In the early 1900’s, Sbisa Hall was the place to be in College Station, Texas. Located on the campus of Texas A&M University, Sbisa (pronounced speez-uh) Hall was built in 1911 as a mess hall for the university’s Corps of Cadets. The classic-style one-story building, designed by A&M University professor F.E. Giesecke, was named after Bernard Sbisa, an Austrian-born chef who joined the university’s dining services department as a steward in 1879. In addition to feeding the 2,000 cadets, Sbisa and his staff hosted many formal dinner dances and other community events. To many, Sbisa served “the best food in town.”
Fast forward to the year 1999. Sbisa Hall was no longer a shiny gem. Although it remained one of A&M’s three board plan dining halls and served more than 5,000 customers a day, time had taken its toll on the building’s plumbing, electrical and other mechanical systems, which had been overhauled only once in the interim. Several additions over the years had left building’s normal traffic flow disjointed and awkward.
And the kitchen, serving lines and three seating areas—last renovated in 1975—were now antiquated and inefficient. They no longer met the needs of current-day Texas A&M customers, including the more than 43,000 students who were demanding a wide variety of food offerings in attractive, less-formal, more modern settings.
So in early 1999, the dining services department, headed by FSD Ron Beard and Associate Director Cindy Zawieja, sat down with its planning team, architects and designers to turn Sbisa Hall into a state-of-the art servery.
The original renovation plan for Sbisa was to complete the project over a three-year period, without ever completely closing down the dining hall. A master plan was in the works, but not finalized. A minor makeover was slated for the summer of 1999. However, because the necessary renovations were so extensive, no contractor would agree to stretch the project out over 36 months. “We gambled and decided to do the entire renovation in one year,” says Beard.
So, with the finishing touches put on the master plan that incorporated suggestions from customers, faculty and on-campus architectural students, Sbisa Hall got ready to close its doors in December 1999 for a full year, in order to complete the $12 million renovation that would transform this historic treasure into a modern-day marketplace-style facility.
A Blessing in Disguise
But closing down one of the most-used dining halls on campus was no simple task. Many top administrators and the students who used Sbisa as their main dining outlet vocalized their concerns.
“We were really taken aback by the community’s reaction,” says Zawieja. “We’ve closed other dining halls down for extended renovations and everything went smoothly. But the students who ate at Sbisa were very loyal to that hall and they didn’t want to eat anyplace else. And of course, the administrators were concerned about potentially unhappy students.”
Adding fuel to the fire was a growing and under lying displeasure with the campus board plan, which students viewed as limited and as a poor value.
The traditional three-tier meal plan allowed students to eat all they wanted at any of the campus’s three board plan dining halls during certain hours. And while meal plan swipes could also be used at the campus’s 25 cash operations, the cash equivalency was less than the cost of one meal on the meal plan. As a result, students had to supplement food purchases with cash or use Aggie Bucks, a cash debit card plan operated by the local bank. Aggie Bucks are good at all campus retail outlets and at most off campus businesses, including the town’s 200+ restaurants.
The Aggie Bucks system offered the flexibility and convenience students didn’t have with their campus meal plan, and it eventually began to have a negative effect on meal plan sales.
“Our meal plan was a good value, but it wasn’t perceived that way amongst our customers, mainly because it forced them to eat on campus and limited their payment options,” says Zawieja.
To alleviate concerns about Sbisa’s closing, to boost sagging meal plan sales and to encourage students to eat on campus, especially during the renovation, Zawieja and her team introduced Outbound Meals. Available at all 25 cash foodservice operations, Outbound Meals are a variety bundled options (i.e. sandwich, chips, cookie, beverage) that are offered for a discounted price to students who purchase them with a meal plan exchange. (Each Outbound Meal is one exchange). Every location offers several combo meal choices and each Outbound menu is created specifically for a given outlet.
“When we introduced this program, we marketed it as a new ‘eat anywhere on campus, any time of day’ option,” Zawieja explains. “No more limitations on where or when students can eat on campus.”
“The response from students has been overwhelming,” Beard adds. Many of the department’s cash operations realized a 300% increase in sales (in large part due to a significant increase in overall meal plan usage by students) and meal plan sales grew by 15%. “The key was to offer students choice and give them a meal plan that fits their needs.”
“We sold 10,146 meal plans last fall, even though Sbisa was going to be closed, and we expect to sell a record number of meal plans this spring,” Zawieja says. “Restructuring our meal plans put us in a better position to compete for students’ food dollars.”
So while the initial uproar over Sbisa’s closing was troublesome, it did force the department to restructure its meal plan, ultimately making it more appealing to its customers. “This challenge was truly a blessing in disguise,” Zawieja adds.
Efficiency Was a Top Priority
With all that hullabaloo behind them, Zawieja and her team moved forward with the plans to bring Sbisa’s serveries (one on the ground level and one downstairs) and its kitchen into the 21st century.
Several items were top priority. Topping the list: creating an efficient kitchen and serving areas that offered more flexibility.
“Before the renovation, we had a basic scatter system with four points of service. Because of the way the serving stations were arranged, it was very difficult for employees to service those areas for basic tasks such as restocking,” Zawieja explains. “And it was difficult for students to get their meals in a timely manner.”
“For example, our previous salad bar didn’t have a hollow center from where employees could easily refill salad options. They’d have to interrupt the line of customers in order to do this and it really became a bottleneck, especially during the lunch and dinner rush.
“Also, most of the equipment in each area was permanently attached to the floor, so we couldn’t move any of it around. We really needed mobile equipment so that if we wanted to switch out a food concept and try something new, we could easily roll in the necessary equipment and supplies,” Zawieja explains.
Other problems included poor ventilation and low ceilings (smoke from the charbroilers often hung like a cloud in the servery), inadequate air conditioning (a big problem in Texas’ sweltering summers) and the poorly located and inefficient dishroom.
Like the serving areas, the kitchen design also suffered from poor work-flow patterns and non-working equipment.
“There were a limited number of pass throughs from the kitchen to the servery and there wasn’t a straight path from the storeroom to serving areas,” Zawieja explains. “It was very inefficient. Now, there’s a one way traffic flow from the back to the front of the house.” Nearly all of the equipment has been replaced, and “our employees couldn’t be happier,” Beard says with a laugh.
In addition to improved efficiency, the renovated dining hall also had a dramatic design makeover. The once dreary servery has been transformed into a bright and airy space with several design touches that are rooted in the many traditions associated with the college and with Sbisa Hall.
For example, the tan, natural hard wood floors throughout the servery were designed to resemble the building’s original wood flooring. Large squares of the new flooring are trimmed with a blue, green and maroon-colored tile pattern that mimics the 20-ft. coffered ceilings above. Also, the building’s main entryway floor includes a beautiful inset of the Texas A&M University seal. Beautiful painted arches, large palladium windows and big white opaque Victorian-style pendant lights and granite countertops complete the servery’s fresh appearance.
In designing the food concepts, Zawieja says that the idea was to “offer the students the food choices they want, but in a quick-service setting. Specialized branded concepts, whether they are national or in-house brands, create the dining experience our customers want.”
The main floor servery, called The Market, is divided into two sections. One side features self branded concepts including Sargino’s (Italian), World Cuisine (alternating Mexican and Oriental), Sweet Traditions (bakery), AG’s Diner (grill and carving station), Fish Fountain (beverages) and Bernie’s Café Espresso (coffee café). Many of these concepts’ names have traditional ties to the campus. For examples, Sargino’s is named to celebrate the school’s military heritage (as in “sergeants”).
The other side of the servery is designed to replicate a European market. It offers a cook-your-own station, carving station, salad and fruit bar, dessert and beverage areas. The two sides are joined by a common seating area that holds 1,200.
On the lower level, The Underground food court features three national or regional branded concepts—Whataburger, Altoni (deli) and Chik-Fil-A—and two in-house brands: Sé Wrappe (wraps) and Ultimate Smoothie, plus a small convenience store.
“Students love the variety and the quick service, and they appreciate the efforts we made to incorporate many of the building’s original design elements into this renovation,” says Beard.
A Return to Grandeur
As is befitting a well-loved building and in keeping with tradition, the foodservice department held a formal dinner dance last February to celebrate the official grand re-opening of the now transformed Sbisa Hall. More than 650 students, dressed in their Sunday best, dined on upscale food by candlelight at white-tableclothed tables, just like their predecessors did in the early 1900s. Back then, Sbisa was the place to be. And so it is again. fm