College students hustling back from winter break with a renewed sense of energy should be pleased by the culinary surprises their dining services departments have in store. FSD spoke to influential operators throughout the country to find out which projects they’re planning to tackle first in 2018.
Debuting a brand-new concept
Northwestern University is taking the throwback diner concept into the future with Fran’s Cafe, a self-branded modern burger and shake restaurant, says Christopher Studtmann, district executive chef. Fran’s—which will serve appetizers, sandwiches, entrees and desserts, as well as seasonal menu items—will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily. “This will be the next step in our efforts to convert from bringing in national brands to having chef-managed fast-casual concepts on campus that follow the trend we are seeing in the Chicago restaurant scene,” he says. “Having a chef-managed restaurant provides the opportunity to have an engaged and excited culinary team, connected to the pulse of the business and the likes of the guests.”
Most operators get excited when a project is finished on time, but the University of Kansas’ new convention center is opening a full three months ahead of schedule, says Janna Traver, executive chef at the Lawrence, Kan., school. While wrapping up that massive project, dining services is also in the process of hiring a new catering assistant director, a move that Traver says will help grow the school’s program.
A closer eye on local and sustainable
Multiple operators told FSD these themes will be a bigger focus for their schools in 2018. Mark Miller, director of dining services at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., says his team just signed up for the Food Recovery Challenge, and will be working with student groups and a campus sustainability committee to heighten food waste awareness.
Meanwhile, at Northwestern, an updated sustainability plan will work toward a robust list of goals, including new certifications, changes in local and organic food sourcing and the humane treatment of animals, while continuing to promote plant-based dining, culturally diverse food, health and wellness and minority vendor purchasing, Studtmann says.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an ongoing project involving black currants will find the fruits showing up in campus-made sausages, while soft winter wheat grown on campus will make its way into pizza dough, and hot peppers will find a home in experimental hot sauces, says Dawn Aubrey, associated director of housing for dining services.
Investing in staffers' skills
To highlight chefs’ talents, Skidmore College will host an American Culinary Federation-sanctioned culinary conference and competition in January, along with 11 colleges and universities from three states, Miller says.
Meanwhile, Northwestern is eyeing a long-term overhaul by rewriting and implementing its culinary training and development plan, which will encompass all culinary staff, from entry-level workers to executive chefs, Studtmann says. “The trainings will include onboarding plans for each position, defined training that will need to be completed for each position, core competencies, culinary competitions, chef demos, on- and off-site learning, guest chef experiences, ACF involvement, community outreach, charitable events, authentic ethnic foods training” and more.
At North Carolina State University, the recent integration of new foodservice software and campus-wide digital menu boards means additional training for managers and supervisors, says Lisa Eberhart, director of nutrition and wellness. “The outcome is a completely integrated system where all nutrition, ingredient list, pricing and calorie information are housed in one database,” she says. “The labels, menu boards, mobile app, touchscreens and website can be changed simultaneously in real time if there is a menu or ingredient change.”
An eye on personalization
NC State is also working to bolster service for students with specific dietary needs, Eberhart says, in an effort “to make sure that anyone with special dietary needs can eat on campus without fear or anxiety.” With Muslim students in mind, NC State has begun labeling all pork products, and has purchased separate pans for halal omelets. Color-coded pitchers will be introduced in January; green indicates soy milk, brown is for almond and white for traditional cow’s milk.
Eberhart plans to involve students on an even deeper level with a new Dining Diplomats program, which began during the fall semester. Students can sign up for a for-credit course and work in several areas within dining for the semester. “They become great ambassadors for dining and get some leadership experience,” she says. “I have event-based dining diplomats, undergrads that help with our numerous nutrition events, and these leaders help supervise and head up nutrition events with the events students. They also help our R&D chef with recipe testing, work on our database, do social media and other experiences.”