The University of Connecticut’s (UConn) plant-forward cafe has been an overwhelming success. During the lunch rush, students often line up outside the building’s door and wait for the concept’s vegan and vegetarian fare, according to Ethan Haggerty, the cafe’s manager.
CrossRoads opened in August of 2021, replacing a cafe called Wilbur’s, and it’s located on the main floor of the Wilbur Cross building. The idea for the concept was sparked by a student request for a plant-forward cafe.
CrossRoads’ menu seeks broad appeal, providing options that are popular with all students, not just vegetarian and vegan ones.
“We kind of track the eating habits of students here on campus,” said Robert Landolphi, assistant director of culinary development at UConn. “And what we found is, sure there only might be 1.5 to 2% of our student body might be vegan and maybe upwards of 5 or 6% is vegetarian, but there’s a lot of students on campus who are kind of more that flexitarian type of diet, which means they’re actually looking to eat more plant-based foods if they’re made available to them.”
Menuing for maximum appeal
The menu doesn’t diverge too far from standard cafe options—instead, it features a plant-forward twist on the favorites.
“[CrossRoads] is pretty adjacent to another cafe that still serves the normal cafe fare,” said Haggerty. “This is not a far walk out of the way to go try something that’s vegan. … It’s kind of giving the students and the staff, the faculty, a little bit more variety in a very small geographic space.”
Landolphi said the team focuses on creating a menu that appeals to everyone.
“That’s why we didn’t do 100% vegan,” he said. “We kind of went vegetarian as well because we wanted to catch not only vegan and vegetarians, but we had to catch those customers who used to eat at Wilbur’s cafe and enjoyed some of our meat-based options.”
Student feedback also plays a big role in menu development. Haggerty said much of the feedback comes from student workers and taste tests.
“We’ll just make up a couple of trays of sandwiches or little salads in souffle cups, and we’ll set up just outside the doors there at CrossRoads and just kind of give out samples to people and get feedback that way as well,” said Landolphi.
Additionally, the team ensures a variety of diners, not just vegan and vegetarian students, taste new recipes.
The menu features salads and artisan sandwiches, including a bruschetta panini, a vegan buffalo chicken wrap and a vegan sausage, pepper and onion grinder. Entrees include a vegan pad Thai noodle bowl and tortellini with alfredo and pesto.
A variety of baked goods are on offer, including fudgy vegan brownies and raspberry streusel bars.
Additionally, the cafe features a build-your-own yogurt bar, which is very popular with students, according to Haggerty. “I honestly have been very surprised with how many people tell me they go [to CrossRoads] specifically for yogurt,” he said.
The station, which is stocked with Greek and coconut yogurt and a variety of toppings and mix-ins, also offers an opportunity to cross-utilize ingredients found at other cafes.
“The mix-ins were stuff that we were using at other locations, so it allowed us to cross-utilize some frozen fruits and things that we were really just ordering for one specific location,” said Haggerty. “It’s really taken off. It’s a very, very busy station.”
Haggerty said that since the cafe has opened, the team has learned that Crossroads is more labor intensive than other locations, mostly due to the yogurt bar. “It’s kind of a high-maintenance station as far as, each customer fills up their own slip and hands it in and we build [bowls] to order, so it’s very customizable,” he said.
Sourcing has also created some obstacles for the cafe.
“Procurement has been a little bit of a challenge with some of the vegan based products that we use,” said Landolphi, noting that the team sometimes has to tweak the menu or alter recipes based on what comes in.
A focus on sustainability
The cafe has emphasized sustainability in multiple areas, from how the cafe was built to offering a lower-emissions menu.
“All eight of our dining halls are green restaurant certified, so when Ethan took on this project for this cafe, he wanted to kind of align himself to make sure we kind of followed those standards everywhere from how he basically built out the cafe right through how we menued the cafe and the products and where they come from,” said Landolphi.
Additionally, the concept sources some of its produce from UConn’s student-run farm.
“They grow anywhere from 9,000 to 11,000 pounds of organic produce,” Landolphi said. “So obviously, our goal is to try and incorporate as much as we can of some of that produce into some of the salads and sandwiches and items that we’re serving.”
The cafe also collects leftover food scraps to bring to the farm for composting.
Haggerty said the focus over the last two years has been streamlining CrossRoads in response to the concept’s popularity.
“I was honestly a little hesitant at first,” Haggerty said. “I was worried that people who lived in the building were gonna kind of go and uproar that they couldn’t get chicken soup and other meat-based turkey sandwiches, which we sell a ton of, but it’s gone overwhelmingly positive from day one.”