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Pollock Dining Commons Renovation at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.

Plate

Another platform, Plate, is open for all meals and features center-of-the-plate entrees and side dishes. "Aged oak is paired with chrome legs, black granite, glass mosaics and custom red hood surrounds," McNutt says.

"This area contains a variety of cooking equipment capable of baking, sautéing, stir-frying, grilling, deep frying, steaming, and even smoking meat products," Khouw says, again emphasizing the versatility of the equipment needed to provide an ever-changing menu.

Hopey considers the highlight of Plate to be the two-burner wok that produces a daily-changing menu of Asian dishes including stir-fries, fried rice and dumplings.

The next service area at Plate contains a char grill flanked by two flattop griddles for making burgers, grilled chicken and fish, and morning pancakes and scrambled eggs. A combi oven in this station roasts meats and steams vegetables. A smoker prepares the chicken, pork and beef that staff make into barbecue favorites, including pulled pork sandwiches.

Envy and Swirl

A nearby platform, Envy, contains four drop-in wells displaying fresh fruit at breakfast and a mini-fruit and salad bar with desserts at lunch and dinner. It also contains display equipment for specialty salads and desserts. "In the morning we offer self-serve, including waffles, and it morphs into a full salad and fruit bar at lunch and dinner," Hopey says.

The fifth platform, Swirl, which is open during all meals, is Pollock's bakery and café and creates an inviting environment that serves as a student hangout space. "We selected a large tricolored floor pattern and back-lit perforated aluminum counter dies with green acrylic, black and white countertops," McNutt says. "Custom chalkboard graphics have a witty, scholastic theme. The lounge, with a fireplace, sofas, lounge chairs and low tables, evokes a living room environment that is hugely successful with the students. Custom live-edge maple tables provide contrast to the green powder-coated back bar elements and aluminum ceiling panels."

Staff use a convection oven to prepare par-baked muffins, a blueberry muffin that Hopey discovered in Maine and adapted to Pollock Dining Commons, brownies and cookies. Swirl also displays such menu items as cupcakes, cakes and danishes prepared in Penn State's central bakery. Swirl also contains crepe makers that staff use to make sweet and savory crepes. Three blenders make smoothies and milkshakes.

Customers also help themselves to soft-serve frozen yogurt, milk from dispensers, cold cereal from a dispenser and soy milk and vegetarian burgers and other vegan items from a reach-in refrigerator.

Beverage stations near the platforms offer customers a selection of tea, coffee, juice, milk and other drinks. Unique to Pollock is sweet tea made from scratch with tea bags, water and sugar. "Customers call ahead to make sure we have this before they come here," Hopey says.

When setting up the Pollock Dining Commons operation, Hopey and the design team faced several challenges. "For example, before the remodel, we needed three cashiers at breakfast, lunch and dinner to get customers into the operation," Hopey says. "In the new operation the cashier puts customers through quickly, and once they are rung in they disperse to all areas of the operation. In the past, a line formed from the cashier stand to the straight-line serving line and would only go as fast as the student getting served. With the new system, there's no line, and customers just get rung up and disperse wherever they wish."

Staffing and Communication

Staffing the operation for maximum efficiency is an ongoing challenge. Hopey's solution is to assign a full-time staff member to manage each station five days a week. "Staff members become experts at a particular station and take ownership for the operation," he says. At slow periods, each station is manned by a manager, a cook and two foodservice workers. During dinner staffing at the busiest stations such as Plate includes a manager, two cooks and eight additional employees. "Staffing is in large part based on an employee's ability to operate the equipment needed to produce the designated menu items."

The efficiency and reliability of the equipment itself contributes to the staffing needs. "The new equipment we use may be more energy efficient, and it may look nicer; but much of the workmanship isn't as good as it was in the old days," Hopey says. "For example, the milk dispenser's compressor went out very soon after we purchased it. In the past, our milk dispensers worked well for 24 years. In addition, the cutting boards and heating lamps were wired incorrectly at the factory, and we had to get replacements. Maybe we operators are asking for less expensive equipment and it's not as durable as we'd like."

Another factor contributing to the staffing challenge is the skill level of entry-level student employees. "For many of the students, this is their first job, and they don't have basic skills like flipping burgers or making grilled cheese sandwiches, so we must invest a lot of time to train them," Hopey says.

Maintaining continuous communication among staff members so operations run smoothly and with consistency also presents a challenge. "The staff on duty meets daily at 6 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.," Hopey says. "Managers review everything staff must know about the operation, such as menu substitutions, equipment that is out of order, special events, daily customer counts, tour groups that are coming through the operation, and when training sessions take place. Staff members can also tell managers what they need to be efficient. These meetings keep my staff members on the same page. People struggle if they don't communicate."

After nearly one year in the new Pollock Dining Commons, Wandel and Hopey feel confident that the operation and its equipment are on target to provide their customers with a contemporary, fresh dining experience.

But they are well aware that they can't rest on their laurels for long. They've raised the bar of service and now must keep innovating to meet their customers' higher level of expectations. The two professionals admit this is a challenge they are fortunate to have.