Ten dining concepts and a convenience store work together to create a vibrant retail dining scene in a facility that's become a campus hub.

Passport, a restaurant concept at Oklahoma State’s Union, features internationally in­spired menu items such as curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes.When Oklahoma State University (OSU) set out to perform a major renovation of its iconic Student Union, the school took the opportunity to reimagine and update the facility's retail foodservice offerings. Traffic through the building had been increasing steadily for years, and student needs and expectations had changed significantly. The Union hadn't been renovated in any significant way for some 20 years; so, compared with competitive schools' offerings, OSU was falling behind
the times.

But a $63 million renovation completed in late 2011 took care of that. Repositioned and strengthened as the central hub of campus life, the Union today is home to a variety of student services, programming and administrative spaces and a vibrant retail-dining scene. In its design as well as in its diverse and on-trend offerings, the revitalized OSU Union has raised the bar for retail dining on campus.

"We were very thoughtful about what we wanted to have here as part of the renovation, and we got the students involved from the beginning," says Terry Baker, director of dining services at OSU. "The biggest thing we learned and that we focused on from a trend standpoint is that college dining options need to reflect what's out there in the real world, that the students experience every day. We designed our offerings to reflect a much more global view of the world and also to incorporate more fresh foods and healthy options."

To that end, the Union's dining program includes 10 separate concepts and a convenience store positioned prominently on the main floor of the building. Half are franchised, national-brand concepts, and half are self-operated, in-house brands that were either created new during the renovation or were significant rebrands of existing in-house concepts.

"A Chick-fil-A unit was the only concept we carried through to the new operation," Baker notes. "Everything else is fresh and new." In addition to Chick-fil-A, national-brand concepts in the space include Caribou Coffee, Baja Fresh, Jamba Juice and Johnny Rockets (one of the classic American diner concept's first forays into the college and university market).

In-house concepts at the Union include:

  • Bread and Beyond Deli: gourmet sandwiches and paninis made to order
  • Hot Dog Cart: hot dogs with a variety of familiar and specialty toppings
  • Passport: international specialties, stir-fries, curries and noodle dishes
  • Mambo Italiano: pasta, pizza and salads
  • Red Earth Kitchen: comfort foods with a focus on locally sourced products
  • Union Express: convenience items, snacks, beverages and grab-and-go sandwiches

Marche 2.0: Micro Restaurants

The overall approach, says Tom Ricca, partner at Ricca Newmark Design, the Denver-based consulting firm that designed the dining space for the new OSU Union, differs distinctly from a traditional food court, where a large seating area is surrounded by branded concepts that use the same trays, serviceware, bussing stations and cleaning areas. It's also distinct from the marché, or marketplace, concept that's increasingly prevalent in updated residential board-plan dining halls.

Built on a more modern iteration of "micro restaurants," Oklahoma State's Union offers individual restaurant experiences, each with its own distinct environment, staff uniforms, trade dress and dedicated seating area.

"They're all aligned on a common circulation spine so that guests literally walk down a main street and there are small restaurant opportunities along the way," Ricca says. "You can buy pizza from one and eat there or carry it over to sit with your friends who went to the Asian restaurant. Students can use their meal plan cards, credit cards or cash to pay for what they get at each location. It's something we're seeing popping up in a number of places on the retail side as an update on the marché concept."

Baker notes that significant effort was put into branding the in-house units to make them as strong and attractive as their franchised concept counterparts. Among the most popular, she says, is Red Earth Kitchen, named for Oklahoma's famed red dirt. "That's where we showcase produce from local farms and products from other Oklahoma vendors. We do all scratch cooking and specialize in home-style comfort foods such as lasagna, chicken potpie and biscuits with gravy," Baker says. "It includes a fresh salad bar and a salad entrée of the day, as well as two hot entrées, two sides and a vegetable, plus fresh-baked rolls and from-scratch soups. It serves breakfast and lunch, and the menus change every day."

Passport, too, is a favorite. "Each week we feature a different international cuisine," Baker says. "One week it might be Korean, the next Indian and the next Thai. We strive to offer authentic flavors of the world, and the students really love it."

During the renovation, overall seating for dining at the Union was expanded from 400 seats to nearly 700. Gains were also made in inventory and production space, a boon both for daily operations and for the heavy catering load handled by the central production kitchen, also housed in the Union.

Located toward the back of the building's main level, the central kitchen has been outfitted with new, state-of-the-art equipment – everything from bakery ovens with roll-in racks to new combi ovens and walk-in coolers. The kitchen provides varying levels of support to the in-house retail dining concepts in the Union as well other campus dining venues and serves as the university's main catering kitchen. The kitchen also includes a bakery that provides fresh-baked breads and pastries to operations in the Union and throughout campus.

"At many of the retail concepts here, the cooking is done right in front of customers," Baker notes. "We may prep ingredients and components in the back kitchen, but as much as possible the actual cooking and finishing are done fresh to order. An exception is Red Earth Kitchen, where many of the entrées are prepared and baked in the main kitchen just because of the nature of the menu."

She adds that one of the biggest behind-the-scenes benefits of the Union renovation, which for dining operations totaled nearly $17 million, was a reconfiguration of back-of-the-house space. "At the loading dock we now have a series of zones, so you can go to coolers or freezers almost directly off the dock. It's not a long walk like it used to be. It enables us to be very efficient from a production and execution standpoint."

All told, the Union's dining operations now serve some 17,000 students and other campus members on an average day, and almost all visitors to campus make a stop there, according to Baker.

"It really is a bustling, dynamic space and the energy center of campus. It was important as we undertook the renovation to create attractive dining spaces and offer more exciting retail food options. We've just finished our first full academic year with all of the concepts moved in and operating, and it's been an absolutely amazing transformation. We've added late-night hours to some of the concepts because demand has been so strong. Next year, we're hosting the southern regional NACUFS conference here, and we're excited to show off what we've done and how much has changed at the Union."

Oklahoma State University Dining Services Snapshot

  • No. of students enrolled: 24,000 (6,000 on campus)
  • Operation: Self-operated
  • Locations: 1 residential dining hall, 31 retail locations
  • Union retail dining transactions per day: 6,900
  • Total Dining Services transactions per day: 17,500
  • Annual revenue: $20 million ($19 million from retail)
  • F&B purchasing budget: $9 million
  • Dining services employees: 160 full-time; 600 students

Key Players, OSU Union Dining

  • Mitch Kilcrease, assistant vice president and director, Student Union
  • Terry Baker, director, University Dining Services
  • Architect: Workshop Architects
  • Foodservice Consultant: Ricca Newmark