The view of foodservice on Michigan State's campus continues to improve thanks to renovation projects like The Vista at Shaw, which transformed an outdated cafeteria into a chef-driven dining venue with a sustainability focus.
Over the past few years, Michigan State University (MSU) has undertaken an extreme makeover of its dining services program, a transformation designed to put food front and center as a competitive campus advantage. In the process, MSU has positioned itself as a model for modern campus foodservice, one built on flexibility, support for changing consumer needs, culinary sophistication and a strong focus on branding for both its residential dining and retail operations.
One of the largest self-operated university dining services in the nation, the school serves more than 35,000 meals per day in its 11 residential dining halls, about half of which have recently been renovated from outdated, traditional cafeterias to attractive, chef-driven dining venues that showcase a variety of cuisines made fresh to order in exhibition cooking stations. The Vista at Shaw, the most recently completed project, had its grand opening in February. Two additional dining hall renovations are on the docket as well.
"Every time we renovate a dining hall, we treat it as an opportunity to create a destination dining spot that's new and different from the others," says Guy Procopio, director of culinary services. That's just what was accomplished at The Vista at Shaw, a LEED Silver-designed facility (certification is pending) featuring dramatic floor-to-ceiling views of the Red Cedar River and three distinct restaurant environments, each with its own daily menu, décor, lighting and seating areas. The restaurant concepts, which were developed in house, each measure roughly 3,000 square feet including seating:
Unlike many other facilities, where students must visit a number of stations to assemble full meals, The Vista's restaurants are designed to enable customers to get complete meals at each location – entrée, sides, salads and desserts. Like other trendsetting facilities in the segment, however, the operations feature just-in-time exhibition cooking, bringing state-of-the-art equipment out in front for that purpose.
The facility's unique design lets guests choose the restaurant-style venue that best meets their mood and tastes on any given day. And all 3 feature more than 450 original and diverse recipes that were developed, tested and perfected for The Vista by executive chef Kevin Cruz and his culinary team. "If you eat at your favorite restaurant seven days a week, you're going to get bored," comments Procopio. "We offer plenty of variety and are always looking for new ways to fight that boredom."
Anticipating increased demand, MSU's team expanded the dining facility at the Shaw residence hall from the original 525 seats to 725. "We're in the same footprint, but there was a special dining room that we took offline and converted into one of our restaurant concepts. We also took two spaces that previously were student lounge areas and converted them to seating," Procopio says. Those areas now serve as quiet places to dine and study, overflow seating for the busy lunch rush, and bookable space in the evening for community interaction and programming. "Since opening in January, we're doing double the volume here that we did before the renovation. And it's not just students; a lot of people from off-campus are dining with us, too," he adds.
While much of the excitement surrounding The Vista has to do with its culinary offerings, the project's focus on sustainable design and green foodservice operations is a highlight as well. During its construction, 11 percent of materials, including flooring, metals, concrete and finishes, came from recycled materials, and 21 percent came from local and regional sources within 500 miles of campus. Eighty-four percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills. The project also features low-volatile organic compound (VOC) paints and coatings as well as energy-efficient lighting, controls and equipment. Low-flow plumbing fixtures achieve an estimated 20 percent savings, and kitchen hoods feature variable air volume. Seating is made from recycled materials, and the operation composts pre- and post-consumer food waste.
While The Vista is the latest spotlight-grabbing development in MSU's dining program, earlier behind-the-scenes changes in the program's structure have also made a lasting, positive impact. The school's long-term strategy toward its goal of "leading with food" began in early 2009 with internal realignment. Its retail services and residential dining programs, previously two separate departments, were merged into a single Culinary Services department.
Procopio says the move speaks to the changes in students' dining habits, which increasingly blend traditional and grab-and-go meals. "If you think about it like an average busy family today, maybe three or four nights a week everyone's grabbing something quick from the pantry to get to soccer or music or whatever afterschool activity it might be. The other nights, the family might enjoy a more relaxed meal together in the kitchen or the great room," Procopio says.
"We've taken the approach here that retail is the pantry and dining is really their great room or kitchen where they can hang out, socialize and study when they have more time. So we tried to find a way to better support the lifestyle of today's students. Merging retail and residential dining was the first step."
The next step was to create a new, more flexible meal plan that would allow students to patronize any campus dining hall and would also bring retail into the mix. A feature dubbed Combo-X-Change does just that; plan holders can purchase 3 items per day – entrée, beverage, snack – from 1 of MSU's 21 Sparty's retail locations, the school's food truck (Eat at State ON-THE-GO) and select retail dining locations in the student union.
"They don't pay anything extra. It's part of their meal plan, and it's been a big hit," Procopio says. "It drives a lot of traffic to our retail locations, which was part of the strategy behind it. With the influx of meal-plan dollars, we've been able to lower our retail prices by 20 percent to 25 percent to be competitive with off-campus outlets instead of always having to raise our prices to break even. We've also seen a big increase in impulse sales. We're in our fourth year with the Combo-X-Change program, and our cash sales are tracking 8 percent to 12 percent increases every year."
With internal synergies created between residential and retail, along with a pricing structure set to make retail a bigger draw, MSU undertook another significant reinvention of its program – the complete rebranding of its Sparty's coffee shop and convenience store program. The goal: to create an experience consistent with national-brand quality in an in-house retail operation.
Reimaging of Sparty's, a campus fixture since 1991, began in 2010 with a strategic review of existing operations. Procopio acknowledges these were something of a hodgepodge of converted locations of various sizes and product offerings with little common identity beyond the Sparty's name.
To streamline operations and make it easier for guests to determine what the various Sparty's locations serve, the brand was divided into three sub-brands:
While grab-and-go-convenience is the big draw, each of the three café units also offers seating for 50 to 75 guests.
"The concepts vary by product line, footprint, mechanicals, etc., and the mix depends on what we can support from a cooking standpoint," Procopio says. "The cafés have hoods, so we can do more there. In two of them, we offer sandwiches and pizza, and at the third we have a grill and fryer so we can do chicken, burgers, fries, and made-to-order hot sandwiches. We're planning to convert one of the other cafés from pizza to the grill model because we see greater demand for hot sandwiches and burgers."
Key equipment pieces in the cafés, he adds, are fast-bake, ventless ovens for heating sandwiches – important in residence halls to prevent cooking smells from escaping – and a new clamshell grill in one unit that greatly expedites cooking times.
Most of the product mixes and retail store footprints, which range from around
600 to 1,500 square feet, didn't change as part of the Sparty's rebranding and renovation initiative. Rather, it was primarily a marketing play to more accurately package the different iterations of the brand with distinct names and logos and to give the stores a new, more sophisticated look and feel. Says Procopio, "The colors are vibrant and very youthful. The stores with seating areas are very modern, artistic and have an energetic atmosphere."
Today, Sparty's accounts for more than 18 percent of the annual Culinary Services department revenue. Says Procopio, "It's not just a fresh coat of paint or a new logo. It's the branding, the customer service and the enhanced value promise – all three working together."