It’s 4:55 p.m. on a Monday afternoon and about 20 students from CSU Monterey Bay are waiting outside the dining hall entrance, waiting for the magical moment when the door is unlocked. Inside, there is an abundance of food waiting at several stations. The aroma of pizza, roast meats and taco toppings fills the room.
When the door opens and the students check in, most of them make their way to three very large pizzas waiting at the Italian food station called “Cucina”.
Pizza is arguably the favorite everyday menu item at The Eatery, the new name for the university’s communal dining hall. Tonight they serve big slices of sausage, pepperoni and classic cheese. The evening pasta dish is fettuccine Alfredo. Nearby, at the “Flame” station, which emphasizes comfort food, three dishes are offered: roast turkey, creamy polenta and tomato compote. A few students go there and a few others go to “La Mesa”, the taco bar.
Such choices are standard and expected in college dining halls. But there’s more to this new iteration of the CSUMB dining room as a nationwide company, Chartwells Higher Education (a division of parent company Compass Group), took over food concessions at the university this semester. Chartwells has contracts at over 300 campuses across the United States, but it’s not easy. In fact, the company takes pride in creating programs that are unique to each campus. At CSUMB, the food services are called Otter Kitchens and the food program is designed to meet the needs and interests of college students.
The company is also committed to serving students with different dietary needs and interests. For example, to the right of the popular pizza station is the “Rooted” station, dedicated to vegetarian and vegan meals made with alternative proteins like beans, peas and quinoa.
“We don’t use ‘fake’ meats,” says Mary Russo, executive director of Otter Kitchens. “Our vegetarian and vegan menus are quite comprehensive. We spend a lot of time sprucing them up with toppings, changing them up, and making sure they’re colorful, appetizing, and nutritionally healthy.
Rooted is popular even among carnivorous students who want to incorporate more plant-based meals. Marketing Director Alexandra Perez says she’s noticed there are more vegetarian and vegan students at CSUMB, and even President Eduardo Ochoa is vegan. “We are trying to integrate this into our strategy,” she said.
Next to Rooted inside The Eatery is the “G8,” representing gluten-free and the eight common allergens: wheat, eggs, dairy, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, peanuts. G8 serves dishes free of these items and prepared in a separate area with its own set of cooking and serving utensils to prevent cross-contamination.
“Someone with a food allergy can safely walk into our dining room and know that if they eat at this station, they won’t encounter any of the major allergens,” says Russo. The station gets “a lot of people” every day, with even students without allergies lining up there.
Otter Kitchens’ reach also extends outside of The Eatery.
The restaurant service contracts with Ace Sushi, which makes fresh rolls every day at CSUMB’s convenience store, the Sea Store. “Their team of chefs are there, and from morning until they leave they never stop,” said Managing Director Michael Rodgers.
And playing on the popularity of ghost kitchens, a trend started in New York City for food to be delivered or taken out only, Otter Kitchens has launched its own – simply called “Ghost Kitchen” – which opens after 8pm when other restaurants in the area. campuses are closed. Students can order dishes like tacos, chicken breasts or fried waffles from the company’s mobile app, pay for them in the app, and then pick them up at the student union. The plan is to change the menu often based on student feedback, Russo says.
Even though Ghost Kitchen is only a few weeks old, it’s already proven successful, according to Rodgers. Keeping abreast of trends, as well as the needs and wants of students, is an integral part of the company’s culture. “The culinary world is constantly evolving,” says Rodgers. “As trends change, we want to change with them so that we don’t get left behind. “