A college dining experience is about more than just the food, said Jim Erickson, director of Union dining services.
“I look at what we do here as encompassing so many different things,” he said. “Obviously we want the food here to be good, but we want the experience in here to be good. It’s a place where you build community; it’s a place where you get to know people.”
Creative Dining Services took over operation of Union’s dining in June, and Erickson said there were some things they knew they wanted to implement from the start. He said they were focused on what the student experience would be, and they wanted it to be a positive experience for everyone, including employees.
“There are a lot of different areas that we look at on this,” Erickson said. “Food is naturally one of the first ones. What is the quality, the variety, the presentation on food? Are we serving what students are going to want to eat, that they’ll feel like they’re getting a good value for their meal plan?”
He said dining services has increased the perception of value by giving more options. Brewer Dining Hall now has a fully stocked salad bar, a grill, a pizza area and a taqueria, in addition to the regular homestyle station.
“We put in the taqueria concept and Emma and Charlie’s pizza because we know that those two items are popular with college students,” Erickson said. “I think that probably those have a pretty wide appeal.”
Erickson said dining services is working with students with allergies to ensure they have something to eat without having to make it themselves.
The dining hall also has an allergen area with things like gluten-free bread and dairy-free milk. Erickson hopes to expand the allergen area soon so that people with allergies can have hot meals, not just a sandwich or salad option.
He said Creative Dining Services is uniquely suited to deal with those kinds of things because it is a small food service company. That gives them the flexibility to adjust to what their clients need. He said he looks at their relationship with Union as a partnership.
“We kind of downplay that we’re Creative Dining and make it into Union dining services and really try to promote the school,” he said.
Student response to the changes in the dining hall has been mostly positive. In a survey sent out in late October, students were asked to rate their experiences in the dining hall and give suggestions. About 85 percent of the students who participated said they were either very happy or happy with their experiences.
The dining hall also recently added a comment and suggestion board where students can give feedback about meals. Erickson said most of the suggestions there have been about simple things like adding lids for coffee cups. He said he plans to answer every question or comment that is posted.
“There are always things that we can do better,” he said. “And we’re going to keep improving to make it the best it can be.”
Erickson has worked with Creative Dining for 22 years, and he said he loves everything about it. He said the dining hall is one of the main places on campus that he sees community being built.
“There’s something about sitting down and eating,” he said. “If you’ve got good food, it helps foster the relationship between people. If you’ve got a place where you don’t want to come and eat, it really doesn’t do that.”
Story by Nathan Handley, Photos by Kristi Woody