campus dining services, says the department took several steps to communicate what was going on.

“As each phase happened, we had displays set up in the dining center to let students know what was currently happening and what was coming up,” Widergren says. “We tried to keep them as updated as possible in the location. We also set up a Facebook page that was solely dedicated to the renovation so we were able to update students that way.”

Illinois State University, Watterson Commons, RenovationWolfe admits the renovation mostly just updated stations rather than creating new ones. A major update was done to the euro/international station, which is basically four stations in one, offering Asian cuisine, Mexican, Fresh Bites (healthy items) and a ‘Homestyle’ area for comfort foods. The action station, which provides a prepared salad and other entrées made to order, is the only station that is new to the location. Other stations include a deli bar, a grill, a pizza/pasta station and a pantry that offers cereal, waffles and soft-serve ice cream.

The dish room was another big change that came with the renovation.

“Prior to the renovation we served on paper serviceware,” says Wolfe. “We had our dish room in the basement and the only thing that went down to the dish room to be washed were the trays. Once the dish room was completed we went trayless and began serving on china. We also have a pulper in the new dish room so all the food gets pulped and sent to a farm for compost.”

As for the atmosphere the department hoped to create with the renovation, Wolfe says the goal was to make the space much lighter and brighter.

“Before the renovation there used to be a lot of concrete so it was very dark and gloomy,” he reports. “We’ve opened that up and installed drywall and a drop ceiling. We’ve brightened up the space with lighting, décor, carpeting and different works of art.”

Illinois State University, Watterson Commons, RenovaitonOne of the other major goals with the renovation was to spread the stations out throughout the dining room.

“We had a food court set up before where everything was packed into the center of the dining center,” Wolfe says. “When we had our noon lunch rushes you could hardly walk through that space. Now that the stations are spread out throughout the dining center we still have lines but they are not running into each other and it doesn’t feel as crowded.”

Once the dining hall construction was completely finished Windergren says the challenge was more about directing traffic so customers knew where to find everything.

“We also brought in a greeter—someone stationed at the top of the stairs before the students even entered the dining hall who was very instrumental in directing some traffic, especially in the early stages,” Windergren says. “We still continue to place a greeter there. Something we did last fall when pretty much everything was complete except for the private dining area, was to send out a summer newsletter with a map of the new layout to all students who lived in this dining center’s ‘home’ hall. We tried to give them more of a big picture overview before they even got here last fall. Those maps also were posted in the dining centers for the first few weeks.”

Besides a few issues with new equipment, Wolfe says there isn’t anything they learned after opening that they wished they’d have known earlier. Windergren says anticipation of change is the most difficult part of opening after a renovation.

“We like to tell them that the anticipation of change was often worse than the change itself,” Windergren says. “We felt a little more uncertainty from our students about what was coming next and then once it came, it was fine. I think from my perspective communication is key [to a successful opening] as we tried every step of the way to let our students and guests know what was happening to lighten the uncertainty.”

University of Rochester, Wilson Commons, RenovationUniversity of Rochester, N.Y.: The renovation of Wilson Commons, which opened in fall 2010, was a little easier to manage since all construction was done during the summer, says Cam Schauf, director of Campus Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations. However, similar to the renovation of Watterson Commons at ISU, the building had been built in the 1960s and was in desperate need of an update.

“We shut the whole thing down and did the entire renovation all at once,” Schauf says. “It’s a very unique building in that the center of the building is open from the basement level to the ceiling and it’s a five-story building. So when we had to redo the HVAC system it meant we had to shut down the entire building for the summer. [The renovation was needed because the building] was woefully undersized. [As part of the renovation] we doubled the size of the service area. We took down two walls. Also, because it’s in the lowest level of the building, the ceiling height was quite low—we couldn’t bring the entire ceiling up but we were able to pop it up in certain areas to help alleviate the claustrophobic feeling.”

As for the concepts, Schauf says they mostly updated existing concepts such as the grill, only now cooks can prepare vegetarian and non-vegetarian items in the same location without contamination; a pizza station, which now has a stone pizza oven instead of just a conveyor oven; and a self-serve salad bar instead of the previous made-to-order salad station. New concepts were also added, such as Panda Express and Zoca, Aramark’s Mexican brand. Schauf says the renovation also moved a Blimpie's location into an adjacent game room, which gave expanded options both in terms of the number of concepts on that level and fulfilling students requests for more food in the game room. In terms of atmosphere, the biggest thing the renovation needed to do, according to Schauf, was ease crowding.

“[A big thing was] we wanted to cut down on the lines,” Schauf says. “We wanted to open up the area so it didn’t feel so cramped. The cramped feeling and the long lines discouraged faculty and staff from going into that area, especially at lunchtime. We really wanted to create an area that was lighter, brighter and that used more rich colors. We also wanted to continue to help build traffic in the student union and we thought this would help do that and it certainly has. We have doubled customer counts and revenue since the renovation.”

University of Rochester, Wilson Commons, RenovationSchauf says planning for the opening of the dining hall began during the renovation planning itself.

“We made sure we had training programs in place—or at least the outline of training programs—for our employees,” Schauf says. “We informed the students of what was going to happen by showing them renderings of what we were planning. We showed them videos on Facebook of the renovation process on a weekly basis. As we got toward the end of the summer, we had a week where for two or three days our management team walked through the facility. We also had a week of training in the facility with our employees. Next we opened for one or two days before we did any hoopla or announcements at all as kind of a soft opening. Then we had a grand opening, still before the students really got back. Then the facility was part of freshman orientation.”

Schauf says having the “soft” opening allowed the department to figure out what was missing from the facility ahead of the actual opening.

University of Rochester, Wilson Commons, Renovation“We really took care of most of the ‘oh no’ moments from having the soft opening,” Schauf says. “When someone says, ‘where do the napkins go?’ Well we really should have thought about exactly where that was going to happen. The one thing that we learned the most about, that we want to incorporate into our next renovation was not just thinking about what the facility does every day, but also thinking about the kind of support roles the facility could provide. There were programs we had in the building where we used the back-of-the-house to support them. When we renovated the facility we took away the back-of-the-house and moved all the cooking to the front-of-the-house, which meant all of a sudden we didn’t have a support kitchen. I wish we had thought about that because we could have created a more orderly process on readdressing how we are going to support those programs. Also, you can plot on a piece of paper and think through forever how the customer flow is going to go, but then once you are in the space, how do you actually make it go that way? I don’t know how we could have known that any better in the beginning than we did but it was definitely a learning curve. There is no such thing as overplanning. You’ve got to be flexible and know that you will not have thought of everything, but try and think of every little thing that you might need and where it might go. It’s much better for those questions to come up halfway through than to come up after the renovation is completed.”