The new taste of campus dining: nucuisine
There are more than 100 restaurants in close proximity to the Northwestern campuses. But busy students, faculty and staff don’t always have the time to venture off campus in search of a satisfying meal.
Now there’s nucuisine, a new dining experience built on an array of options from self-serve buffets and cafés to fine catering and convenience stores. It’s designed to attract hungry customers in search of fresh meals and snacks between classes and meetings. And its ads promise to break the stereotype of bad college dorm food and “add some sizzle to your lunch life.”
But nucuisine is more than just lunch. Northwestern’s Dining Services estimates that, on any given day, nearly 8,000 people will visit retail dining facilities and 5,000 people will dine in dining halls in the morning, midday and evening.
In addition to dining halls, new retail spots have popped up in places like the University Library, Crowe Hall and the Pancoe-Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Life Sciences Pavilion to serve diners where they are. (Visit the nucuisine Web site at www.northwestern.edu /nucuisine for a complete list of locations and hours.)
So what’s the draw, other than convenience, that keeps hungry customers coming back for more? Dining Services, managed for Northwestern by Sodexho USA, trumpets its quality, nutrition, innovation and expertise.
Breakfast cereals feature brands like Post, Kellogg’s and General Mills. Biscuits, pancakes and other hot breakfast breads are made with Gold Medal and Aunt Jemima products. There’s Philadelphia Brand cream cheese on the side and non-fat cottage cheese, fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt are available at every meal.
Chefs use vegetable or olive oils to prepare meals instead of animal fat. Authentic ethnic food is also a staple of the dining halls. For instance, Sargent Hall, which last fall introduced a Silk Road theme, imports authentic ingredients from foreign countries.
Diners can drink Minute Maid juices and other Coca-Cola and Pepsi products. Also available at every meal is skim milk, two percent milk, lactose-free milk Lactaid and Sunsoy Brand Vanilla Soy Milk.
A registered dietitian assists the executive chef in formulating healthful menu selections and evaluates the nutritional content of foods served in each dining facility. The dietitian offers individual diet instruction, and modified menus when indicated, for students with special dietary needs. A weekly “Guide to Healthful Food Choices,” which lists healthful menu selections, is available at each nutrition information center to help diners choose wisely.
The nucuisine Web site, www.northwestern.edu/nucuisine, includes links related to health and wellness topics, including menu planning, a body mass index calculator and information about National Nutrition Month in March.
The team of chefs constantly seeks diner feedback and juggling menu items to satisfy individual requests. For those with particular dietary and religious needs, there are vegetarian and vegan options for every meal. Kosher options are available at a la carte dining locations.
This week, Dining Services is celebrating the opening of its second convenience store, the C-Store at Norris University Center. The C-store sells healthy “grab and go” options, portable meals in a healthy market environment. A similar store opened last fall at Foster-Walker Residence Hall and supplies grocery items, frozen meals and snacks. In addition, fresh grab and go items and snacks are served at Jimmy G’s and the renovated Recovery Room Café on the Chicago campus.
Dining Services developed the Global Chef Program to introduce authentic international cuisine. The program brings one international chef per year to stay on campus for several weeks, preparing meals and training dining staff. Last year, Chef Cheng Hong Wah of Sodexho Hong Kong spent four weeks serving diners on both campuses.
This year, Chef Placid Gomes will become the second global chef. A Bangladesh native, Chef Gomes is currently the Chief Cook at Sodexho Universal in Oman, and has prepared gourmet food in India, Tunisia and Iraq. Chef Gomes’ specialty, authentic Indian cuisine, will be featured on both campuses during spring quarter.
Observer Q & A: Paul Komelasky, district manager, Sodexho USA Dining Services
Q. How does Dining Services attract customers?
A. Over the past several years we began to upgrade the dining services at Northwestern in various ways — facilities, staffing, presentation, food selections, etc. — in coordination with Garth Miller and Bill Johnston of Student Affairs. As we communicated with our customers, through focus groups, dining committees, comment cards and surveys, we discovered that there were a number of issues to address such as food quality, atmosphere, variety, customer service and convenience of locations.
Working with Johnston and Miller, a plan was put in place to improve each of the dining locations over the next five to seven years. Improvements included resident, Norris and Tech locations. To date all but two of the facilities, 1835 Hinman and Elder Hall, have had some type of upgrade. In each case, as the facility was upgraded, customer traffic rose dramatically.
Food presentation and offerings were also changed in most locations. We found that our customers wanted authentic ethnic foods. In order to meet those needs we sought executive chefs and sous chefs for all of our locations where food is prepared on the premises. A number of the chefs came from the Chicago restaurant industry. Their experience brought a new and higher level of food quality to our customers. These chefs also had the expertise we needed for the preparation of ethnic foods.
A major change in the past two years, thanks to the help of Tony Bakerli, general manager of Sodexho USA, was to move as much of our production as possible to fresh ingredients and products. Bakerli has put forth tremendous effort in working with our management team and chefs to get approximately 90 percent of all food production from scratch.
Another major issue was the convenience and availability of our locations for the total customer base on campus. The University’s expansion of facilities created new opportunities to work with various departments and establish new dining locations. Again working with Johnston and Miller, we identified several new venues to extend our reach and better serve our customer base. In the past two years, we’ve added Lisa’s Café, an expansion of Tech Express, Einstein’s Bros. Bagel’s, Plaza Café, Crowe Café, Sbarro’s, the Foster-Walker Convenience Store and now the Norris University Center Convenience Store.
A number of operations like Willie’s Food Court and Tech Express were constantly stretched beyond capacity. People could not find a seat or get through the lines quickly enough for them to enjoy eating with us. Through the addition of the new venues we have not only made facilities more convenient to our customers, but also have expanded the variety of choices that customers can experience. The overall result is that we are now serving more customers today than ever before. Since the beginning of this academic year, we have prepared more than 1.1 million meals on campus. This represents a 10 percent increase over last year.
Another key to our success is that we are more aggressive in our marketing approach by offering coupons, frequency cards and meal specials. We advertised and gave out coupons to faculty and staff so they could try our resident dining locations. Most faculty and staff did not realize that they could eat at these locations. Today we average more than 350 cash customers a week using our resident locations as compared to 200 last year. It’s a great deal — all you can eat for $6.60.
Q. What is your strategy for providing healthful meals?
A. We employ a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. Their job is to analyze menus and to meet with students who have special dietary needs. In addition, we put nutrition information on all main items served in our resident locations. The dietitian assures there are balanced meals available at all locations.
Our chefs take recommendations from the dietary staff on products such as low-fat sour cream, skim milk and low-fat cottage cheese to keep the recipes healthier. We also have vegan and vegetarian options at all locations. There are many alternatives for our customers to choose, unlike at home when you only have a single menu for dinner. We have put extensive information on our Web site and also at each location.
The dietary staff produces a monthly nutrition newsletter and hosts seminars as well.
Q. How do you recruit chefs?
A. We seek out chefs from the hotel and restaurant industry. We found that a number of talented chefs were looking for an opportunity to spend more time with their families. The hotel and restaurant industries have long, tough hours, with some operations open until 2 a.m. Most chefs in these industries also have to work holidays. But in our industry, the chefs like the idea that most of our operations are closed by 8 p.m. They also appreciate that we’re closed for Christmas and New Year’s.
We have been fortunate to find a number of good chefs for our operations. We have hired eight executive chefs for Northwest-ern. These chefs have performed a lot of training with our staff to improve the overall dining experience on campus.
I’ll be participating in a panel discussion this month for the Foodservice Educators Network International Education Summit in Chicago to speak about the industry’s need for culinarians.
— Stephen Anzaldi