New dining hall policies bring food preparation out of kitchen

Ally Mutnick, Reporter

Four Northwestern dining halls are testing out a new system aimed at maximizing employee interaction with students and making food preparation more transparent.

Student Affairs and Sodexo, the company that manages nuCuisine, switched to the new “Dining by Design” concept this year.

As many food options as possible are now cooked in front of the students so they can see their food being prepared. Dining staff will monitor the lines to see which dishes are moving the fastest so they can prioritize what to cook more of next.

Sodexo general manager Chris Gargiulo said the changes will make the food fresher for all diners, and students will be able to see exactly what they ordered and how it is made.

“It really takes the prep and the prep work that you never saw in the back of the kitchen and we bring it out front now,” he said. “The food is not like 20 to 30 minutes old — it’s minutes old.”

The new system was implemented in the dining halls at Sargent, Allison, Elder, 1835 Hinman and Foster-Walker Complex. Willard’s dining hall could not accommodate the concept because food there is prepared on demand for students.

Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, vice president for student auxiliary services, said the new concept stemmed from student concerns she heard last year.

“There was a lot of feedback from students about dining hall service and interaction with employees,” she said.

Student Affairs will begin assessing the new system after one full month of operation. In addition to changes in food preparation, Payne-Kirchmeier worked with Sodexo to make some staffing changes in the dining halls and to increase the training of the employees.

“The staff is much more knowledgeable with the menus,” she said. “They can explain what’s in them. They can help with customizing things.”

The atmosphere of the dining hall has changed as well. Gargiulo said Sodexo has tried to purchase more local foods and has begun using more signage to tell diners things like where food comes from, if it is sustainable or if eggs are cage-free.

Stations in the dining halls were also reorganized to reflect foods that people often eat together. There are now casseroles and salads offered at the pizza station to make each stop a complete meal.

Each dining hall has new white plates and glasses, as well as specific salad bowls and soup bowls. Gargiulo said the goal was to make the dining hall feel like a restaurant.

“We wanted to make the experience a bit nicer and kind of upscale it a bit for everyone,” he said.

Both Student Affairs and Sodexo have tried to garner more student feedback. They are in the process of setting up an advisory committee to critique the dining halls. Sodexo has had students taste food before they introduce it.

McCormick sophomore Andrew Rowberg said he had noticed an improved quality of food this year. He said he has also observed a change in the staff interaction.

“I think the staff has made an effort to be more personable this year,” Rowberg said. “They talk to you in line. They’re a little more knowledgeable about the food they make. You can ask them questions and get information on how it’s prepared.”

Weinberg senior Ben Miner said he noticed the effort to make food assembly more visible but that he thought it made the dining hall more crowded.

When chefs don’t have access to the larger appliances in the back kitchen, they can’t prepare food as quickly, Miner noted.

“They have like this tiny little George Foreman-style grill,” he said. “Lines are longer because they’re not able to get as much out at a time.”

Gargiulo said Sodexo is always interested in student response to dining services. The company has also given small surveys to diners to assess the Dining by Design concept, adding the response so far has been positive.

“The food we produce is fresh,” he said. “It’s made in front of you and that’s what we want to be known for. We don’t want to be known as dining hall food.”