CU Boulder: Taking tech to the next level

recycled chairs u colorado boulder

University of Colorado at Boulder is using tech to transform its dining program from the ground up. 

At a Glance

University of Colorado at Boulder Village Center Dining and Community Commons
Boulder, Colo.

113,225—Square feet

$48.9M—Total cost of the building

3,000—Square footage of a greenhouse set to open in the fall, which will provide produce for salad bars

  • Features five food stations, including an all-day breakfast option
  • UCB is pursing LEED Platinum certification for the building, the highest level offered by the U.S. Green Building Council
  • An all-day breakfast station features blender bikes, where guests can pedal to blend their own smoothies
  • A non-meal plan, late-night option, called The Grotto, will be open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., serving a la carte dishes from ramen to burgers to tater tots
outside seating u colorado boulder

In the University of Colorado at Boulder’s newest dining hall, technology is coming into play everywhere diners turn—literally. 

Even the windows on the 109,000-square-foot Village Center Dining and Community Commons are fitted with tech. During the design process, staffers wanted to both play up the Village’s location near the Flatiron mountains and make the most of the natural light; so they installed floor-to-ceiling electrochromic windows, which darken in response to direct sunlight, much like transition lenses.

“[The windows] not only allow us to help reduce the heat in the summer and building heat loss in the winter, but they also maintain all the views of the exterior, because we don’t have to put shades or curtains to help block out the sun,” Project Manager Jon Keiser says of the building, which opened in January. The windows provide enough natural light for the front of house to use no artificial light between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., saving electricity.

Incorporating a heavy use of technology into the Village “came naturally,” since the building serves as a community-focused multiuse facility for CU Boulder’s Williams Village campus, says Juergen Friese, associate director of campus dining. Dining Services spent roughly a year collaborating with Conference Services, Resident Life, Health Services and Housing Facilities to design a space that would act as a gathering place, anchored by a dining center where students can pedal bikes to blend smoothies, receive campus news via monitors and learn to cook.  

Tech-infused back of house

curry road station

Those tech-filled amenities are not limited to the front of house. Friese says he is always on the lookout for the “latest and greatest” energy-efficient equipment. “We keep incorporating more tech in the kitchen, and staff generally feel blessed to have opportunities to work with this equipment.”

Those features include:

  • Refrigerators and freezers in each of the three dining halls, equipped with closed-loop cooling systems, saving 100,000 gallons of water per unit annually.
  • Low-flow toilets and faucet aerators.
  • Walk-in coolers that are remotely cooled from a compressor room, eliminating noise and heat exhaust.
  • Kitchen hoods installed with heat-sensitive variable-speed fans.

The Village is also the first eatery on campus to be rid of deep fryers, eliminating the need for a grease receptacle. Traditionally fried items, such as chicken nuggets and tater tots, are instead cooked in combi ovens. So far, Friese says that he hasn’t heard any complaints from students, and that the tater tots are a popular item at the Village’s late-night eatery, The Grotto.

Another first for the Williams Village campus: a biodigester, which allows the dining commons to safely dispose of food waste without pulping. The university has partnered with the city, which uses the nutrient-rich water byproduct to help with its water filtration.

“[The biodigester is] an overall winner because it’s clean, it goes down the regular sewer, the city benefits and we benefit,” Friese says.

Putting the power in students’ hands

fender blender bikes

Of the 2,800 students living in Williams Village, Keiser says, more than 900 have a kitchen in their apartment or dorm—but many are unsure how to cook on their own.

“We have quite a few students that are 18 to 20 years old, and this is their first place that has a kitchen,” he says. “They now have the ability to cook things, but they don’t really know what to cook or how to cook.”

In response, staff installed a teaching kitchen, which will offer classes in basic cooking and nutrition skills, as well as specialized classes in global cuisine utilizing the facility’s 18 induction burners. “We’re currently looking to partner with some local area restaurants as well as staff and faculty to bring in and maybe do some cultural cooking,” says Paul Houle, director of campus dining.

A techy future

herb marinated chicken roasted winter vegetable

The dining team is finalizing the plan to construct a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in the Village, featuring 156 aeroponic towers, each hosting 40 growing pods. Houle says the end goal is to have the greenhouse provide produce for all eateries across campus, starting with lettuce and herbs.

Although all Village amenities—including a “groceraunt” with c-store items, fresh produce and grab-and-go options—will not be opening until the fall semester, Houle says after just a few weeks, the Village has been a worthwhile addition. “[Students] like having a place to call their own again,” he says.

Meet the FSD: Paul Houle

paul houle

Director of Campus Dining Services, University of Colorado at Boulder

How did you choose what menu items to offer at the Village Center Dining and Community Commons?

We did a lot of focus groups with our students looking to see what they were interested in, and based it on research in our other dining halls, as well to see what the students are liking. We also wanted to make it a destination and not really replicate every single thing on campus.

Other than the greenhouse, what are some future additions for the Village?

Starting in August, we will have a convenience store downstairs. I would call it a grocerant because it’s like a grocery store in that it will have produce, but also have convenience items. Within that will actually be a grab-and-go as well that’s part of the meal plan.  

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
aquaponics produce

We partnered with a student group interested in aquaponics to build a recirculating fish tank and lettuce growing operation in our Oval Dining Center. The large tanks are stocked with tilapia that live in the water and fertilize lettuce growing in the recirculating water under grow lights. We then harvest the lettuce and use it in our operations. The unit is set up in the dining room where customers can see the science in action, learn about the process and enjoy the fresh lettuce that was just picked.

Ideas and Innovation
fridge system

We installed a remote refrigeration system as part of our cafeteria renovation. The main part of the system is located on the roof and controls all our refrigerated equipment, including the walk-in freezer and coolers, beverage refrigerator, etc. The system allows us to identify problems faster, and the elimination of individual condenser units cuts down on A/C bills as well as noise.

Industry News & Opinion

Students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will be served student-grown produce from the campus farm at dining halls this fall, M Live reports.

The dining team received its first batch of produce from UM’s on-campus farm in June, after students received the proper USDA certification to grow, harvest and deliver food to campus dining halls. In order to figure out what produce is needed, students communicate with the dining department weekly, and Michigan Dining purchases items accordingly.

"The students are involved from seed to plate," Executive Chef Frank Turchan...

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Today’s colleges and universities know they should offer more than a large selection of breakfast cereals in the morning and chicken tenders at lunch to appeal to students. When it comes to what’s trending on campuses, here’s a look at what directors can tune into to boost engagement.

1. Expanded dining hours

Late-night options have long been a popular fixture on college campuses, but if it’s too late, students often choose to venture to off-campus retailers to satisfy their cravings. According to Technomic’s 2017 College & University Consumer Trend...

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