Colleges tweaking dining hours to save money

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

For some, a reduction in dining hall hours is receiving negative student reaction.

By Mallory Szczepanski, Digital Production Editor

A number of colleges are adjusting service hours to accommodate student demand while at the same time trimming some costs. Sometimes, however, that reduction in hours is met with student dissatisfaction.

At the beginning of the school year, Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., cut one hour from dinner service at the four main dining rooms, making the new closing time 8 p.m. 

“We are an auxiliary service and what the state and university doesn’t fund, we have to earn for ourselves,” says Executive Director of Dining Services Joseph Charette. Although dining services’ budget was increased by 2% earlier this year, Charette says that bump wouldn’t cover the increase in the price for utilities and food. Charette didn’t want to sacrifice food quality, so he decided to try cutting back on service hours. 

“We not only cut back on dining room hours, but also on labor costs for the extra stations we would need to have open during dining room service,” he says. “Forty-five percent of students get takeout for dinner from our halls and we were still keeping that option open, just closing the inside of the dining halls.” 

While the move was saving the department money, students weren’t happy and the dining halls returned to their original 9 p.m. closing time after one month. “Students were continuing to eat so close to closing time that we began to realize we weren’t able to close at 8 due to long lines. The difference [from cutting the hours] wasn’t big enough for us to keep the new dining hours in place,” Charette says. “We listened to our students and we are willing to adjust options to pay the bills that have raised.”

Since returning to the original hours, dining hall accounts are up and traffic has increased by 100 to 150 students per dining hall, according to Charette. 

Other universities are also adjusting operating hours to meet student demand while remaining financially stable. 

After receiving student requests for additional hours, Towson University, in Maryland, expanded dining hours three years ago at Newell Dining Hall during busy times and cut hours during slow periods to equal out the costs. Dining services also expanded hours in retail locations to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday. 

Towson also has taken athletic schedules into consideration and has worked with practice times to accommodate athletes getting out of late practices.

“It helps increase meal plan participation if students are happy with what they are getting,” says Director of Dining Services Roy Cubbler. “Students will spend money because you are open the hours they want you to be open.”

Towson isn’t the only college expanding hours. The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) extended service at Cooper Dining Hall to 8 p.m. and extended the lunch hour at Lakeside Dining Hall to 1:30 p.m. SUNY Oswego has five dining centers, four of which are open seven days a week and two that operate full lunch until 3 p.m. Students requested a longer lunch hour at Lakeside Dining Hall, so dining services added a Lite Bite option until 3 p.m., which features a full salad bar, fresh fruit, bakery items, ice cream, hot soup, grains (bagels/cereal), and hot and cold beverages.

“We changed our hours due to customer preferences and people asking for longer serving hours in the afternoon,” says Director of Campus Dining Services Craig Traub. “Students would love for us to be open 24/7 and we love to hear that.”

Even though SUNY Oswego increased hours in a few areas, it ended its late-night dining option on Fridays and Saturdays at Littlepage Dining Hall due to limited demand. “We have four large dining halls and a fifth small unit,” Traub says. “There are plenty of dining options for students from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., so I don’t really see it as us cutting hours since we have added hours in other areas.”

California State University Stanislaus also took the route of cutting dining hours from 3 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 3 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays.

“We kept track of our POS readings and found out that it wasn’t worth it to be open the extra half hour or hour,” says Director of Dining Services with Chartwells Scott Smith. “There wasn’t much reaction from the students besides some pushback this year due to time changes for classes.”

Cal State Stanislaus increased the staffing at some halls to accommodate the new class schedule for students and to help speed up lines during busy times. The university also offers late-night dining services at Warrior Grill and its c-store Monday through Friday. Dining services is also thinking of adding mobile food trucks. 

“The hardest part about food trucks is finding one that has a reliable POS system and qualifies with the state university insurance standards,” Smith says.