University of South Carolina's Food Service: On the Road to Renovation

Two years ago, the University of South Carolina in Columbia faced a problem common to many other universities: institutional-looking food service facilities with outdated cooking techniques and little money in the budget to improve them. Today, we completed the first two phases of our food service renovations and are well into phase three. Prior to the renovations, the facilities were vintage early '70s and were dated by the excessive use of school colors and unremarkable décor. When students returned to campus following the renovations, they could hardly believe they were in the same space. The Russell House Student Union is now an open, platform-style dining facility with grandé archways, rich brick and dark cherry accents on the lower level and a more casual atmosphere upstairs decorated in neutral tones and livened up by colorful coffee house furnishings. All four residential dining halls have also been redone, each with their own unique theme. In addition to increased student and faculty satisfaction with the food and facilities, dining revenues have increased 18 percent over the last year. So how did USC manage to undertake this $13.2-million, three-year expansion plan during a time of shrinking state budgetary support?

As we approached the expiration of our foodservice contract, we realized that we had a unique opportunity. Rather than allowing the vendor to determine how much they would be willing to offer the university, we put ourselves in driver’s seat. We determined a minimum financial contribution that any vendor would be required to make to the project in order to respond to the RFP. Requiring this capital contribution would enable us to use our limited resources to focus on the basic infrastructure renovations needed to deliver raw space to the vendor. They could then use their expertise to update the space to reflect the latest in food service trends. And by extending the contract term to 15 years, we gave the vendor a long period over which their investment in our facilities could be amortized.

Ultimately, USC decided to forge this new 15-year partnership with Sodexho. They worked closely with the administration and students to gather their insights and staged the work to allow a continuation of full food service delivery on campus while renovations were underway.

The renovations commenced in November of 2002 with Russell House, which underwent a dramatic $5-million transformation. The once lackluster cafeteria has been reinvigorated with a mixture of both national and in-house brands. Among the offerings are Pandini’s, a made-to-order pizza; Zia’s juice bar, serving fruit smoothies; a Cinnabons bakery with fresh-baked cinnamon rolls; and Seattle’s Best Coffee. There is an assortment of other restaurant-quality menu choices including salads, freshly prepared Sushi, a deli and grill items. The more relaxed second floor is now easily accessible by a central staircase, which further contributes to the overall concept of openness and light. There, students can choose from national brands such as Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Einstein’s Bagels and Mein Bowl. In addition, an adjacent outdoor seating area was established with native palmettos to allow students to enjoy the surroundings while they eat.

The renovation of our first residential dining facility was inspired by a retro '50s diner theme. The $650,000 transformation created an upbeat ambiance with bright colors; neon lights, diner-style tiles; an old-fashioned soda fountain with shakes, sundaes and ice cream; and a char-grill serving traditional favorites and comfort foods. To keep up with modern tastes, the facility offers pizza, a deli, a salad bar and a“Fire and Ice” feature which is a cook-to-order station. The other three residential dining facilities have been completed, each with their own unique theme and atmosphere.

Students now have the opportunity to choose from a selection of dining halls that no longer have that outdated cafeteria feel and are more like the restaurant. In addition, we have added small satellite food service locations throughout campus offering an assortment of grab-and-go goodies such as pre-made sandwiches, coffee and other sweets. These have become an increasingly popular option and are quite lucrative, as well.

More and more, students are factoring food service into the equation when choosing a school. They have come to expect dining facilities that offer them variety, nutrition and flexibility in their diets, along with a modern atmosphere that creates a comfortable environment in which to eat, study and socialize. One of the benefits of choosing a major national vendor like Sodexho is that they are on top of these trends.

USC now offers its students and staff 23 different food service locations from which to choose. As a part of the new contract, we meet yearly with Sodexho officials to address menu changes, facilities needs, meal plans and other related issues to ensure that our dining operations remain on the cutting edge and that the expectations of our students are continually exceeded.

Helen Zeigler is director of Business Affairs at the University of South Carolina at the Columbia campus in Columbia, S.C.