This upstate New York university uses digital menu boards to build enthusiasm for its flexible menu and help students navigate a state-of-the-art facility that delivers a restaurant-style experience.
When the Campus Dining and Shops (CDS) team set out to revamp aging residence hall dining facilities at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYB), they took their time and did their homework. They set up stakeholder focus groups of students, faculty and staff members and met frequently to find out what types of dining facilities they would like. They organized road trips for upper management and representatives from the architectural firm that would ultimately handle the makeover to visit some 20 trendsetting campuses around the country as well as commercial casual dining operations for inspiration. They talked to foodservice directors and to executive chefs to learn more about nontraditional opportunities, success stories, best practices and lessons learned the hard way. Then they came back to Buffalo and solidified their vision.
The result is the Crossroads Culinary Center, dubbed C3. The 32,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, LEED-designed dining facility hits all of the hot buttons in campus dining today. C3 purchases locally, takes on cutting-edge sustainability initiatives, and offers welcome diversity both in its culinary offerings and the types of dining occasions it is designed to serve. It is chef-driven and committed to serving fresh, authentic, restaurant-quality foods in a comfortable, attractive setting that has students pinching themselves. In a testimonial posted on the department's Web page, junior Caleb Vaughn gushed, "I was so happy I wanted to cry . . . I don't see myself eating anywhere else on campus for a long time."
That's just the kind of response that Jeff Brady, executive director of Campus Dining and Shops, hoped for. "We made sure we understood what the students wanted," he says. "What we heard loud and clear was that they wanted healthy options, they wanted the food prepared right in front of them, and they wanted a restaurant environment. That's what this generation of students knows and expects."
C3 delivers on all of that and more. The project, which involved the renovation of a roughly 21,000-square-foot, 1970s-era dining hall, plus an 11,000-square-foot expansion, has at its core a marché, or marketplace, dining concept. It consists of separate stations, each with its own seating area and distinct decor and lighting to complement it. All told, it seats 650 in a variety of settings, with seating styles ranging from large community tables, to booths, café tables, high tops and soft, comfortable seating around a two-sided, 24-foot fireplace. Several serpentine tables with built-in outlets for charging laptops and cell phones sit on an elevated area that overlooks the active cooking stations.
The marché stations include: Oreganos (pasta/Italian), Blue Dragon (Asian wok), Global Noodle (pho), Seasons (salads), Strictly Vegetarian (meatless), Baked Creations (pizza/deli), Carve (Brazilian churrascaria), Foundations (home-style comfort foods) and Temptations (desserts). Some of the concepts were newly created for the C3 project while others were carried over from existing offerings on campus, but significantly enhanced and improved upon both in terms of menu and branding.
The station line-up also includes Premier Entrée. For an extra scan of their dining card, visitors looking for a more upscale dining option can access this station meant for special occasions. "Say they got an A on a paper or it's their birthday or some other special occasion. Premier Entrée offers a selection of upscale meals, such as lobster tail, prime rib, veal masala or jumbo shrimp, Sunday through Thursday," Brady says. "They place their order and are given a pager. They go get their beverage and/or dessert, and when their meal is ready the pager goes off, and they come back to the station to pick it up. It's been extremely successful; we routinely sell out of the Premier Entrée selections."
Each C3 station is fully equipped to function efficiently and independently. "From the time we started this project, we wanted to build the whole operation with no back of the house whatsoever," Brady says. "We wanted everything prepared out in front of the students and were able to accomplish that in part by having support walk-in coolers right out in the marché, one on the north side and one on the south side. We didn't want anyone having to go to the back of the building to retrieve product during service. We also looked very carefully at the equipment and space we'd need to serve maximum numbers projected for each concept and exactly how the flow would work. We did a lot of modeling based on our understanding of which stations were going to be the busiest."
Just as commercial operators apply principles of menu engineering, the C3 team applied similar principles to the marché layout and placement of the various stations. The Oreganos pasta station, for instance, with its low food cost and near-universal popularity, stands near the facility's front entrance. Carve, the more costly, protein-based rotisserie concept is strategically tucked toward the back. The stations' designs allow for easy updating, moving around and switching out to new concepts as trends change or shifting traffic patterns demand.
Ray Kohl, marketing manager for CDS, says digital menu boards (for which the programs were developed in-house by SUNYB's IT department) represent a key piece of the operation's traffic-management puzzle. Posted in the lobby just outside the C3 entrance, large menu boards capture the students' attention and help guide their visit to the marché. "They can always look online to see what each station is featuring on a given night, but the lobby menu boards really help to guide them and create excitement," Kohl says. Each station has its own menu board. Video cameras are also set up above each station, so students checking the boards in the lobby can not only see what's on the menu, but also see the live cooking action to whet their appetites. "It helps to avoid having people come in and wander around from station to station to see what's cooking and make their decisions," Kohl says. "That helps a lot with traffic flow."
The facility also uses video cameras posted in the C3 lobby to keep the various station chefs aware of the number of students headed into the marché. "At any time they can see how many people are out in the lobby. Because of our layout, chefs at some of the stations toward the back, like Carve, can't see what's coming. The lobby cameras, which feed live video to screens visible to each of the cooking stations, enable them to see exactly what the traffic is and anticipate what they'll need to get ready for."
SUNYB has a strong commitment to local sourcing, which came into play not just for food, but also for equipment, supplies and strategic partnerships when developing the C3 project. For instance, in updating and improving its Baked Creations pizza concept for the new facility, the SUNYB team partnered with a national bakery products and pizza dough manufacturer based in Buffalo. "We told them we wanted to serve a personal pan New York-style pizza. We'd tried for years to develop and perfect that but had been unsuccessful," Brady says. "We challenged them to create it for us, and if our stakeholders liked it, we'd build the station around their product. They did some R&D and brought us samples, which we tested in an existing dining hall. The students loved it and wanted it brought in immediately."
The pizza station, which utilizes impingement oven technology, is set up so that visitors can choose from among set menus, a nightly special or their own creations. It also includes an adjacent station that prepares handheld stromboli-style sandwiches and calzones.
For the Oreganos pasta station, SUNYB tapped a local manufacturer for R&D and menu development. "We have a couple of other pasta stations on campus, and we didn't want to duplicate any of those," Brady says. "We wanted it to be fresh, brand-new and exciting. We've had a long-term relationship with the manufacturer and wanted to support the local community, so we asked them to develop the menu for this station. They came back to us with 84 different menu items for us to choose from. You don't get a dish that's been duplicated through a menu cycle, and the students absolutely love it."
The pasta station offers a selection of prepared dishes, such as ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs and broccoli pasta Alfredo, as well as made-to-order dishes. Brady points out that the capability to prepare foods to order enables the staff to accommodate students' individual tastes and dietary needs, a by-design characteristic of all of the stations.
Other locally enhanced touches at C3 include the serviceware, which is supplied by a Buffalo-based manufacturer, one of only two U.S.-based china manufacturers, according to Brady. Silverware, too, is manufactured in New York's Finger Lakes region.
Adding to the restaurant-type experience the university strives to offer at C3, the team worked with its plateware manufacturer to design plates and bowls that are customized to each station's concept. Flatware is heavy and high quality, and beverages are served in glassware, not plastic.
Long a leader in the SUNY system for its sustainability initiatives, SUNYB displays a bright shade of green at C3. Designed to meet LEED Silver standards, the facility was constructed using many recycled materials. It, along with other dining halls on campus, is trayless, practices single-stream recycling and composts 100 percent of preconsumer food waste. Its used cooking oil is recycled into biodiesel fuel, and a biodigester installed at C3 turns postconsumer food waste into a soil amendment that's used both in campus-based growing operations and by other nearby farms.
Integrated right into the dishroom used as a "teaching system," it features a roughly 14-foot canal, or trough, into which students put their leftover food scraps and napkins, which are 100 percent compostable. A conveyor belt and water flowing through the trough carry the waste into a large machine (reminiscent of a garbage disposal) where it's broken down and pumped into the biodigester. Within 24 hours, it's further broken down into useable, nutrient-rich "gray water" for agricultural use.