Six micro-restaurants expose Union South customers to preparation techniques for various cuisines and give staff an opportunity to run their own establishments.
Built in 1970 between the engineering and science campuses, University of Wisconsin-Madison's Union South was grossly underutilized. In contrast to its popular counterpart, Memorial Union on Lake Mendota, located 0.6 miles apart on the other side of campus, Union South's lackluster foodservices and other amenities weren't attracting their share of the campus' 40,000 students and 85,000 lifetime members of the Wisconsin unions who live within a 40-mile radius of campus.
In 2004 students passed a referendum authorizing a rebuild of Union South primarily funded by their own fees. "Building project managers, architects, engineers and dining services collaborated with more than 3,000 students and lifetime union members to determine what was needed for everything from services to interior design," says Carl Korz, director of dining services for the unions.
Decisions about the design and service offerings, including the menu, resulted from focus groups, student forums and a survey of the entire university population, facilitated by Rob White, principal of Envision Strategies. "Students and community members told us what kinds of experiences they were looking for and what was important to them. A complete internal and operational restructuring was needed to reflect the innovation and energy of a world-class university," White says.
The new Union South building became a complete 180-degree turn from the 1970s "brutalist" architectural style that allowed little natural light into the bunker-style building, which was designed to be a safe haven from the on-campus chaos that occurred during the turbulent Vietnam War era.
The new $94.8 million, 276,644-square-foot Union South features three entrances that lead into a light-filled environment with bright, soft seating flanked by two massive stone fireplaces inviting students and visitors to sit, relax and converse. Student- and artist-designed stained glass and other graphics warm the space. The friendly organic design also features a winding, riverlike interior streetscape thoroughfare that acts as the building's artery and connects the union's six destination restaurants—The Sett, Harvest Grains, Ginger Root, Urban Slice, Daily Scoop and Prairie Fire.
"At Union South, the restaurants create an ecology that interweaves the missions of student life with auxiliary services," says the project's architect, Jan van den Kieboom, principal at Workshop Architects, Inc. "The organization of dining venues organically leads guests through the facility, inspiring a sense of ease and comfort. With scale, texture, finishes and lighting, intimate spaces welcome people and alleviate stress. Through thoughtful and intentional design, every aspect of the building facilitates community interaction."
"Our approach to this project was to design restaurants with individual storefronts and interior thematic environments that are presented as freestanding micro-restaurants," says foodservice designer, Kathleen Seelye, managing partner of Ricca Newmark Design. She and the design team devised a system that takes into consideration many factors: handling large numbers of transactions, the need to be financially viable, the desire to engage guests with the culinary team, distributing food and supplies to the restaurants, and making trash removal invisible to guests.
"To make the micro-restaurants successful, we designed two back-of-the-house kitchens to support them," Seelye says. "We also created an invisible hub on the lower level of the union. Trucks delivering food come into a dock that is connected to the building's covered parking structure. Staff distribute food to storage units on this lower level and up a service elevator to the kitchens upstairs, which are connected to the micro-restaurants. Trash is removed via a behind-the-scenes corridor and taken to the lower level."
"For trash removal, we use the same two elevators for transporting food," says Tim Vertein, head chef at Union South. "However, these are never done at the same time. When food is delivered it is the only item—no equipment or waste/trash—allowed in the elevator. When equipment is moved between floors, no waste or food is allowed in the elevators."
"All trash and food are separately contained in enclosed carts or packaging so as not to cause cross contamination," Seelye adds.
In order to allow restaurants to operate between 12 and 24 hours per day and work efficiently during peak and nonpeak traffic periods, Seelye says the team selected multipurpose equipment "that allowed us to condense the service areas and layer as much equipment as possible into these areas." For example, in Ginger Root, staff use bulk-production woks so they can continuously produce large quantities during heavy traffic periods and use individual woks to cook to order and also maintain a visual connection with customers. At Urban Slice, staff prep pizzas in front of customers, but during high-peak periods, pizzas are also prepped in the back kitchen to keep up with demand.
The micro-restaurants allowed Korz and Vertein to restructure staff into individual restaurant operations teams that create unique menus for their units and support brand awareness created by Mark Schmitz, creative director of Zebradog. "Our goal was to develop a brand architecture that truly mirrored UW's unique culture and enhanced the building's design," Schmitz says. "The names, imagery and materiality used in the signage are glue that holds the experience together. I felt that if you could 'taste' the food by simply standing in the space, we would all be successful."
This transformation from the union's former food court layout to a micro-restaurant concept required a cultural shift and a lot of employee training. "Our full-time staff had to learn to do more cooking in front of customers," Korz says. "Students make up the majority of our staff, and there's a lot of turnover. With training, we give students a good understanding of what it takes to run a restaurant business and grow on the job."
Labor efficiency also contributed to the design decisions. "Staff is cross trained to work at more than one area during slower times," says Vertein. "At all times, staff must be able to give the best-quality products possible, so they must know what they are doing. The flexibility to move staff to various jobs helps us offer these products at a reasonable price. And training in customer service is essential for staff to give customers a really good experience."
Due to Union South's renovation, Korz anticipates annual sales to jump to $4.84 million, up from $1.67 million before the new union opened. POS registers are positioned at the end of each unit to help reduce bottlenecking. Overall, the restaurants provide seating for 40 to 280 people, with additional streetscape seating throughout the campus center, leading to a large terrace for outdoor dining and specialty events such as Badger Bash gatherings that take place prior to football games. "This arrangement allows all concepts to maintain their individual identities, yet connect with the overall social activity at Union South," Korz says.
When staff bring food up from the lower level, they place it in storage in one of two kitchens that support the micro-restaurants. Equipment in these areas includes a combi oven for making vegetables, prime rib and rice; fryers for french fries and onion rings, chicken tenders and egg rolls; a six-burner range for sauces and stocks; and double-deck convection ovens for dry roasting vegetables and cooking stuffed mushrooms and other appetizers. "Equipment is on display throughout all the restaurants in order to allow customers to see as much preparation as possible," Seelye says. Refrigeration is connected to a large remote system on the lower levels.
Immediately visible from the Union's "living room" on the main floor, The Sett (the technical term for the dens inhabited by the university's mascot, the badger), serves as Union South's pub area. Set in a three-story space, the ground level contains a restaurant and bar, stage area, large televisions and an oversized, 19-foot-tall projection screen. A mezzanine surrounding these spaces seats 650 people and allows diners to enjoy brats, nachos, beer on tap, burgers, deep-fried catfish sandwiches, pulled pork sandwiches, pizza from Urban Slice and deep-fried Wisconsin cheese curds. Live music and other forms of entertainment from the stage area below add to the ambiance. On the lower level, six pool tables, games and other recreational features entertain students and guests. Also on the lower level is the beginning of a rock-climbing wall, contained in a glass tower, where climbers hitch on. They climb up through The Sett, often chatting with diners in nearby booths, and proceed to the third floor.
The Sett contains two areas for queuing. One area offers food and beverages, and another, an express line, offers beverages only. "Customers place orders and receive a buzzer that lights up and vibrates when their order is ready," says Vertein. "We try to get our prep time to less than seven minutes, though the wait is a little longer in busy periods. We make burgers and chicken sandwiches from scratch, and people don't mind waiting for fresh food."
Equipment in this area includes a charbroiler, griddle and fryer, as well as extensive bar items including a beer-dispensing tower.
"Just after New Year's we opened The Sett for the Rose Bowl celebration and hosted 1,500 people," Vertein says. These large gatherings will become more common as students and the community become more familiar with Union South's capabilities.
Across the lobby is Urban Slice, a classic pizzeria serving New York-style thin pies daily. Staff prepare the pies using a dough presser and bake them in a deck oven. "We want the three varieties of whole pies and slices to be very gooey with lots of cheese," Vertein says. The oven also heats calzones, lasagna, mac and cheese, stuffed shells and ravioli, which are transferred to hot wells for holding briefly. This restaurant also serves bread and Bosco Sticks (with fruit filling).
At Ginger Root, staff use a bank of three large woks to prepare pan-Asian cuisine such as stir-fried sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, red curry vegetables and beef and broccoli. The daily menu features up to four entrées, including one vegetarian and a gluten-free option. Staff also use the small induction woks on the front line to cook dishes and engage with customers. The menu also includes noodles, stir-fried rice, soups, salads, and Asian beverages. "We invite in a Thai chef who gives demonstrations and cooking classes," Vertein says.
Ginger Root's equipment package also includes a char grill for sautéing meat and poultry and fryers for sizzling egg rolls and crab rangoon. The combi oven in the back kitchen produces rice as needed. During busy periods, staff fill two large rice cookers with the grain so culinary staff can easily access it.
Harvest Grains provides fresh flatbread sandwiches featuring local ingredients, including Wisconsin cheese, piled on artisan bread and toasted in the tiled hearth oven. Staff also serve soups and vegetarian chili, which are made in the Memorial Union now, but will be made at Union South when a central kitchen is completed on the lower level in late 2012. The menu in this restaurant also features oven-roasted potatoes and macaroni and cheese, muffins, cookies and other baked goods. Most of the breads will continue to be purchased from local bakeries until the campus bakery moves into the lower level along with the catering kitchen.
"We're expanding our flatbread offerings to create an eight-sandwich cycle," Vertein says. "We may add breakfast flatbreads, as well."
Harvest Grains also serves breakfast, featuring egg croissant sandwiches and ham and egg sandwiches. Staff bake muffins and scones in the hearth oven before serving them hot.
The smallest restaurant/food kiosk along the spine, Daily Scoop, features a variety of ice cream flavors made at the university's Babcock Hall, home of the school's food science department. Staff use a dipper well, dipping cabinet and blenders to prepare and serve cold products here.
The circulation artery next winds around to the bohemian-style Prairie Fire, the coffee house and wine bar. Rising a few steps above the walkway, the area features a looming fireplace with iron prairie grasses enclosing the hearth. A terrazzo coffee bar adjoins a wine bar, where seating offers both stools and intimate booths. Students can sit in quiet study nooks, cozy booths and community spaces. At night, Prairie Fire offers space for open mic nights, poetry readings and other gatherings, including a monthly wine tasting.
Food is also served in Badger Market, a convenience store. Offerings include fresh-baked cookies, sandwiches and other grab-and-go items.
Due to Union South's two- and three-story open atrium areas, ventilation was one of the kitchen designers most daunting challenges. "We worked with the engineering team to construct a ventilation system that can capture and contain smoke and grease and not release it into the dining environments," Seelye says. "This is much harder to do in a large open space. At The Sett, the ventilation is incorporated into the design."
"The response to both the building and the new dining service approach has been tremendous," Korz says. "The new capacity and the new capabilities of the operation are allowing us to achieve success in ways that we could only dream of in our previous facility. Moreover, the positive change in morale is evident in the quality and creativity of everyone's daily work.
"In Madison, the culture is, everyone has a vote, and everyone has a veto," Korz continues. "So, when the headline in a local newspaper read 'Union South Version 2.0 Gets It Right,' we were very proud to see that the efforts to bring collaboration had worked." Korz says students' comments also affirm success. "One student said to his friend, 'Dude, this totally sucks that I'm graduating this year,' and another said, 'This is like a cruise ship.'"
Korz admits that Union South has been a graduate-level learning experience about dining in a college environment for everyone involved in the design process. Selecting and using the right equipment have been an integral part of the experience. When the central kitchen and bakery move to the union's lower level, another facet of the learning experience will begin.
The new Union South, opened April 15, 2011, was designed using an organic, prairie-style architecture influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. This is one of two buildings comprising the Wisconsin Union and serves as one of two hearts of the University of Wisconsin campus. Union South occupies 276,644 square feet; the retail areas occupy 12,360 square feet. Built at a cost of $94.8 million, it was funded through student fees, donor support and Union operating revenue. The Wisconsin Union does not receive tax or tuition dollars. Union South features six restaurants: The Sett, 55,000 square feet (service and dining), 285 seats and $5.50 check average; Urban Slice, 1,200 square feet, 35 seats and $4.75 check average; Ginger Root, 1,200 square feet, 25 seats and $5.50 check average; Harvest Grains, 1,200 square feet, 35 seats and $5.25 check average; Daily Scoop, 250 square feet, no seats and $2.85 check average; and Prairie Fire, 3,000 square feet, 100 seats in multiple seating areas and $3.15 check average. Union South also includes arts and entertainment resources; adventure and recreational areas; gathering and meeting event spaces; a retail market, Badger Market; Wisconsin Union, a 60-room boutique hotel; and other campus amenities. The facility is seeking LEED Silver (and maybe Gold) certification. Estimated annual sales are $4.84 million. Customers pay with cash, credit or a Wisconsin card (campus dollars). Dining services staff includes 12 managers and a chef, as well as 300 student employees. Operating hours: The Sett foodservice, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 7 days/week and until midnight or 1 a.m.; Ginger Root, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; Harvest Grains: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Urban Slice, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. 7 days/week; and Prairie Fire, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 7 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday.