Everything’s Kosher at New Muhlenberg Facility

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

New campus restaurant features integrated kosher station, new concepts and community feel.

FoodService Director - kosher - Muhlenberg CollegeFor more photos from our visit to Muhlenberg, check  out our Facebook page here.

ALLENTOWN, Pa.—A kosher station, said to be the first integrated facility of its kind on a college campus, is the cornerstone of a $20 million campus restaurant renovation at 2,200-student Muhlenberg College.

The kosher area is called the Noshery. Muhlenberg has about a 35% Jewish population, so the demand for kosher options was high, said Glenn Gerchman, director of Seegers Union and Campus Events. The Noshery is composed of two separate kitchens: one for the preparation of meat and one for dairy products.

“Usually the Kosher station is completely separate from the rest of the dining concepts,” said Jesse Breidinger, marketing director for Sodexo at the account. “This station is integrated into the campus restaurant so the kosher students don’t feel segregated from the rest of the students. Both kitchens are under Star-K [kosher] certification. There is a mashgiach temidi [a permanent kosher supervisor] on the premises during all hours of operation. Non-kosher students have been purchasing items from the station because, besides being kosher, it is really good food.”

The two areas of the Noshery also provide kosher catering and a grab-and-go line of kosher items called Nosh & Go. The menu changes daily and includes items such as teriyaki cashew chicken, a falafel pita sandwich, chickpea and vegetable curry and
a fire-roasted corn soup. Noshery items also meet the needs of halal students.

FoodService Director - kosher - Muhlenberg College“We’ve had phenomenal feedback about the Noshery,” Breidinger said. “It was created with the students in mind. Students had a hand in naming it. The station also has an education component. We are utilizing the menu boards to encourage the students to engage with the mashgiach who is there all day as well as to educate them about why the station closes for certain holidays. Since the kitchens are right there, everything is transparent so the students can see exactly how kosher meals are prepared.”

New concepts: Besides the kosher area, the renovation brought a wide variety of new stations and features to the campus restaurant.

“We were fortunate enough to encounter a ‘perfect storm’ in terms of everything coming together—a renegotiated dining contract, the development of a new dining program, a new meal plan focused on improving student access and a $20 million expansion and renovation of our dining facility. This enabled us to touch every facet of dining and develop a state-of-the-art facility and a program that is designed around efficiency. That enabled us to redevelop resources toward higher quality food and a higher quality of customer service with a focus on enhancing community.  Since opening we’ve gained 81 new meal plans, which is a big jump for us. We now have 2,000 students on a meal plan, compared to last year when we had 1,700. Pretty good for a college of 2,200.”

The renovation brought the kitchen to the forefront, and all new stations are designed in a display cooking format. The stations in the campus restaurant all offer a made-to-order option as well as self-service, said Breidinger. The stations are: Croutons, which features a self-serve salad bar and a made-to-order salad toss area that also prepares freshly-made composed salads; Mangia Mangia, a pizza/pasta station that features self-serve pizza made in a Tuscan pizza oven, breadsticks, casseroles and made-to-order pasta; Basic Kneads, which features freshly baked breads and desserts; Chew St. Deli, which features gourmet made-to-order sandwiches as well as composed sandwiches and soups for self-service; Magellan’s, which features international comfort foods; Chef’s Table, which is an exhibition station that changes daily; and Wildfire Grille, which serves burgers and grilled sandwiches and has separate equipment for vegetarian items.

FoodService Director - kosher - Muhlenberg College“[We use the word restaurant] because of how we are preparing the foods,” Breidinger said. “Everything has the option to be made to order. Everything can be customized. The kitchen is transparent and the customers can see the chef preparing the food like at some modern restaurants. We have different levels of seating and all these little components that are like what you would see in a restaurant. We had this idea that the food would be designed around how it would be prepared in any other restaurant you would choose to go to. We wanted our students to choose to come here, like they choose to go to other restaurants.”

Breidinger says the Chef’s Table station also has a camera mounted above the cooking area and a large monitor because they hope to conduct cooking classes at that station in the future.

“We have a live-feed camera at the chef’s table looking down at the food,” Breidinger said. “When there is a lull in service we can offer cooking classes where students can go and actually see what the chef is cooking on the monitor as the chef demonstrates for them. The college is really big on enhancing the students education by teaching life skills, and this will help meet that goal.”

The new campus restaurant also addresses health and environmental concerns. Every menu board includes icons to identify which foods are vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten free.

The department also tries to encourage students to go trayless by reducing the number of trays that are available, making china plates more visible and placing only the silverware that is needed at each station.

“We call our tray program Think Before You Tray,” Breidinger said. “We invented the concept here, and it has since gone national to all Sodexo accounts. A lot of colleges decide to go trayless and don’t let the students choose at all. Because we were opening a new facility, the department talked about buying 1,500 or 2,000 trays. Because we have an upper level for seating and we want to be accommodating to people who are handicapped, we didn’t want to take that choice away. Only about 33% of our students choose to use trays now, but the important thing is it’s their choice.”

A waste room was also created during the renovation, which houses a staging area for the department’s recycling program, waste and grease-management systems and a cardboard bailer. The department uses a pulper and an extractor to manage waste.

“The pulper has a slurry line down to the waste dock where it is equipped with an extractor, which further reduces the waste by pulling out excess liquid,” Gerchman said. “That creates a damp sawdust textured waste. This equipment takes nine bags of trash down to about one.”

Planning: Mike Bruckner, vice president for public relations, said the renovation began in May 2009.

“The original building was built in 1964 and hadn’t been touched since,” Bruckner said. “It was built to serve 600 meals per day. We now serve about 1,200 lunches and 1,400 dinners per day. Plus, kids are spending hours at dinner talking with friends. We needed a place where they could do that comfortably.”

Another important aspect of the renovation is that it was designed from the loading dock out, Gerchman said.

“Our previous loading dock was undersize,” Gerchman said. “So we had to get it right during the renovation. Now there are two loading docks with the latest in technology to provide safety and security. Another design piece created a corridor for supplier access with separate doors to dry storage and coolers and freezers from the kitchen. This
allowed us to manage a clean and secure kitchen, and allowed boxes and pallets to stay on the dock side of the operation. These changes aided in redeploying resources at the front of the house. It’s very exciting to be providing a great food and service at a very reasonable price in this day and age.”

Student engagement was very important to the department during the planning for the renovation.

“We assembled an advisory board of about seven to eight students from different organizations on campus, from athletes to theater and dance students to environmentally conscious ones,” Gerchman said. “The students were involved with design development. We worked with a consultant who conducted his own focus groups and electronic surveys. We were hearing that the students were frustrated with the long lines, so increasing the speed of service was important in the design. They wanted an open space that was comfortable, a variety of seating, alcoves for meetings and outdoor dining. We were able to give them all of those requests.

“The department also solicited feedback by putting up large rolls of paper and having students write suggestions, comments and requests on it. Also, placing the kitchen equipment out front gives the impression that the food is higher quality.”

Training: Gerchman said when the campus restaurant was ready to open, the department knew it would take some getting used to, both for the staff and students.

“We met with students during orientation to explain that it would take some time for them to get used to the new dining center,” Gerchman said. “We developed a plan to help them learn how to navigate the dining room. We took them through each station and explained how to go through them. That was great because we got real-time feedback. It also allowed us to train our own staff. It took some time to transition the culinary team to be comfortable in the front of the house.”

Another new way the department has been communicating with students about the campus restaurants, and all food options on campus, is through its new iPhone app.

“Our students here like to plan ahead because their schedules are so jam packed,” Breidinger said. “They want to be able to check menus on the go. So with the iPhone app they can download the app for free and instantly see what our menus are for that day. It also has hours of operation, an event calendar and a link to our contact information. It’s in a pilot stage right now. We were actually the first Sodexo account to do this. A lot of times colleges have apps but not for dining. In the future we’d like to include nutritional facts and changes in hours of operation. It’s been very successful so far.”