San Diego State University Dining Services

One of the most memorable scenes in “Animal House” is the food fight in the college’s cafeteria, which is started by Bluto, played by John Belushi. Before the fight starts, however, the movie shows the state of university dining services as they used to be. Bluto walks into a poorly lit cafeteria and piles his tray with donuts, plates of Jell-O and dishes of meat covered in plastic. This unappetizing offering is no longer an archtype of the college experience, and San Diego State University (SDSU) is a prime example of how much the dining experience can improve.

“We have a culinary-driven program,” Director of Dining Services Paul Melchior explains. “I am an executive chef by trade, and we have an executive chef on staff who oversees all of the products on campus. Culinary managers oversee all of our grab-and-go locations, which is another way we help to ensure quality.”

SDSU sells thousands of salads and sandwiches at its grab-and-go locations each week, but that is just one aspect of what the dining services program offers. The system has more than 20 restaurants; a dining room that offers hot, home-style entrees and bars with traditional foods from around the world; and its Culinary Theater, which has become quite popular, Melchior says. The theater’s recent menus have included a “black and blue” duck salad, country pulled chicken and buttermilk biscuit sliders, seared salmon steaks with chipotle-ponzu citrus salsa, and a roasted N.Y. strip loin with horseradish agave cream.

“The Culinary Theater is open Monday through Thursday,” he says. “It serves one item and beverages, and the special item changes everyday. We have an average of 175 customers at the Culinary Theater each day, and all of them can interact with the chef.”

Attractive Options

SDSU has about 30,000 students annually, and 3,000 of them live on campus – the dining plan is part of the on-campus room and board package. To attract students, faculty and staff who are not on the plan, the Dining Services program employs an extensive cross-campus marketing strategy.

“We have a marketing department that always has a lot of ideas and programs to attract new customers,” Melchior says. “We just started a ‘daily deals’ program where people can scan a QR [quick response] code on one of our posters anywhere on campus. When they scan the code, they can ‘like’ us on our Facebook page and then get a coupon for a deal. There are deals for locations all over campus, and they only are available for specific times.”

SDSU Dining also continues to add options that give customers greater control in their meals. Its salad bars have more than 100 ingredients to choose from, as well as a variety of dressings and grilled proteins. On Friday nights, one of its locations has a build-your-own pizza station, which attracts about 500 people each week, Melchior says. Customers choose a par-baked crust and select from a variety of sauces and toppings. A chef then cooks it for them.

“We also have a farmer’s market that is very popular,” Melchior adds. “It is set up like a street scene, and there are many different food options. Students like that all of the food is cooked out in the open because they see it as being fresher, although all of our facilities cook with fresh ingredients. When our new facilities open, they will have totally open kitchens, so students and staff will be able to see the action throughout the entire preparation process.”

SDSU currently is in the middle of a remodeling phase. The school is building a new student union, which will have four new restaurants as well as a ballroom and catering kitchen. Additionally, the university is adding a convenience store, a Starbucks location and a place where students will be able to do more of their own cooking. Melchior is confident these programs and facilities will yield much growth for Dining Services.

“Our culinary driven nature leads us to continually improve,” he stresses. “We conduct a customer-satisfaction survey each year, and in the last three years we’ve scored above the regional and national mediums. Our average score was a 4.1 out of 5, with 5 being most satisfied. We are serious about quality, serious about value, and I am proud that our team is able to deliver on those goals.”