Design with purpose: Michigan State University

A few years ago, Michigan State University made an interesting academic discovery: Students who live on campus for their first two years earn better grades, have higher graduation rates and usually graduate sooner than students who live off campus during those two years.

Armed with that information, the dining services department set out in 2007 to create a master plan to attract more students to live on campus and retain those who opted for residence life. Eight years and more than $280 million later, including $90 million in foodservice projects, MSU’s Division of Residential and Hospitality Services—itself an upgraded and rebranded version of Housing and Food Service—finally executed the last piece of that plan, Akers Hall, and its accompanying dining facility, The Edge.

In all, eight dining facilities in five campus “neighborhoods” were either created or redone. Guy Procopio, MSU’s director of culinary services, said the goal was to attract and retain residential students, and one way to do that was to focus on food.

“When you renovate a dining facility you see a major, visible impact, versus when you renovate a residence hall, where 90% of what you do is behind the walls, unseen,” Procopio says. “So we invested in a strategic plan and developed some core principles, one of which was to lead with food.”

To accomplish that goal, Residential and Hospitality Services took several steps.

First, Procopio says, was to stop working “at cross purposes.”That meant merging two separate foodservice operations—retail and residential—into one. “We wanted foodservice to be integrated and seamless,” he says.

Next, they began offering an unlimited access meal plan so students could eat in any dining hall at any time, rather than be limited to a set number of meals per week or tied to a declining balance program. 

But linking retail and residential services created a small problem: how could students with unlimited access make use of retail operations? Obviously they couldn’t walk into a convenience store and clear out the shelves.

So Procopio and his team created Combo-X-Change, which would allow students on the meal plan to choose an entree, snack and beverage in any grab-and-go-style retail facility for one swipe of their meal card, once a day, Monday through Friday.

“We chose Monday through Friday because that’s when students are much busier,” says Procopio, who compared the retail business to a kitchen pantry where students could grab something on the run.

Next on the list was to make retail units more enticing—and profitable.

“Prior to the merger, the retail (side) wasn’t making any money,” Procopio says. “We were overpriced, compared to the local market, and we were in what I call a pricing failure spiral.”

So, retail prices were lowered 20% to 25%. Through the Combo-X-Change, money from the meal plans was funneled into retail, “to cover overhead.”

Finally, the department recreated Sparty’s, the university’s convenience store concept, into three separate entities, each with its own identity.

Six Sparty’s Express stores sell convenience items, including airpots  filled with organic blends of locally-roasted Spartan Spirit Coffee. Twelve Sparty’s Refresh stores, which are larger than the Express units, offer a mix of convenience foods and barista-style coffee service, while the three hot kitchen-based Sparty’s Cafés have a grill station and made-to-order items. 

Culinary creativity

To complete the strategic plan, “destination dining” units were added across campus to make each location unique in menu, decor and style.  “Because it’s not just about the center of the plate,” Procopio says. “It’s the atmosphere and the ambiance.”

The team set about creating such experiences by designing unique stations into the serveries.

On the west side of Michigan State’s campus, Brody Square features nine food venues including Cayenne’s, which offers a variety of Tex-Mex fare including housemade tortillas and made-to-order tacos, burritos, quesadillas and enchiladas, and Boiling Point which offers a pasta bar and made-to-order pasta dishes .

“Brody has become a destination because the alfredo sauce that’s made at Boiling Point is to die for,” Procopio says. “That buzz helps create destination dining.”

The other way Culinary Services has created buzz about the program is by empowering chefs to own the menus in their locations. Until recently, the dining halls were split in two menus without much differentiation. “Now we are letting chefs create their own menus, within parameters and overseen by our corporate chef [Kurt Kwiatkowski],” Procopio says. “Our program is all about variety.”

For example, The Great Lakes Plate, in South Pointe at Case Hall, serves up entrees—such as Squash Ravioli in Sage and Bratwurst Hash—made with ingredients from Michigan and the Midwest.

After an eight-month renovation, The Edge at Akers Hall re-opened in January on the East side of campus. Thanks to Tandoori, the university’s first Indian concept that features two tandoori ovens, and The Pit, which features “Low Country cooking” and smokes its own meats in house, Procopio says: “The Edge is already becoming a destination.”

A new design

Part of creating unique dining experiences at MSU has been working with the landscape and architecture of the location. 

For example, because Shaw Hall sits on the bank of the Red Cedar River, “we fought like hell to remove the half windows [at The Vista at Shaw] and do a curtain wall. The views of the river alone helped capture the feel of that location,” Procopio says.

Some of the design elements associated with the strategy are so small—like the plates used at The Edge, Heritage Commons and The Vista—they almost escape notice. “We were able to go trayless [in those locations] by designing the plates to be about the quarter size of a tray,” Procopio says. “The plate is big enough to hold your entrée and sides but also a cup of soup.”

Since not all dining locations are trayless, it’s an element of differentiation that can factor into students’ dining decisions.

Procopio says that it will be a couple of years before the full impact of the master plan can be evaluated. However, there are encouraging signs.

“Our off-campus meal plan sales were about zero when we started this process,” he says. “Now, we’re pushing $6 million in off-campus sales.”

Another bonus: Procopio says, “administrators like what we’ve done so much they are now bringing prospective faculty to the dining halls to show them the facilities and to taste our food.”

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