Fifteen years ago, Texas Tech University decided to transform the way it fed students by discontinuing the traditional all-you-can-eat, cafeteria-style format in favor of a retail, al la carte system. The decision was a success, as students now have access to variety of menu items designed to meet every culinary preference.
Today, there are more than 20 concept-driven eateries spread across the 1,839-acre Lubbock-based campus, including food courts, retail locations, mini-markets and all-you-care-to-eat (AYCE) options. “It’s what was happening on college campuses,” says Kirk Rodriguez, director of Hospitality Services.
Certainly there is no shortage of culinary choices at Texas Tech. Students can stop in at one of six Sam’s Place mini-markets to grab a snack between classes. The eateries also feature various al la carte concepts, including sandwiches, pizza, Asian dishes, subs, salads, chicken selections and Mexican choices. There are also two Quiznos locations on campus. Meanwhile, Sam’s Express kiosks are located in select academic buildings and feature a variety of grab-n-go items, snacks and bottled beverages.
Students seeking a wider variety of menu items or the chance to sit down to a complete meal can visit one of the university’s food courts. The Commons food court, for example, is a 20,500-square-foot two-story, stand-alone dining facility featuring a mini-market along with various food outlets, including Einstein Bros. Bagels, a Mongolian style grill and an Italian restaurant.
The department recently added the “StrEat” food truck to the mix. The truck travels the campus and serves various sandwiches, tacos, side dishes and beverages.
Student expectations played a big role in the university’s decision to change its culinary offerings. “Students are more knowledgeable,” Rodriguez says. Additionally, 40 percent of the university’s students hail from large urban areas across Texas, represent numerous cultures and have myriad food preferences.
The hospitality department makes its initial impression on first-year students, who live on campus and are required to purchase the university’s dining plan. “We want to provide choice,” Rodriguez says. Students have a variety of meal plan options from which to choose depending on how much they like to eat and snack, Rodriguez says.
Approximately 5,000 commuter students signed up for the meal plan last year, an indication of its popularity. “We do a lot of student benchmarking,” Rodriguez says. “They expect to be wowed.” Offering quality and choice is important because the on-campus eateries are not the only game in town. Fast-food restaurants and other establishments line the street across from campus and offer students an alternative.
The Hospitality Services department focuses on offering nutritional information to students to help them make appropriate dietary choices. It has a full-time dietitian on its staff. “She works with students one-on-one,” Rodriguez says. “That’s also very comforting for parents.”
In addition to the advice and direction the dietitian offers, the hospitality department’s website provides detailed information about the caloric, fat, protein, carb and fiber content of practically all of its menu offerings, Rodriguez says. Information about gluten-free food, food allergies and dietary needs also is provided.
The university’s Smart Choices program is another way the hospitality department is helping students make healthy dining choices, Rodriguez says. The program labels Grab-n-go choices with Smart Choices stickers.
The hospitality program has taken steps to ensure the food is not wasted. The department routinely prepares, packages and freezes food, which is delivered to kitchens that feed the needy and after-school programs. In fact, it purchased a blast chiller to store food designated for donation.
Service is the other component of which the hospitality program is very proud. Rodriguez recounts a letter that a foodservice worker received from a recent graduate, who thanked him for being friendly and having a smile on his face every day. “It goes beyond food to the attitude of the staff and the connection they make with students,” he says.