Times are changing. College and university foodservice operations make this clear year in and out. Though sleek serveries and fresh marketplaces continue to reign as the eatery of choice in higher education dining, students also want full-service restaurants and more mixed, all-purpose spaces to eat, lounge, congregate, study and be entertained all in one place.
Robert Morris University's Wheatley and Yorktown cafes, which opened in 2012 and 2013, respectively, provide clear examples of this burgeoning trend.
"I find the students today prefer environments that differ greatly with more variety and offerings in menu and seating," says Ross Bianco, an architect with Robert Morris in Moon Township, Penn., who led the designs for both spaces.
Countless focus groups in preparation for the newly designed restaurants revealed the same thing. "The students didn't want an old high school dining hall," Bianco says. "They wanted a sit down dining experience that was more like a restaurant or sports bar and had community tables. I took those comments and generated something to combine all of that."
The result were two new mixed spaces that Robert Morris can use for dining as well as student group meetings, movie nights, dinner and dancing or studying outdoors. This was key for Robert Morris because many of the college's students live off campus — some travel great distances to get to class. In addition Robert Morris attracts older students who remain interested in a destination dining concept.
"We wanted to give more opportunities for the students to come in intermittently, whether that was at 11 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon," Bianco says. The restaurant setup and made-to-order food accommodates that service.
Located in a former Holiday Inn converted to dormitories for 500 students about a mile from main campus, Yorktown Cafe operates as a full-service cafe/restaurant during the day and pub at night with a menu of create-your-own steaks, burgers, wraps, salads, pizza and wings. Managed by Parkhurst Dining, the 280-seat cafe features a "California industrial" design, with a casual and breezy indoor-outdoor bar-restaurant appeal and large flat screen TVs around the perimeter, Bianco says.
The design team took apart the 1970s era hotel's lower level, formerly a laundry room, and put in 16-foot high ceilings with big, roll-up doors that open to the outdoor patio. Lots of wall graphics in primary reds and blues representing the university colors separate the indoor bar space from the area. A recently secured liquor license allows the restaurant to sell drinks for older students and non-students to further attract a diverse customer base. Stadium seating and banquet rooms for student club meetings allow the space to function as an off-campus student union. Instead of huge cafeteria tables, Bianco created more segregated spaces with raised platforms and curtains as the dividers. A grab-and-go section caters to those looking for more of a quick bite on the run.
"The aesthetics had to be bulletproof because of the high traffic," Bianco says. "We worked with the existing concrete frame but also had to make the space very versatile so the furniture had to be able to be moved around." Floors also had to stand the test of time — and dancing at night.
Wheatley, on the other hand, sits toward the south end of the main campus, near Robert Morris's business, nursing and information science schools. As a result, its similar restaurant setup attracts off-campus students, including those pursuing graduate degrees, looking for a place to sit, eat, socialize and study.
With seating for 120, including a diner-like counter, fireplace and lounge area, and outdoor patio, Wheatley is a quieter space with some high-tech features like smart phone plug-ins that allow students to play their own music and high-end speakers. Its edgier feel blends vintage design elements — French doors and maple wood floors — with a modern, urban appeal in the form of 24-foot ceilings, exposed metal beams and other industrial-style accents, Bianco says.
"Kids are a lot more sophisticated now," he notes "They see a lot more because of the Internet and travel, so our spaces are designed to be different to appeal to the senses so the students feel they're someplace different rather than just anywhere USA," Bianco says.
As this well-traveled, well-dined Millennial generation matures and frequents restaurants outside of the college campus, they'll begin to expect the same thing when they are on-site.