By wholeheartedly embracing the farm-to-table movement and scratch cooking, this fledgling Georgia-based foodservice program earns high marks and national recognition.
Kennesaw State University (KSU) is less than four years into its on-campus dining program, but it's already light-years ahead of many of its peers when it comes to culinary innovation and sustainability. In fact, due in part to KSU's success with its young program and its commitment to the supporting principles, the school will soon become the first in the nation to offer a related degree. This fall, the new KSU Institute for Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality will welcome its first class of students.
Founded as Kennesaw Junior College in 1963, the school became a four-year institution in 1976 and was named Kennesaw College in 1977. In 1988, it was named Kennesaw State College and in 1996 became Kennesaw State University. It wasn't until 2002, however, that on-campus housing was added. The school's first campus dining hall, The Commons, was built in 2009. Today, some 3,500 students live on campus, and The Commons serves upwards of 5,000 meals per day to students, faculty and community members.
Starting with a clean slate, KSU embarked on a decidedly different approach to campus dining, taking sustainability, freshness and authentic, restaurant-style experiences to new heights. Director of Culinary and Hospitality Services Gary Coltek, a former executive chef, F&B director and general manager in the upscale hotel industry, was brought in six years ago to help design the facility and create the program. He and his team have since challenged virtually every lingering assumption about campus dining, from the design and layout of the dining hall itself, to the production processes, menus, ingredient sourcing and waste management. The fledgling program has garnered national attention, landing KSU in the Daily Meal blog's 2012 top 10 "Best Colleges for Food in America" and in Newsweek magazine's 2011 "Top 25 Colleges for Food." In 2012, KSU received a NACUFS Sustainability Award, and the school was named the National Restaurant Association's Innovator of the Year for 2013. It is also a NACUFS Loyal E. Horton Residential Dining Concept Silver Award winner for 2013.
At 58,000 square feet, The Commons is one of the nation's largest LEED Gold-certified collegiate dining facilities. The two-story building, with its meeting rooms, varied gathering spaces and spacious patio, fast became a hub of campus life after opening in 2009.
For dining, the facility seats up to 1,500 and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Customers can choose from among nine separate food stations featuring a variety of menu items that are either made to order or in small batches on demand throughout the day.
Just like the upscale hotels and fine-dining operations where Coltek got his training, the operation wholeheartedly embraces the farm-to-table concept. It operates 3 nearby farms totaling 65 tillable acres and 6,000 square feet of greenhouse space to grow heirloom, non-GMO fruits and vegetables for use at The Commons. Apiaries on the farms house 28 honeybee colonies that help pollinate the gardens and also provide some of the honey served in The Commons throughout the year. A mushroom garden, featuring dozens of white oak logs that have been inoculated with shiitake mushroom spores, produces 320 pounds of mushrooms each year. One farm includes a 10-acre apple orchard, and Coltek plans to add a grove of olive trees and begin pressing olive oil on-site.
Behind The Commons, a 2,500-square-foot herb garden provides chefs with organic herbs. Inside, scattered throughout the dining areas, a hydroponic growing system uses rainwater reclaimed from the roof.
He estimates that the school raises an average of 20 percent of its own produce annually – and nearly 50 percent during peak growing seasons. What it doesn't raise, it sources locally.
"We know all of the farmers that raise products for us," he says. "That goes for our meats as well as our produce. We have single-source farms in Georgia and Alabama that raise many of our proteins for us, so we know where our meat is coming from."
The operation also chooses scratch preparation over purchasing prepared products, Coltek says. And processed items, along with MSG, are not allowed in the kitchen.
"We smoke our own pastrami in-house, make our own soup stocks and pickles, brine our own corned beef," he says. "When we serve fish, we'll bring in 100 pounds of whole snapper, cook it off and serve it from the whole fish. You won't find chicken nuggets or fish sticks here. In the main kitchen, we have a 12-foot granite mill for grinding fresh grits and flour for our sandwich breads, which are all made here. Pizza dough and pasta are made fresh every day.
"This fall we're adding our own hard cheese room to age our own cheeses, and we'll also have a dry age box for dry aging our meats. Last year toward the end of tomato season we harvested 4,000 pounds of Roma tomatoes and made about 300 gallons of pizza sauce from them. Hummus for the hummus bar is made fresh every day. At the salad bar, there's always a grilled protein available as a topping, and you can get it grilled to temperature."
Built to support a fresh-in, fresh-out approach, The Commons has minimal freezer and refrigerated storage space. The main walk-in is about the size of one you'd find in an average McDonald's unit, according to Coltek.
Cooking operations, too, support a made-to-order and small-batch approach. An 8,000-square-foot main kitchen supports 9 self-contained restaurant concepts. Those concepts are: Apron Strings (comfort foods); The Campus Green (salad bar); Piatti (regional Italian, fresh-made pizza, pasta, stromboli, calzones); Dan's Deli (sandwiches, paninis, wraps, soups, fresh hummus bar); Wok Your Way (stir-fry); Hwy 41 Grille (burgers, fries, shakes); Globetrotter (international and regional U.S. cuisines, and student recipes from more than 150 countries); The Stone Mill Bakery (fresh baked goods, desserts); and The Grind Coffee Co. (European-style coffee bar, organic/fair-trade coffee).
Menus at each station change daily. "We have probably 200 to 300 revolving items every week, so if there are students eating here every day, there's plenty of variation from day to day," Coltek comments. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are available daily, as well.
In order to accomplish the goal of small-batch and made-to-order cooking, each station has been carefully designed as a turnkey operation. "We knew we needed to have our cooks be able to stay on the line for three hours straight during peak service times," he says. "Each one has its own power, its own pot and pan rack, its own refrigeration. The mise en place isn't in the walk-in, it's in their station. We even put a hand sink in every station so they don't have to leave to wash their hands. Movement is money, so the less the employees have to move to do their jobs, the more efficient we are."
Significant savings have also been realized from KSU's innovative "closed-loop" waste management system, a highlight of its sustainability initiatives. In addition to vermiculture and traditional composting, the school has installed an anaerobic digester to handle its food waste. The machine, which sits on the Commons' loading dock, turns pre- and post-consumer food waste and leftovers into nutrient-rich effluent water that is used on KSU's farms as fertilizer. "We go beyond farm to campus," Coltek says. "We embrace farm-to-campus and back-to-farm operations."
The biodigester system, put in place slightly less than a year ago, produces 500 gallons of effluent water every 24 hours from roughly 1,500 pounds of waste. The machine is leased at a cost of roughly $1,200 per month, but Coltek says it saves the school about $2,000 per month on composting service costs.
Other waste-management initiatives at KSU include extensive recycling, such as turning its used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. That's currently done off-site, but the school is building its own 500-gallon biodiesel converter, which will provide fuel for campus transit vehicles.
Tallied together, Coltek says, The Commons' operational efficiencies and savings garnered from its sustainability and waste-management initiatives add up to a program that's "more profitable than industry standards." Coltek explains, "A lot of that has to do with the fact that our food costs are always in line because we produce so much of our own and make everything from scratch."
He adds, "When you do just-in-time cooking, there are no leftovers, and shrink is almost nonexistent. But our profitability also relates to saving time and motion thanks to the design of the kitchen. We've designed the stations so that they are super-efficient, and that adds up to us being able to keep labor costs in line, as well."