A New Trend in Dining Design

Sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious. In the case of the design of food service areas, the bottom line rules, much as it does in other aspects of campus funding. Administrators have to find ways to do more with less. They also have to be canny about using their resources to develop revenue streams. Hence the prevailing trend in the design of food-service areas is that today’s spaces must be flexible and multifunctional, and they must cater to the preferences of students who are used to brand names, lots of choices and ease of access. In a word, they must be hybrid.

Multifunction Equals Revenue

According to those in the know, hybrid spaces can provide a means of generating revenue on campus. "Flexibility is a key factor," explains Dave Szomoru, vice president of marketing for Cleveland-based Contract Source Inc. "Many private colleges are courting businesses. These spaces are available for meetings with optional food service. The overall aesthetics have really increased from our days of folding banquet tables. These spaces are so much nicer, much more like a restaurant than a cafeteria. With the trend in technology, colleges and universities now have the facilities to serve corporations, which are dying for state-of-the-art meeting rooms."

A case in point: Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, just completed a combination facility that includes classrooms, a dining hall, private dining space, offices, student lounge areas and conference rooms that can be combined into one large room. On a monthly basis, Szomoru says, four or five companies use the facility, as does the local Chamber of Commerce.

Serving Today’s Students

The challenge is to design an environment that has an intended effect (for example, to recruit and retain the students on campus and to create active alumni of the institution 20 years hence), says Tom Gavic, president of higher education at De Pere, Wis.-based Performa, a firm that does campus planning and facility design for private higher education institutions. "Our clients are getting comfortable with the concept of higher education as a business and a college as a brand. The question is: How do you create a living and learning experience outside the classroom that will enhance the brand? Everyone is doing something slightly different to keep the kids on campus."

These changes are a result of changes in students’ expectations, and their disposable time, suggests Gavic. Most have jobs, or participate in a work/study program. They need mall-style, franchise units in their campus activity centers. "We’re designing campus activity centers that combine student lounges, convenience stores, places where kids can get a burger or a slice of pizza, and areas for sitting down and plugging in their laptops," Gavic says.

"Nevertheless, the traditional full-service dining hall is not going away," he continues. "That’s driven by the revenue source: The facilities are set up to produce three meals a day. These are often supplemented with food franchises in the student center. We’re also starting to see the Starbuck’s coffee option worked into the lounge of a library, like a Barnes & Noble. Or they can be in the student center, which is like going to a mall - with games, television, fast food, coffee, e-mail access, convenience stores, book stores and student offices - a hot spot where students hang out between classes."

Preparing for the Future

Smaller campuses and commuter campuses, which indeed require flexible, multifunctional spaces that keep the students and their dollars on campus, often have other specific needs, especially for technology. According to Tom Massey, CEO and campus dean of the University of Wisconsin - Marathon County, Wausau, Wis., a campus of 1,000 students with 150 student residents, "The student union is the place where people hang out between classes. It has a great room, snack bar, pool table, big-screen television and a stage. There’s also a circular area with booths around the edges for quiet conversations."

Massey explains that, before its recent renovation, the union had a rathskeller in the basement. "When we revamped it, we wanted it to be easily accessible and serve multiple purposes. Moveable seating was important, as were stationary booths. And, because we know it won’t be long before everyone has laptops, we left the wiring accessible for the future."

"Today’s students are savvy consumers," notes Carolyn Farley, director of University Union & Center at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. "We have to be asking what they want. They’re used to eating brand foods. They’re used to flexible hours. They’re used to computers. It’s important to integrate the food service with other student activities."

Hybrid food service spaces on campuses are satisfying administrators in that they’re flexible, multifunctional and helping to meet the bottom line. They’re satisfying students by catering to their preferences in brand names, lots of choices and ease of access. It’s a win-win situation.

Barry Swanquist is general manager, education markets, at Green Bay, Wis.-based KI, a major manufacturer of college/university and K-12 furniture.

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