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Hooked on Themes

Dining hall themed events provide opportunities for staff's creativity to shine.

Be it a trip to Oz or the round table, themed events at college and universities always bring the fun for students and staff. Though these events often require a lot of work, they also allow for the dining services staff to pull out all the stops in implementing the theme. FSD spoke to two operators about how they created memorable events for their operations.

At East Carolina University, in Greenville, Stephanie Sumner, district marketing manager for Aramark, says the department wanted to do a theme event that was a little whisical and fun.

"Usually we do more educational events, but we wanted to do something fun and different," Sumner says. "So our production supervisor, Crystal Dunn, suggested the 'Wizard of Oz.'"

The department named the event "There's No Place Like Todd (the name of the dining hall)," and the staff did their part to carry out the theme, dressing up as characters from the movie.

Flying monkeys, a yellow brick road and citizens of Emerald City were just a few of the decorative elements for the event.

"Another cute touch was the fact that all the customers had to walk through the 'tornado' scene to get to the Land of Oz," Sumnet says. "This area had a large fan, flashing lights, even a bike hanging from the ceiling. Once [the customers] passed the cashier stand, they came out of the house, just like Dorothy, and walked into a dream world. It was really cool."

The Lollipop Guild area features a variety of cake pops, which students could dip in different toppings like sprinkles, nuts, Oreo or M&M pieces.
The menu is another place where the staff had some fun, especially with the naming of stations and dishes. For "There's No Place Like Todd," stations included ones based on each character such as the Tin Man Station, which featured The Tin Heart (garlic chicken with Tuscan white beans and greens baked in a tin foil heart-shaped packet), Oil Can Salmon (olive oil-poached salmon with sautéed green beans) and If I Only Had a Heart Risotto (heart-shaped Arancini stuffed with spinach and Manchego cheese).

Sumner says the Emerald City-topped cake was by the far the most amazing thing the staff showcased.

Sumner says the most important thing to remember when planning a big theme event is the amount of time it takes to plan.

"You don't realize the amount of time that goes into an event of this size," Sumner says. "We planned for more than six months, and this was a theme that we were all very familiar with. In some cases, we have started from scratch where you have to research for months before you start preparing. We do a lot of our own decorations, so taking the time to put all of those decorations together with a marketing staff of one full-time person and four student employees is a task."

To showcase its newly renovated dining hall, Northwestern University dining services decided to host a Medieval themed dinner, according to Pam Yee, district marketing manager for Sodexo at the university.

The menu included old-timey treats such as chicken skewers, ground beef welch pie, roasted chicken legs, spare ribs and Moat Boats (vegetable and rice stuffed portobello).

Some of the department's creative touches to the space included crowns for all students,  a paper guillotine where students could take pictures, and the seating and serving area was decorated to look like a castle.

"We also encouraged students to eat like they would in Medieval times—without silverware," Yee says. "Silverware was available upon request."

Desserts included these strawberry turnovers, chocolate-dipped bananas, Mini Dragon Blood Cupcakes (red velvet cupcakes) and custard tarts.

Staff got into the medieval spirit with costumes. Yee says the most important thing to keep in mind for themed events is to think about the space and environment where the theme dinner is going to take place. "You've got to use that to your advantage," Yee says.  

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