The novel system for menu pricing at the Steam Cafè, developed in collaboration with students from MIT's School of Architecture.
The idea that contract-run retail operations are primarily cookie-cutter concepts with only slight modifications from location to location is one that's quickly debunked when you visit the Steam Cafè in MIT's Rogers Building, which houses its School of Architecture.
Open most weekdays from 8 am-6pm, Steam is a joint project developed by MIT's Campus Dining department, a team of more than 50 of the school's architecture students and Sodexho. "Steam is a great example of the power of collaboration," says Steve Porter, Sodexho's campus general manager.
Comfortably wedged into a small footprint along a main classroom hallway, Steam was designed and constructed largely by the students themselves. For example, tables and serving areas were custom designed and made from recycled and refinished butcher block counters. Seating is provided by mobile modules constructed of the same materials, which can be quickly configured in a variety of ways along the hallway outside the servery. Its unique pricing menu (see diagram) is mounted on a hanging sheet of translucent, opaline plastic and illuminated from behind.
"Steam Cafè is a spatial experiment, both physical and virtual, in 'open source' problem solving, bringing people together around an ongoing design challenge," reads a description developed by the students, who see it as offering "food and space that inspires and meets the needs of our community." In keeping with that theme, customers are invited to submit their own recipes and other suggestions for the rotating menu.
The cafè's entrèe selections are based on rice dishes and stews that rotate daily and which are sold using a novel pricing system based on the size of container used for the meat or vegetarian sauce accompaniments (see illustration). For most meals, a student fills a plate with as much brown or steam white rice as he or she wants; the rice itself is charged for only if no container of accompaniments is selected.
Some typical daily specials: Philippine Sweet and Sour Pork, Chick Peas Cauliflower Garam, Tofu and Kale Cacciatore with Artichokes, Black Bean Vegetable Chili, South India Fish Curry and chicken Andouille Sausage Gumbo. Two soups are offered daily, ranging from classics like Split Pea and Smoked Ham and Chicken Noodle to Pumpkin Ginger and Apple Butternut Squash.
Porter, with extensive experience in retail B&I operations, notes that the MIT community "is full of widely varying sub-cultures, with each one looking for a place to build its own community. This is a successful example of how we've tried to adapt the retail operations to appeal to some of these specific groups."