On Themed Dining Halls, for Daryl Ansel

UCLA director talks about his department's all-Asian dining hall Feast.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, there was one dining hall that just wasn’t cutting it, according to Daryl Ansel, director of food and beverage. Because of its location, lunch counts were way down. So the department decided to renovate the location as an Asian-focused dining hall called Feast that would have more of a restaurant feel. Ansel spoke to FSD about how this change in thinking improved participation.

Q. How did the idea for this concept come about?

It was actually our assistant vice chancellor who came up with the idea. We had traditional dining halls that offered a variety of menus, but were mostly focused on a lot of continental cuisine and American favorites. He saw the need to do something different, and the need was based upon a few different factors. One was that this particular location didn’t have the most traffic. People have to climb a hill and want to go to this location for it to be popular and successful. Our counts over time had fallen very low. We wanted to increase the popularity so the idea of doing a dining hall dedicated to a certain cuisine was very appealing.

Our students are more and more food savvy and Asian has long been one of their favorite types of cuisines. It also rings a bell with not only our student demographic but also our community. We have a lot of ethnic neighborhoods that are very well known for their authentic foods. That was something we could do to reflect our community and be unique among our fellow colleges. Plus, a very large percentage of our students have an Asian background. I think the job of college dining is to be your kitchen away from home. Make things that remind you of home. We took those ideas to student focus groups to see how they flew and the students were very receptive. We weren’t really sure how authentic to go but the students really pushed us in that direction. We asked what types of Asian cuisines they wanted to see because the list of countries in that region is very long. We chose their top seven cuisines: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Hawaiian. Hawaiian kind of surprised us but I think it’s a nice transition and it goes well with the other cuisines. It allows us to be a little creative and modern. We hope to do more as countries as we evolve.

Q. What is the customer experience like when students walk in?

The facility itself definitely delivers a wow factor. We wanted to make it look more like a restaurant and less like a dining hall. It’s got a very modern look with lots of woods, millwork, high-end finishes like quartz and terrazzo floors. We feature two cuisines a meal and it rotates per meal. As you walk in there is an LCD menu board that gives you an overview of that day’s menu and tells you what the two featured cuisines of the day are. For example, yesterday was Japanese and Hawaiian.

There are a few different stations that serve items that fall under the two cuisines of the day. We have one platform that we call Big Bowl, which features authentic dishes that would be cooked in a wok and served in a bowl such as noodle dishes, stir frys, curries. Then we have another station called Spice Kitchen, which is where we do full entrée plates and make our own sushi. There is also a grill that we call the Iron Grill, which in a traditional dining hall would be hamburgers and hot dogs. But what we do is creative sandwiches like banh mi or a bao type of sandwich. We also do specialty french fries there like a Thai yellow curry french fries. Instead of a traditional pizza station we have Stone Oven, which offers flatbreads that have a more creative take on the dishes that’s not so traditional. For example, yesterday we did a flatbread with a wasabi cream crab and avocado. Then we have a salad bar, side dish station and dessert stations that also fit the cuisines of the day.

Q. What was the menu development process like?

We’ve always done a lot of menu development, but this was a special effort. Once we had the concept defined we used our test kitchen. We had three chefs and a couple of support people developing recipes every day. We used Food Pro to keep track of all our recipes. It was pretty rigorous because we had to figure out not only what the dish tasted like but what it was going to cost. We would first start with a small tasting using a little judging panel. Then once it was approved we would test it on a wider audience. We would feature the dishes on different platforms in different dining halls.

Q. What have been some of the biggest challenges with the concepts?

Sourcing ingredients. The ingredients were pretty obscure for our traditional suppliers. We were particularly interested in certain brands because with some of the ingredients the brand makes a big difference in flavors. It was not an easy job to find all our ingredients and determine brands during the testing process because we weren’t buying in bulk. We ended up turning to a local Asian market called 99 Ranch Market, which is the biggest chain of Asian markets in the country. That was a great find because we were able to backtrack their distribution, and they were very nice in working with us to connect with their suppliers. On top of our usual distributors we now have three or five Asian-specific suppliers that provide us with these goods.

Now that the location is open the biggest challenge is being understaffed. It’s tough to find staff who have the background, passion and knowledge to work there. We are now only open for lunch because we don’t have the staff yet. We hope to be open for dinner next semester.

Q. What kinds of advice would you give to other operators?

I think the biggest advice is just to listen to the students. We wouldn’t be successful otherwise. We have about 1,500 students per meal coming in now, which is a very strong lunch for us.