Mandatory meal plans on college and university campuses can guarantee a steady source of income for a foodservice department, securing good volume and helpful purchasing power. The foodservice department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doesn’t have this fallback; there are no voluntary meal plans on campus.
So, with the retail foodservice industry being what is—unyieldingly competitive and hawkeyed about what will get customers through its doors—this non-commercial operation has no choice but to approach the business with equal tenacity.
The university’s director of auxiliary services, Mike Freeman, puts it this way: “The kids vote with their feet; if we don’t do a good job, they don’t come.”
The department’s tenacity is most recently evident in the debut of a new 300,000-sq.-ft. dining facility that is designed to do much more than simply meet the basic needs of board dining. The multi-faceted operation at this Aramark account is in a new building that bridges a valley between the north and south sides of campus.
Triple triumph: The Rams Head Dining Center features an all-you-care-to-eat component, as well as a street-level, 6,500-sq.-ft.grocery store and a sports cafe complete with video games and several television screens. Its debut closes the book on typical institutional dining in Chapel Hill, as its designers sought to give students a destination spot—someplace where they might want to sit and stay awhile.
“The question was: if we build it, will [students] come? I think they will,” says director of food and vending services Ira Simon.
Only open since the end of March, the Rams Head Center is already developing a following. Volume at the all-you-care-to-eat facility has been peaking at about 2,500 for dinner, a good 500 more customers than what Simon says would be ideal if patronage was to be more evenly split between this new facility and dining services’ other board facility, the popular Top of Lenoir dining hall.
Lunch at Rams Head is lagging a bit in volume at around 800 to 1000. The department is hoping this will trend up to hit the 1,500 mark, which will also be a matter of balancing the volume between the two dining halls. Simon says marketing will be the equalizer in this balancing act—brochures, a video shown during summer orientation and other materials will trumpet the new offerings.
Variety of spice: The residential component of the facility is divided into five stations: the Rolling Pin, a bakery also featuring desserts, coffee, ice cream and other sweets; Lean & Green, a full salad and fruit bar with soups and made-to-order vegetarian and vegan dishes; The Carolina Diner offering comfort food and traditional selections and serving breakfast all day; Barraca’s Pizza, Pasta & Deli; and the Chop House, offering smoked meats, chargrill favorites and grilled-to-order steaks, fish and chops.
The stations, on the surface, sound like on-trend duplicates of what’s happening on campuses nationwide, but Simon adds that each offers a unique take on a common concept. “It was designed in a retail environment with cooking at every station,” he says, adding that furnishings at each station set its tone or theme. “Carolina Diner is like a 1950s diner—it has a jukebox, checkered floors and Formica tabletops and lots of stainless steel and beautiful colors.”
Meanwhile, the Chop House is set in dark wood surfaces, with butcher-block tables, oak chairs and features a smoker that yields a smoked entree daily. “Because we wanted to give students a true steakhouse environment in an residential board location where you can’t serve steak at every meal, we installed a customer-activated kiosk where a student can order a steak or seafood cooked to order,” Simon adds.
The steaks are offered at market price and cooked to the customer’s liking. Students, he admits, have been slow to use this option in the first few weeks of operation, however, he believes the kiosk will pick up more business as time goes on. In the meantime, students are still reveling in all the options available at Rams Head.
“They are trying more foods, and there’s a little more waste; the point is that everything is no new and exciting to them that they are trying a little of everything,” he explains.
Sports haven: The End Zone Sports Cafe, on the retail side of the house, adds a whole other dimension to the university’s dining scene, and is what auxiliary director Freeman says is a great adaptation of the classic sports bar and game room. “We’re really good at adapting other people’s ideas,” he asserts. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but every campus is different, so we take what we think works at other locations and modify it and adapt it.”
Back in the planning phase of Rams Head, Freeman says, he was inspired by a restaurant he visited in Baltimore that had a dining room on its main floor and a game room on another floor. He soon concluded that the 25-ft. high ceiling in the new facility could accommodate the insertion of another floor level not originally in the architects’ plan to make for an excellent setting for the sports cafe he was envisioning. “It was perfect because it opened about two weeks before the Final Four,” he recalls. “I watched the two Carolina games, with the students, that Saturday and Monday and it was electric!”
End Zone’s menu features an assortment of classic sports bar and quick-casual restaurant fare, including cheeseburgers, Philly steak and cheese, Carolina BBQ pork sandwich, chicken Caesar wrap and Buffalo wings.
It seats roughly 450 at about 75 tables, each overlaid with displays highlighting the university’s sports teams and equipped with individually controlled speaker systems so customer can tune in to any of the five stations concurrently airing on one of the restaurant’s televisions. “Whenever I’ve gone into a sports bar, you can never really hear the TV you want to hear, so we installed speakers, and put controls on the tables,” Freeman explains. “If you are listening to UNC play Duke and the next table is listening to North Carolina State play Wake Forest, the sounds are not going to mix.”
Boos for booze: An added benefit to this location, according to Freeman and Simon, is its extended hours, which bucks the trend of the campus’ historically limited weekend hours. It is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. “It creates a destination on campus to eat, meet and greet and have a good time without alcohol,” says Simon. “Our hours have been limited on Friday and Saturday nights because kids go off campus to the bars, but now we’ve created a place so they don’t have to do that.”
Departing from commercial counterparts, the restaurant offers no table service. Instead, customers order from one of four freestanding electronic kiosks using their campus debit cards or cash. Each customer takes a pager and enters the number written on it into his or her order. The customer is then paged when the order is ready and waiting at a central location on the restaurant’s main floor.
Super market: Adding yet another layer to the landscape is the Rams Head Market, which Simon says offers acres of shelf space packed with grocery items, soft goods and limited health and beauty care products. The market also boasts a full-service name-brand deli, full produce department and a Java City coffee stand stocked with several varieties of coffee.
Though the school year is nearly over, Simon says the late-March opening was by design and is expected to help the dining service department’s bottom line. “We could have held off and not paid debt on the building until the summer, but we really wanted to open the doors, get students into it, and let them taste it and feel it. Because we’re a voluntary meal plan, returning students now know what they can buy into when they come back in the fall, and new students will get a chance to see it during orientation.”
There are approximately 17,000 undergrads at UNC/Chapel Hill and 9,000 graduate and professional students. About 7,500 students live on campus, and last year meal plans peaked at 5,200. Simon says the department’s goal is to hit 5,600 this coming year, though he adds with the success of the new facility, he and his counterparts wouldn’t be surprised to see the number climb to 5,800.
“We’re very proud and the students are happy with [the Rams Head Dining Center],” Freeman says. “Ira [Simon], Aramark and the university hit a home run.”