State of the “Union”
The new Ohio Union at OSU offers an eclectic mix of dining and catering options—with an educational element thrown in.
The new Ohio Union at Ohio State University offers something for nearly everyone on campus—top food quality and variety for students and faculty, state-of-the-art facilities for the dining staff, catering facilities for the community and even an instructional kitchen for the school’s hospitality management students.
The $118 million Union, which opened in March, covers 318,000 square feet and features more than 30 meeting and event rooms. In addition, there are several dining options—in- cluding a diner open 22 hours a day— banquet and performance spaces, an outdoor “Block O” fire pit, state-of-the-art technology and access to twin parking garages.
The new building replaced a stu- dent union that was built in 1951.
“In 1951, not only did they use asbestos but there were steps everywhere, so it was not very easily accessible,” explains Tim Keegstra, associate director of university residences and dining services. The technology in use for electrical, plumbing and air conditioning also was outdated. “We actually had at one point the world’s oldest working air conditioning plant in it. It was in need of renovation.”
The administration spent a lot of time conducting studies to determine whether the building should be renovated or razed and rebuilt. They found it would cost so much to renovate that they might as well tear it down and start from scratch.
Wide and varied: The building’s main dining venue is the 300-seat Union Market, called the “U.” Its servery features freshly made dishes at a variety of stations. They include:
•A grill called Fired Up, which serves hamburgers, fries, chicken and more;
• Dough-HI-O, a deli concept that includes paninis, wraps and other made-to-order sandwiches;
• Across the Field, which features soups and made-to-order salads; and,
• Buckeye Passports, an international station that will rotate to feature a variety of global cuisines. “Right now we’re doing Pan-Asian,” says Executive Chef Mark Newton. “We intend to swap it out for something else soon.”
Working stations: Each of the stations in the U Market is meant to be a working station, Keegstra points out.
“They all have appropriate equipment there. In fact, the three major locations are doubled up. There are batteries, if you will. When you go to Fired Up, you can go right and left and the batteries are actually duplicated. It’s like having two grill setups. We are prepared for some fairly big numbers.” Dough-HI-O is set up the same way.
The international station is set up as only one battery, Keegstra adds, “but that’s because of the challenge of getting enough variety of equipment behind it to handle all the different cuisines we’re hoping to do. There is a lot of really cool equipment behind that one. They have a wok, a deep fryer, a stone oven, a combi oven, warmers, coolers, whatever it takes for the cuisine. We’ve tried to get enough equipment behind that station to handle almost any kind of cuisine we can think of.”
More than a market: There are several other dining options in the Union, such as the 240-seat Sloopy’s, a 1950s-style diner that serves alcohol. Sloopy’s is set up as a complete restaurant, including a back-of-the-house prep area with dish machines, cold and dry storage, freezer and a prep kitchen. “Then there is the cook kitchen much like a diner, out front, where you can see it,” says Keegstra. “There is an expeditor counter that separates the counter from the cooking area, but it’s all out in one area. You can actually sit at the counter just like the old-time diners and watch the cook make your meal.”
“It’s pretty much open kitchen, where the prepped items just feed into the station in the open kitchen,” adds Newton. “The menus are pretty dynamic but certainly executable by the staff. We didn’t want to get too progressive with the diner menu because we wanted the ’50s theme to come through, and it seems to be working. The signature sandwiches seem to be the most popular items there, along with the pancakes and the milkshakes. Those are the big winners.”
Another popular outlet is Espress-OH, a 10-seat Italian coffee counter on the corner of the building situated close to a couple of the busiest bus stops on campus. “We are partners [in this] with Crimson Cup, a local grinder and distributor,” says Keegstra. “We also make gelato, the other signature item, and serve sandwiches out of there. It’s open quite early compared to the other locations.”
Woody’s Tavern, named after legendary football coach Woody Hayes, is a holdover from the old building, Keegstra says, although the sports bar looks nothing like its predecessor.
During the initial two weeks, Sloopy’s Diner was averaging a little more than 900 covers per day, “and it has probably not peaked yet,” says Keegstra. Woody’s Tavern, with just fewer than 150 seats, was serving more than 300 guests daily, Express- OH serves 400 and the entire Union Market more than 3,000.
“I think all those numbers will climb higher,” he adds. “Obviously we’ll have a down period for summer, but we’re looking forward to our numbers peaking in the fall of this next year.”
Menued up: Newton says the menu is pretty diverse. “So far our biggest numbers are coming from our international station and what we’re trying to do there,” he notes. “It is so diverse that we’re able to go all over the world. That really challenges the chefs, too.” The most popular dish has been sesame chicken, he adds.
Newton calls his themed-station menus “very customizable. You basically go down the line; you can choose your ingredients as you go, and it’s prepared for you after you get through the selection process. Or you can go quickly and just order the signature items listed on the menu. That creates a lot of variety for the students and helps them craft exactly what they want to eat for the day.”
The U Market has a main kitchen behind it that is set up to receive goods for the entire building. “There is a great back dock with multiple bays and a walk-in cooler that we roll pallets in to break stuff down,” Keegstra explains. “You bring it from the holding through cold prep to hot prep, so there is a great kitchen to support the whole building right there.”
Teaching facility: The Union also features what Keegstra enjoys calling “a food venue that’s not quite a food venue.” It is an instructional kitchen that was built as part of the school’s hospitality management program.
The area will be used to train cooks and chefs in addition to the hospitality management students. The set-up includes six full restaurant-style work stations and a front work station with a fully functional demonstration stage.
“It’s not like your home oven,” says Keegstra. “There is a stove with an oven, burners, griddle, fryer, charbroiler, combi oven and stainless-steel work space. Tables and seating are in the middle of the room.
“One of the coolest things,” he adds, “is that the instructional kitchen is also tied to Sloopy’s, which is also used to help provide hands-on experience for the hospitality management students who work shifts there. We have an integrated audio-visual system between the two, so they can actually watch upstairs the activity downstairs in the kitchen.”
The kitchen has four cameras whose images are displayed on a large screen in the front of the room. The cameras and screen replace the mirrors that have traditionally been used for demonstrations. The stage itself has a full griddle, stove, fryer and wood-stone oven behind it. “It’s just an extraordinary-looking location.”
Few things go perfectly, Keegstra says, including the opening. “We tried to open the 22-hour diner from a standing start. I think I probably would have opened smaller increments of day parts and then expanded as we had people trained. It was simply the sheer popularity of the place and not having the employees to cover all the shifts and get everything done.” He adds, “There are still the little tweaks of a brand new building that are happening."