A complete makeover: How a college eatery was transformed for the next generation of students and staff

portola interior

Take one look, and it’s clear: This is not your standard dining commons.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Portola Dining Commons is a brand-new landmark. This striking 30,000-square-foot space is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the surrounding mountains. It features an outdoor patio with a pool view.

And, most importantly, Portola is filled with five unique dining concepts that students are raving about. Read on to learn more about this new eatery.

 

A camera-ready look

The new facility sits just 50 feet or so from the “old Portola,” but the move was a complete transformation. The old spot didn’t have the state-of-the-art equipment the new location boasts, it sat approximately half of the new Portola’s capacity, and it was housed in the lower ground floor of the Santa Catalina Residence Halls, making it a bit dark.

So, when the UCSB foodservice staff invited certain student groups for soft-opening events before officially launching the new Portola in fall 2017, the diners could scarcely have been more stunned.

“When they walked in the door for the first time, there were people screaming, videotaping themselves in the space and sending photos and video to their friends,” says Jill Horst, UCSB’s director of residential dining services. “So the students did a lot of the marketing for us this time. The old space was … not as Instagrammable, let’s just say.”

A rare opportunity

portola food

The incredibly positive first impressions of the new Portola served as a validation for Horst and her team, who built the dining hall from the ground up. The build was a fantastic and rare opportunity for university foodservice operations, to be sure, but also a massive blank-slate challenge.

“Usually it’s a renovation, so you’re stuck with the existing footprint,” Horst says. “With the chance to build up a whole new space, we wanted to take every opportunity, from setting up operations in a way that benefits the staff, to buying the best equipment, to taking some risks by trying new things.”

But at the core, all of the plans for the new Portola centered around one pressing item: the need to accommodate not only the 1,400 students in adjacent resident halls, but also 1,500 potential student diners from brand-new student apartments that don’t require a meal plan.

The UCSB team designed Portola’s new location with not just the current population in mind, but future growth, too. The facility seats up to 800 diners, nearly double the amount of the old one. Plus, it can grow and shrink as needed via convenient partitions that can close off the back half of the hall. The partitions help save on labor and energy costs, as staffers can serve from fewer platforms when the entire 30,000 square feet of space aren’t in use.

And thanks to that massive square footage, the back-of-house area is far more spacious and includes more cooking platforms. Compared to the old Portola, where the cramped back-of-house facilities meant employees frequently had to work solo, the larger cooking stations allow staffers to work together as a true team.

That close collaboration has been key to Portola’s success, even before the doors opened, Portola General Manager Martin Schneider says. For example, the team tested 600 new recipes before they opened, and now make many more items, such as stock, ketchup and sandwich rolls—all from scratch.

“These operations are huge, with lots of people involved, and it’s critical that you’re able to work toward the common goal,” Schneider says. “Starting a new facility is a big shift and it can’t be done without a team who’s willing to support that—especially when that new facility is really several micro-restaurants.”

 

Signs of success

portola food

The restaurant concepts are diverse. The Brick serves made-to-order homemade pizzas, pastas and flatbreads. At Chef’s Choice, chefs prepare comfort foods and regional dishes. International offers options such as broth bowls as well as naan cooked in an on-site tandoori oven. The Grill cooks up classics such as sandwiches and burgers, and Greens & Grains is the largest salad bar on UCSB’s campus.

Students love the diversity of the offerings, says Horst, which she attributes as a major factor in the new Portola’s success. Year over year, the meal count rate increased 6.2%, even as the number of nearby students who were on a mandatory meal plan declined 10% compared to the previous year.

The team did need to hire more staffers for the larger location, but offset those costs in part by buying state-of-the-art equipment to cut down on prep: a blast chiller, an auto-scrubber, a rotating oven, a dicer-chopper and even a tortilla machine that can produce up to 900 an hour.

“A staff who’s comfortable working in a space that was designed for them—that has invested in helping them do their jobs—is going to be happier and more productive, every single time,” Horst says. “It’s so important to think of not only your diners, but your staff, too.”

For Horst, so much about the new Portola—from the flexible size to the trendy menu offerings and the ability to serve twice as many meals—reflects her guiding principle for foodservice.

“You need to be executing for the needs of the present, but always thinking to the future,” Horst says. “That can be a tricky balance, but it represents great opportunity.”

 

Meet the FSD: Jill Horst

Jill horst

Director of Residential Dining Services; University of California, Santa Barbara

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: At the new Portola, I’d like to fine-tune our operations, sharpen our practices and continue to push the culinary envelope with new dishes. That means discovering new ways of preparing and serving food, plus really studying the latest trends for our diners. But it’s important to me that even as we incorporate all of that into our operations, we don’t take away from the student who wants that traditional burger or pepperoni pizza every day.

From an operational standpoint, I’m looking at more enhanced culinary training, as well as ways to increase efficiencies—like cross-utilization of ingredients or staff from the a.m. to p.m. shifts—so we can reduce costs and waste while still elevating the food.

Q: What’s the key to your team’s success?

A: It starts from my leadership. I value my employees: I want to develop them, mentor them, train them and give them the tools necessary to achieve whatever they want. I actually started 23 years ago in the kitchen, so they’ve seen me move up the food chain and they know they can trust me.

The new Portola’s was something we built from the ground up, and the team was involved from the very beginning: recipe-testing at the old facility, learning the lay of the land in the new location, serving this new influx of students. They were on board for it all, and there’s no way it would have worked without them.


At a Glance: Portola

  • Full-time employees: 47
  • Annual foodservice budget: $5.1 million
  • Meals served daily, with capacity for up to 5,000: 2,500-3,000
  • Annual sales volume (as a portion of room and board): $5.6 million

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