Inside Western Michigan University's new student center

Here's a glance at the new building, which is home to a variety of student resources, gathering spaces and, of course, dining choices.
The new student center opened on Aug. 28. | Photos courtesy of Western Michigan University Dining.

From the design of the building to its diverse selection of food, the new student center at Western Michigan University (WMU) seeks to embody inclusivity.

The center officially opened its doors on Aug. 28 after delays from the pandemic and construction-related issues. While some stations are not completely up and running yet, diners can still find an array of new menu items that include allergen-free offerings, more plant-based fare and authentic international recipes.

“Thinking about the cuisines that we're serving—from allergy-friendly options, kind of time considerations for students and mobility concerns. Those are the ... kind of prongs that we're going for in terms of embodying inclusion,” said Emily Mitchell, nutrition specialist at WMU.

Here's a look at the new facility and what else is coming soon to dining services on campus.

New retail locations and a welcoming space

On the first floor of the new center, which has three stories, diners can find a variety of retail locations, including a customizable pizza spot called Mi Pi, a Mexican concept dubbed Fuego Verde, a Starbucks cafe and a grab-and go spot called Re-Fresh Market, which is partially open for now.

Employee taking a pizza out of the oven. Mi Pi offers customizable pizzas. 

These retail concepts feature open kitchens, which allow customers to see the food prepared in front of them.

“So that's kind of nice because you see the freshness of it," said Andrew Francisco, associate director of culinary operations at WMU. "You see the authenticity, and there's not like a lot of directly from the bag sort of products getting used. So, I think they see the value in that.”

Also highlighted is an online-ordering area where diners will be able pick up a variety of special sandwiches themed around the school community, such a turkey sub, The Galley, named after a campus spot from the '90s. The sandwiches are not on the menu just yet, but Francisco said he’s confident they’ll make an appearance soon.

“It's kind of like an ode to that sandwich shop that used to be on campus. So, a lot of alumni they might recognize that,” he noted.

Also featured on the first floor are a variety of resources for students, including a game room, a bookstore and even a spot for a pub, which the building is currently trying to find a vendor to fill.

In the center of the floor, students can find a wooden stairwell that connects to the rest of the building. One side features giant cushioned steps for students to sit on. There is also a wheelchair lift in the same area.

A gathering area. The student center features various gathering areas for students to hang out. 

“An underlying theme for this whole building is inclusion. So, there's a lot of features where everyone can be part of something. There are prayer rooms, there's reflection rooms,” said Francisco.

Even the design of the building embodies hospitality—many of the spaces are open, featuring lots of glass, which the team hopes will translate to a warm and inviting atmosphere.

“It's kind of like if you were in a shopping mall, and you look down like one floor you can see kind of what's going on,” said Francisco. “So even though it's not necessarily in the dining space, you can kind of see just campus activity going on, which kind of supports that sense of community.”

Also on display is a blanket with a woven tree, gifted to the university from the Three Fires Confederacy in Michigan, after WMU adopted a land acknowledgement statement in 2019.

blanket with woven tree WMU adopted a land acknowledgement statement in 2019. 

“We put it behind glass as just a reminder of the space, you know, that we're occupying. And that the impact that has had on the indigenous population,” said Mitchell.

On the second floor, students can find the admissions welcome center, as well as offices and spaces for campus organizations.

Inclusion in dining

The stairwell extends to the third floor, where students have the option to go right to the Fireside Lounge, a rentable public space for meetings and events, or left to the dining center.

One feature of the former space is a demonstration kitchen, where dining services will hold cooking classes, staff trainings and work on menu development. The space is decorated with glass windows, and the team has access to two cameras and a television where they can display their work.

“Every time I'm over there, people naturally just come to the window and see what it is," Francisco said. "People are getting excited about it.” 

The team also plans to use the space to solicit student feedback.

“Maybe doing a few different versions of the same thing and having students taste it and see which one would be most popular to put on our menu,” said Francisco.

To the left is the real star of the new facility—the dining center. To enter, students can use a biometric hand-scan system, which Francisco notes is very convenient when diners forget their swipe cards.

What's on offer

From there, students are greeted by a new concept called Classics, which currently offers comfort foods for breakfast. The next new station is Continental Corridor, which is akin to a continental breakfast, but is offered all day.

Diners can also opt to visit Fireside Grill, which menus grilled chicken, hot dogs and veggie burgers, and a side room opens into another concept, Hand Picked, which offers gluten-free alternatives.

“It's an opportunity to try to separate our gluten-free items from our other kind of regular bread products,” said Mitchell. “It's meant to provide just the supplemental gluten-free items as well as there's an opportunity to provide other allergy-friendly items that don't have natural places throughout the other venues in the dining center. Just to keep things separate and try and prevent cross contact.”

Right past Hand Picked, diners will find a soft-serve ice cream machine with a bar of toppings.

Next is Delight, a bakery offering a variety of treats, including cookies, brownies and pies. Its top shelves are dedicated to vegan desserts in another effort to prevent cross-contamination and offer a diverse menu.

The building also features some sustainable aspects, including a refurbished bakery table from a unit that closed down about eight years ago. The table actually dates back to dining services in the 1960s. The team restored the table and added a sink before bringing it to the new student center.

refurbished bakery table. The refurbished bakery table. 

Francisco likes to call the bakery the heart of the student center as it creates a welcoming atmosphere with its sweet smells and decadent display.

“You can smell it all the way outside of the dining area when those doors open, so it's kind of nice and refreshing to see all that the nice fresh-baked bakery things,” he said.

After that is a deli, which features fresh meats, veggies and cheeses, and also has panini presses, with one of them designated as gluten free. There's also Slice, a concept with a seven-foot-deep pizza oven that can cook about 20 pizzas at one time.

The next station is not up and running yet but will feature a limited menu for hot entrees, such as grilled chicken or roasted sweet potatoes.

The dining center also has two locations for coffee and a filtered water station, as well as a salad bar with around 20 different ingredients and six types of dressings.

The last station, which is not open yet, is Global Fusion. “This one's going to take a lot of legwork to get going because the plan is we're going to meet with international students on campus and develop recipes authentically and then feature them at this venue,” said Francisco.

Global Fusion came out of working with students to develop authentic recipes in the past. The team quickly realized these recipes were a hit and decided to create a dedicated space to feature them.

The back-of-house storage area for the station is shared with the demo kitchen, which allows for an opportunity for the spaces to work together in the future.

“So, I can do kind of one-on-one recipe development maybe with the students and we can try things out on one side and it's like a demonstration. And then we can go to the other side when it's time to like actually serve it to customers,” said Francisco.

The challenges of opening

Like many operations post-pandemic, the university faced several challenges along the way to opening the new facility.

Dining services went through several changes during COVID, including altering its number of dining locations. In 2019, the university operated four dining venues, with one slated to close to make room for the new student center. The team made several adjustments during the pandemic, and in fall 2022, the university went down to just one dining location. 

“Then, this past year, we had to kind of extrapolate from just serving at the Valley Dining Center, to serving in the Valley Center and the student center with honestly the same number of staff,” said Mitchell.  

Timelines were also a challenge, with a lot of things up in the air such as when food and equipment were going to arrive. Due to construction issues, the team had just a month to move into the new building, and as a result, some of the equipment had sat for too long without use, causing some additional headaches. 

The Hand Picked concept, for instance, is not fully operational yet due to equipment-related issues. 

“Just basically kind of managing all the moving pieces to get this place opened," said Francisco. "That was a big one.” 



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