NAME: University of Northern Iowa Dept. of Residence/Dining
LOCATION: Cedar Falls, IA
RESIDENT STUDENTS: 3,800
STUDENTS ON MEAL PLANS: 4,200
ANNUAL DEPT. REVENUES: $12.6 million
BOARD PLAN: $9 million,
CASH OPS: $2.5 million
FOODSERVICE CONSULTANTS: Baker Group (Piazza Dining); Ricca Newmark Design (Rialto Dining, Maucker Union, meal plan)
KEY PERSONNEL: Mona Milius, associate director of residence/dining; Carol Fletcher, assistant director of residential dining; Pat Beck, assistant director of residence for marketing & conference services; Margaret Empie, assistant director for catering and retail; Gale Secor, coordinator of purchasing for dining services; Catherine Wylam, technology coordinator for dining services
To get to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, you have to drive through what seems like one endless cornfield. In the late-summer sunshine, the vista is endless, bountiful and golden, with a view stretching horizon to horizon along the flat-as-apool-table landscape. The scenery is broken only occasionally by a farmhouse, a silo, a mechanical harvester's angled arm or a laconic band of grazing cows.
To someone visiting from a big city, Cedar Falls seems about the nearest one can get to being “in the middle of nowhere.” Other than twin-city Waterloo right next door, the closest metropolitan center is Cedar Rapids, about 70 miles to the southeast. The closest major city is Des Moines, about 110 miles to the southwest. In between lies that endless cornfield.
But UNI, which has been rated one of the Midwest's best public universities for six years running in the prestigious US News & World Report rankings, belies all stereotypes about Great Plaines colleges in small Farm Belt towns.
Welcome to Mona's milieu!
Where one might expect lots of plainbutfilling heartland fare heavy on meat and potatoes, all served in functional dining halls, one instead encounters cosmopolitan delights such as Mongolian grilled meats and vegetables, freshly-made spinach pasta and South American “churrasco” barbecue, all served in cutting-edge-design marketplace cafes bursting with color, vibrant with selfbranded merchandising flair and humming with culinary professionalism.
Mona is Mona Milius, associate director of residence/dining at UNI since 1987. Spend a few hours touring UNI's dining operations and you'll know why Milius is a respected figure in the higher education segment, a status confirmed by her recent election as president of the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS). The three new dining venues her department opened in the past two years would be points of pride on any campus anywhere.
The new venues represent a complete overhaul of UNI's campus dining operation, a fast-track jump from what had been a staid program focused around four traditional dining halls, a meal plan limited to board dining and an uninspired student union cash operation.
Today's UNI dining operations center around two new marketplace-style resident dining halls-one opened just this fall-and a completely renovated student union. These are complemented by a pair of newer campus c-stores, three retail intercept carts, an award-winning catering operation and a new central production kitchen and bakery.
The latter pours out a stream of freshly made products ranging from packaged salads and soups to breads and sweets, all self-branded under its own Fresh Beginnings label.
The meal plan, meanwhile, has been overhauled to provide students with much greater flexibility in choosing between the board dining and cash operations.
Today's UNI dining operations center around two new marketplace-style resident dining halls—one opened just this fall—and a completely renovated student union.
A WORLD TRANSFORMED
UNI's renovated campus dining facilities include the Rialto with its colorful photos of magnified corn kernels and soybeans
(l. to r.) Carol Fletcher, assistant director-residential dining; Catherine Wylam, technical coordinator-dining services; Margaret Empie, assistant directorcatering/retail; and Gale Secor, purchasing coordinator for dining services.
Mona Milius, associate director of residence/dining.
The new UNI dining outlets are sensory delights, from the “Rainwall” sculpture adorning the Piazza
big windows to let in plenty of light in the Rialto.
Milius is as rooted in UNI as one can possibly be. She was born near Cedar Falls and graduated from the university in 1979. After briefly working in a skilled care facility and then for a foodservice contractor managing college dining operations in the western end of the state, she got married and moved back to Cedar Falls in late1980. There, she landed a job with UNI's dining services department as a unit manager overseeing two dining centers. She eventually moved up to managing the Commons dining operation before being named to her current position in 1987.
At the time, UNI Dining encompassed four residential dining halls, a catering operation and a central bakery. The program was traditional and unspectacular, but effective, she says.
Despite a few cosmetic upgrades in the subsequent decade, things didn't change much, even though Milius itched to effect more significant renovations.
Her chance finally came in the mid-90s when the main storage refrigeration units below the central production kitchen began to fail.
“We did a study to see what it would cost to replace them and found that we were looking at a half-a-million dollars,” Milius recalls. “So I said, ‘Really, if we're going to spend that kind of money to simply replace the refrigeration system we had, let's do a master plan and see if we could put that money to better use.'”
That master plan, developed over the next several years, recommended consolidating the four existing residential dining halls into two brand new marketplace-style venues. It also called for a renovated student union dining operation, since UNI Dining had managerial responsibility for the union's foodservice program.
UNI Dining's relationship with the Union began in the late 80s when the department built a catering addition to student union building where it could centralize catering production (previously, it had been operated from the various campus kitchens). At the same time, UNI dining also took over management of the union's sit-down restaurant, which was run at the time by the Hardee's commercial chain.
The union management was looking for a different level of service in that restaurant,” Milius says. “Meanwhile, we were pursuing a stable business in the Union to balance our catering operation.”
So as manager of the foodservice operationsat the union, Milius was able to incorporate a new union foodservice into the master plan along with the revamped residential dining facilities. The master plan also restructured and liberalized the campus meal plan to incorporate meals purchased at the union's retail operations (as well as at other planned new retail outlets). Milius says convincing the university administration to go along with her radical changes wasn't particularly difficult when a change in administration also brought a more progressive outlook.
“I had a new boss in 1994 who was open to looking at the master plan, looking at dining and revitalizing the dining program,”Milius recalls. “We had been working hard to provide the variety students wanted but the surveys kept showing that we weren't influencing increased satisfaction. That data helped drive the whole renovation process while the master plan gave credibility to what we needed to do on campus.”
“At the time, when we looked at the resources within the department, putting the money into the foodservice at that time made more sense than trying to renovate nine or 10 residence halls.”
The basic meal plans now offer 19, 14 and 10 weekly meals, each with a Plus Plan for additional dining dollars. There are also 125- and 150-meal block plans and also a premium “unlimited access” plan that has attracted about 65 participants.
In fact, the master plan was so credible that, except for a few minor alterations, it essentially became the finished reality.
The first step came in July 2000, when the campus's Redeker Center, site of one of the four dining halls, was closed. Two years and $10.75 million later, it re-opened in Fall 2002 as a completely new space. Its highlights included a brand new residential dining hall, the spectacular Piazza, as well as new Department of Residence offices, a computer lab tied in with the Piazza's Mugs & Modems cafè outlet, a new central bakery and cold food preparation center and a new retail c-store, Biscotti's. Concurrent with the opening, one of the other resident dining halls shut its doors for good, leaving three, including Piazza, which quickly became the campus's most popular place to eat.
And no wonder. The spacious servery and dining area with a variety of seating options, from booths and high tables to a bar for solo diners, all illuminated with natural light from skylights. It even has a signature water sculpture, “Rainwall,” by noted sculptor Molly Mason.
Of course the main attraction is the food, which is served from a set of proprietary branded stations with names like Bushels (tossed to order salads and pastas, soups and make-your-own waffles), Wok by Request (to-order stir fry), Savories (comfort food entrees including carved and rotisseried meats), Stackables (deli, including madeto-order sandwiches), Sizzles (grill), Serranos (pizza/Mexican fare) and Sweet Talk (desserts).
A grab-and-go outlet just outside the door, called Cafè on the Way, offers students in a hurry an assortment of packaged salads, sandwiches, soups and baked goods. The Mugs & Modems cafè located adjacent to Piazza is a combination coffee house, cyber cafè and soda fountain, with offerings ranging from espresso drinks to root beer floats and soft-serve ice cream.
In another part of Redeker, Biscotti's provides yet another quick-meal option, though, unlike Piazza and its Cafè On the Way outlet, this is a cash operation. The c-store primarily emphasizes snacks, grab-and-go meals, bottled beverages and—especially—a large assortment of the school bakery's self-branded “Fresh Beginnings” baked goods.
Another c-store outlet, 23rd Street Market, is located in the Commons building and serves as the campus's primary source of personal care items, health & beauty products and retail packaged foods like cereals, canned goods and frozen foods. It also incorporates the Red Hat Deli, featuring an assortment of freshly made sandwiches designed to let students grab a quick meal.
Both Biscotti's and 23rd Street Market open at 7:30 in the morning during the week and stay open until midnight Sunday through Thursday.
Piazza, situated near University Avenue on the campus's south side, has been UNI's pre-eminent residential dining spot for the past two years. However, this fall, it suddenly got some stiff competition from another brand new marketplace cafè, Rialto, located at the campus's northern end in the Tower Center.
Towers had been home to another of UNI's traditional dining halls, which closed down after the 2002-03 academic year. This August, after two years and $8.5 million in renovations, it reopened as the Rialto, prompting the closing of the last remaining traditional dining hall-campus residential dining would now be confined to the two new locations, Piazza and Rialto.
Like Piazza, Rialto is a marketplace-style operation. Its dècor incorporates a fireplace, glass walls, skylights and original art, in this case a set of colorful photos of magnified corn kernels and soybeans. Also like Piazza, it has a cyber bar with a mini computer lab managed by UNI's Information Technology Services Department. It does Piazza one better in one respect: its Tray Con automatic tray conveyor edges out Piazza's as the country's longest such unit.
But that's a technical detail whose bragging rights are only appreciated—if at all— by kitchen designers. The students who eat at UNI's dining halls are much more interested in the cuisine. And here, the competition is neck-and-neck.
Milius is quick to note that Rialto is not a mere duplication of Piazza but a variation that offers a greater variety of exotic, unusual and ethnic options. Its stations self-branded as at Piazza-include Pasta Cucina (freshly made pastas as well as tossed-to-order salads), Emiliano's (a rotating display cooking menu ranging from crepes and omelets to quesadillas and noodle bowls as well as nacho and potato bars), Cornucopia (comfort foods, but also including South American “churassco” barbecue and smoked meats from its own smoker), Colby's (deli and made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches as well as soups and sides), Sparks (grill and fried selections), Formaggio (pizza, breads, salad bar), S'mores (desserts) and Dashes (grab-and-go).
To date, each of the two residential dining halls serves an average of about 3,100 meals a day, with a food cost of about $2.00 a meal, according to Milius.
The University of Northern Iowa is one of Iowa's three state universities. Founded in 1876 as Iowa State Normal School, it became Iowa State Teachers College in 1909, the State College of Iowa in 1961 and a university in 1967.
Today, it encompasses four undergraduate and one graduate school, offers more than 120 majors and awards six undergraduate and 12 graduate degrees, including doctorates in education and industrial technology.
More than 90% of the students are from in-state. Iowa residents pay $10,648 for tuition, room, board, health and computer fees (the figure is $17,966 for out-of-state students).
A More Perfect Union
Also almost new this semester is the Maucker Union, the completely renovated student union completed in May at the cost of $13.1 million. Maucker encompasses yet another marketplace-style eatery, Prexy's, along with the Chat's coffee shop, a retail store, fitness center and various campus organization offices.
Prexy's has four branded stations, each with a somewhat more extensive menu than the individual stations in the two residential dining halls. One is the nationally branded Blimpie's sandwich outlet, while the other three are internal brands developed by UNI Dining Services: Wasabi (to-order Mongolian grilled items, stir frys, sizzling salads and pastas and to-order cold salads), Flares (grilled and fried foods, rotating potato and sandwich selections, baked potato and nacho bar, burrito and rice wraps, chilis, specialty grilled sandwiches) and Avanti (pizza, calzones, rotating menu of pastas, bread sticks and cheese breads).
A separate grab-and-go area offers soups, pre-made sandwiches and salads, fruit/cheese/ vegetable kits, yogurt, salty snacks and beverages. There is also a gift shop.
Chat's is a specialty coffee bar that also serves Freshen's branded smoothies and yogurts as well as the school's own branded Fresh Beginnings bakery and pastry items and some grab-and-go meal selections.
Chats opens at 7 a.m. during the week and stays open until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. In Prexy's, Blimpie's and the grab-and-go outlet open in the morning (9 for the grab-and-go and 10 for Blimpie's) and stay open until 6:30 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays) while Avanti, Flares and Wasabi only open for lunch (10:30-2:30) during the week. Only Chats is open on weekends.
The new retail options have so far made a big boost in the department's cash revenues, which are currently showing a 150-percent annualized increase from 2000, the last full year before the old union foodservice operation closed down for its renovation. So far, Prexy's check average is $3.83, with as many as 1,570 transactions on the busiest days of the week. Chat's has a check average of $2.17 with a daily high of 1,031 transactions.
So far, Prexy's (exclusive of the licensed Blimpie's unit) accounts for about a fifth of retail sales while almost half are derived at the two c-stores, which together average almost 1,400 transactions daily with a check average of a little more than $3.00. Chat's accounts for about 15 percent of retail revenues, Blimpie's 11 percent, and the three food cart operations the other six percent.
The three carts-Apple Cart and Commodities in classroom buildings and Crunch Break in the recreation center-all offer prepared sandwiches (new sandwiches on freshbaked bread have been an especially big hit, says Milius), fruit, chips, cookies, salads, beverages and hot soups to go. Open only at peak times like the lunch and dinner dayparts, they totaled some 60,000 transactions last school year with an average check of $2.30.
The new attractions like Prexy's and the Rialto are very much needed as UNI has seen significant drops in its resident student population over the past three years because of an enrollment drop and more housing options off campus, Milius reports. Currently, there are about 3,800 on-campus resident students-down from 4,400 three years ago-out of a total enrollment of 12,800. Of the residents, almost 3,500 have mandatory meal plans and about 750 other students have purchased some sort of plan voluntarily. In all, the meal plan brings about $9 million in revenue to the department. Another $2.5 million is derived from retail operations—a healthy jump of about $1 million over four years ago—and catering adds another $700,000.
Making It Memorable
Northern Iowa University's Dining Services Department catered almost 1,400 events last year, including both school-associated functions and some outside social events such as weddings. The school is blessed with three significant venues where catered events can be held: the Commons, which encompasses a spacious ballroom, banqueting rooms of various sizes and a terrace; the Maucker Union and an on-campus performing arts center. Annualized catering revenues are around $700,000.
The catering department, branded under the name “Make It Memorable,” can pull off anything from a gala for several hundred VIPs in the Commons to Tailgate on the Turf, a giant schoolspiritbuilding picnic in the UNI Dome, the oncampus covered athletic field, before the fall's first home football game (actual game concessions are handled by an outside company). Here, several thousand students gather to share a variety of concessions-type fare from buffet serving stations while meeting the players and coaches. One year, the event had to be held outdoors because the dome was being renovated. Fortunately, it was a nice day!
The events are often marketed with a spark of inventiveness, courtesy of Margaret Empie, assistant director of catering and retail services. For example, for a gala dinner prior to a concert appearance by Itzhak Perlman in the oncampus Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, Empie used real musical instrument as centerpieces.“We ended up borrowing the instruments and then had to keep track of them to make sure we returned them to their owners,” she says.
On another occasion, for a President's Club brunch event in the campus wellness & recreation center for some 200 VIP guests who had contributed to making the center possible, “I thought it would be fun to put all the tables on the track, which overlooks the campus,” Empie says. “It was very cool. In between track is swimming pool and we had activities going on in pool all during the event. Everybody thought I was nuts but we pulled it off.”
The event was so “cool,” it won a Loyal E. Horton Dining Award for Special Event Catering last year from NACUFS.
| Part of the recent renovation of the Redeker Center on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa was the development of Fresh Beginnings, the new brand associated with the dining services department's centralized bakery and food commissary. |
UNI had had its own bakery for more than 40 years, but hardly anyone outside the department knew that. Certainly not many of the student customers who enjoyed its exquisite sweets and baked goodies for decades had any idea because, looking at the products, there was no way to tell.
Now, the Fresh Beginnings logo makes their origins clear and provides UNI Dining Services with a powerful branded product line of more than 200 items ranging from mini cream puffs and garlic breadsticks to chicken salad, homemade salsas and “hummus supreme” sandwiches that are sold in various dining halls, cstores, food carts and through the catering operation. The centralized bakery and food production/processing operation also supplies pre-cut vegetables, cheeses and deli meats to the serving stations and catering operation. The bakery can also turn out gourmet-quality cakes and specialty breads for catered functions.
Fresh Beginnings employs five full-time bakers (plus a part-timer), five cooks, five supervisors and managers and 75 students. The production area hums with activity round the clock except for a brief respite to clean up and reorganize at the end of the week. Product is shipped to the various sales points on campus using the department's own two trucks and one van. They begin deliveries at around 5 a.m. and sometimes don't finish until 2 a.m. the next morning.
Last Fall, Fresh Beginnings went through...
22,225 lbs. tomatoes