Going for Great

By creating distinctive concepts, the UW Union South has become a campus destination.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

MADISON, Wis.—When it came to creating concepts for the new Union South at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Carl Korz, assistant director for dining services for Wisconsin Unions, says his team wasn’t aiming for just “good.” They were going for “great.” Korz says that a combination of delicious food and restaurant-influenced design elevated the concepts to something special.

 “We had 3,000 students involved [in the development] in a meaningful way,” Korz says. “We utilized focus groups and then had a core group of students weigh in on everything from the design to the menu. We took the core concepts students said they wanted and said, ‘OK, what is going to differentiate us from your average place? What is going to really make this a destination?’”

With that goal in mind, the team settled on five distinctive concepts: Ginger Root, Harvest Grains, Prairie Fire, Urban Slice and The Sett. To create commercial-style designs, the department teamed up with an outside company, which used unit design, signage, etc., to tell the specific story Korz and his team wanted in each concept.

Ginger Root: Students heavily favored a pan-Asian concept, according to Korz, but the team didn’t want to create a generic mall-type restaurant.

“We wanted to have a unit that could provide the pan-Asian experience, but it had to do more than just stir-fry,” Korz says. “So we designed a unit that was based on stir-fries and curries but that also offered a dim sum table that allows customers to mix and match flavors. We also put in traditional Asian beverages. We work with our local Asian vendors to bring in all sorts of things from China, Thailand and Japan, and they fly out of the case.”

Korz says these touches are part of the plan to make the concept more than just the average Asian option. Another special touch is the concept’s large condiment counter. Korz says it has been very popular because everyone can find their own favorite things at the counter to make dishes suit their taste.

“We felt that we couldn’t go for the absolute, most-authentic route in any of these operations,” Korz says. “What we wanted to do was really take authentic cues but have a little bit of fun with the concepts.”

The design of Ginger Root uses a cool, Zen-like color palette, says Korz. One of Korz’s favorite pieces is a 450-pound sliding barn door, made from reclaimed wood, which can divide the space for cooking classes or private events. Other elements include a wooden floor that is “somewhere between white oak and bamboo,” carved highboy chairs with a bamboo finish and dark granite tables.

“That unit has really taken off for us,” Korz says. “We’re actually only open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and we’ll do 360 covers. It’s really an operator’s dream. It’s been so popular that the students have asked us to open it for dinner, so we are working on that now. Dinner service is expected to roll out in January.”

Harvest Grains: A wood-stone hearth oven is the centerpiece of this sandwich and salad concept, which also is where Union South dining focuses its local purchasing efforts. There is a 60-room hotel in the union, and Harvest Grains often lures hotel guests downstairs in the morning with its hearth-finished breakfast sandwiches such as the Titletown, which includes egg, sausage, Wisconsin cheddar and green peppers.

Other sandwiches include the The Pretzel (oven-roasted turkey, smoked ham,
Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and stone-ground mustard on a pretzel roll) and the Farmers’ Market (grilled portobello mushrooms, organic spring greens, tomatoes, red onions and hummus on a cheese roll), as well as salads and sides.
Harvest Grains takes advantage of as many local products as the department can source, says Korz, be it local produce, baked goods or even tortilla chips.

“The university has a tremendous relationship with agriculture, so it is important to make those connections” Korz says. “It’s also a challenge because you have to react to the seasonality of the menus, which is something we currently do through specials. I don’t think we have fully realized our potential for working in as much local and organic in that location as we can. [Harvest Grains] is one [unit] that I think is ripe for more development.”

The design of Harvest Grains features furniture made from Amish craftsmen, and the colors play off those of the oven to create a “hearth- and home-type feel,” says Korz.

Prairie Fire: Union South has the rare opportunity—when it comes to college campuses—to serve alcohol, and Prairie Fire is one place where customers can get a drink. The location is divided with one side for coffee and one side dedicated to a wine bar. The coffee side features two espresso machines that serve only Peet’s coffee products.

A centerpiece of the location is a large fireplace wrapped in wrought iron that has been designed to look like the life cycle of the prairie, says Korz.

“An artist developed [the fireplace] and it anchors the whole space,” Korz says. “The backside of the piece has a separate design and it flows into the lounge space that is the wine bar. We offer local and organic wines, sell tapas and do wine educational series in the space.”

Urban Slice: The union’s pizza concept is where Wisconsin’s signature product—cheese—gets the spotlight. Korz says the department wanted to develop a pizza that was somewhere between a New York City-style slice and Chicago deep dish. The result is a 20-inch pizza with a special cheese blend.

“We set our team on it and a couple of iterations later they came back with something that they had put their Wisconsin genes into that tested really well,” Korz says. “[There is] so much cheese on this pizza that we don’t even offer extra cheese as a topping. We do other things there that really sell well, such as super cheesy garlic bread, salads and a rotating pasta.”

Urban Slice’s design also took its cues from New York City and Chicago, says Korz.

“We asked ourselves if we were installing a new pizzeria in New York or Chicago in an old building, what would that look like?” Korz says. “We chose a very dark floor and we put in dark wood booths. We have pressed tin on the soffit and on the front of the counter and we used a rust cinnamon color on the walls. The furniture was chosen as a direct contrast to that. We chose a cool, white marble for the bistro tables. Then we chose brushed aluminum for other tables and the counter.”

The Sett: A sett is the technical name for a badger’s den. With that in mind, Korz says, the department wanted to create a combination pub and club—a place where customers could come and hang out for hours. The location offers live music, dancing, bowling, billiards, a rock climbing wall and is a venue to watch Wisconsin Badger sports, says Korz.

The Sett has three floors but was designed as one zone. Up top, there is a balcony that opens out to a large deck, which overlooks a plaza outside. The main level has a large counter that also serves as a bar. There are 20 taps that offer a large selection of Wisconsin craft-brewed beer. Bowling, billiards and access to the rock climbing wall are on the lower level. Dining customers can watch the climbers through glass on all the levels.

“[Designwise] we chose colors that were dark and warm,” Korz says. “We used goldenrod, burgundy, deep green and deep brown. Then we have dark brown long booths. The tables are made of pressed sunflower. We have a polished concrete terrazzo floor that has different zones of warm color. The climbing wall goes up two and a half stories. It adds a level of interest to the space.”

The menu focuses on sandwiches and appetizers. The menu features items such as the Arboretum (a veggie burger with pepper jack cheese and guacamole served on a kaiser roll), chili dogs and garlic fries. But the location is most known for its fresh handmade burgers.

“We found out that out of 69,000 sandwiches sold, 42,000 were burgers so we were like, ‘OK, I guess we’re a burger joint.’” Korz says. “That shows the brand evolution, where we were like ‘This is what we think we are, this is what the customer is telling us we are, so now how do we take that concept and go even further?’ The cost of the meal went up $1, but the satisfaction rates went way up. We decided not to worry about what the customer was going to say about if it was too expensive, etc. We decided to go for great, and it has paid off.”