The foodservice team at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) believes no student should be forced to hike across campus for a good meal, be limited to restrictive meal plans or have to scour websites to find options that work for their diets.
“Personally, I've always felt that if a student has to leave campus to get something they want, we're probably not doing our job as well as we should,” says Director of Dining Dave Annis.
Inclusivity, convenience and choice are at the heart of UNL’s foodservice program. A prime example is Moxie’s, a completely gluten-free cafe that opened the fall.
UNL students who avoid gluten already had options at a serving station in another dining area that’s free of the top nine allergens and gluten. But Moxie’s goes several steps further—and not just with its menu.
“The restaurant itself is very intentionally designed, down to a special air handler on the roof that puts positive air pressure into the restaurant so that when the door is open, everything goes out and nothing gets sucked in,” Annis says, describing one of the cafe’s many features to avoid gluten cross-contamination.
“With the way it's designed, we believe we can seek certification [and] can have probably one of the first, if not the first, certified gluten-free restaurants in Lincoln, Nebraska,” he adds.
Centrally located on campus, Moxie’s serves made-to-order sandwiches, bowls with gluten-free noodles and toppings of diners’ choosing, salads and highly popular pizzas made either with cauliflower or gluten-free crust. Sales have exceeded expectations, suggesting to Annis that even students who don’t follow an entirely gluten-free diet are drawn to Moxie’s.
Still, it’s often those entirely avoiding gluten who are among the new cafe’s biggest fans, says Gina Guernsey, manager of Selleck Food Court, where Moxie’s is located.
“The students who come in and eat with us every day are so thankful,” Guernsey says. “We get to know them all by name, and a lot of times we see their name and know their order without even looking at the ticket.”
Annis sees that Moxie’s culture, and the creation of the cafe itself, as the quintessential UNL Dining spirit.
“The way I see it is, we had gluten-free entrees in all of our dining centers, but that wasn’t enough,” he says. “We sometimes seemed to make students—particularly those with food allergies or intolerances—do a bit of a search about what can I eat and where can I find it. We needed a place where we could say: You will always find what you need here.”
That’s also the philosophy behind UNL’s dining plans at large, which are notably flexible and varied. Within the seven plans available, students receive meal swipes as well as declining balances, and they can use them at any location on campus, including third-party operations at the Student Union not run by the university. Diners can bring along guests and swipe multiple times in a single meal period, ranging from two to five swipes total, depending on the plan.
And in tune with recent trends, UNL annexed some of Selleck’s space to create ghost kitchens for filling orders students place via a mobile app. The Selleck team makes the food from seven different kitchens and puts it at the front counter, where students can use the app to scan and go.
“Sometimes, you just want to grab and run back to your room, and sometimes, you want to sit down with a big group of friends—and you can do all of that here,” Guernsey says of Selleck. “We have a really cool community eating space with a fireplace and big wood tables, and then we have some individual spaces for one-on-one meals or a student who just wants to sit and study. And when you’re done, we have snacks for you to grab—your gummy worms or whatever else you need for energy for the next thing.”
Meeting students where they are pays off, literally, for the team. For example, it went from selling less than 400 meal plans for off-campus students in fall 2019 to nearly 1,000 in fall 2022, and Annis expects that number to grow.
As for his advice for other operators looking to give diners more inclusive and flexible options, Annis is quick to note that the desires of college students in Lincoln may not match that of other customers. But beyond keeping a close eye on what diners want, Annis recommends that operations take care not to kneecap themselves inadvertently.
“I think sometimes in this industry, it’s easy to get so concerned about one plate cost,” Annis says. “We don't think about ways that you can save, like balancing menus with a medium-cost entree alongside a really cheap one, or presenting something in a new way that makes it special.”
Mac and cheese becomes a bit fancier at UNL with a bespoke twist, featuring multiple pasta shapes, cheeses and toppings. And one of the newest dining halls offers not a dessert line, but a cafe-style dessert case that flaunts caramel cheesecake slices and tiramisu like pieces of jewelry.
“Student value is the most important part of a meal plan, and some of it is just about how you present things and where you present things,” Annis says. “If I feel like I’m getting a good value and a good meal at a place and time that’s convenient for me, I’m going to be pleased.”
Get to know University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Dave Annis
See what’s in store for Annis’s operation, which was named FSD’s February Foodservice Operation of the Month.
What is it that makes your operation excel?
Certainly, we've got a very dedicated group of people who have been here and constantly putting the student interests’ in the forefront. Secondly, what drives us is that we are always trying to provide a better service for the students—whether it's through the design of the meal plan, how we how we serve food or what we offer them. We are just always looking for how we can be better and better, and I think that runs through all of us who are working here.
What are your goals for the coming year?
We’ve got some new construction happening on campus, including a new engineering center that will be completed in about a year where we will have a restaurant. Part of our philosophy is trying to be out where the students are in the buildings—rather than requiring the students to come to us.
That’s why having smaller restaurants located around campus is a focus, too. We’ve got two little restaurants opening up soon, and we have a coffee shop in in our med center that has just opened [and] we’re going to work on getting that developed a little bit more.
And really, we're still working on staffing. Our goal is trying to get ourselves to a point where we’re staffed up so that we can start providing some alternatives like the late-night hours that students want so badly. We haven't been able to necessarily support that in the way that we would like, just because it's next been next to impossible to find people who want to work those kinds of hours. So, we’d like to shore up the weekend and late-night services this year and really excite our students.Nominate an FSO of the Month