Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 3
Spring 1992

Hokies gobbling food in more appetizing settings

by Richard Lovegrove

Flash back to your college days and those hours you spent eating. For graduates of virtually any university, dining consisted of little more than staring at the same institutional walls while picking away at the latest mystery meat, macaroni surprise, or limp vegetable cooked into a tasteless mush. Choices were nonexistent.

Now fantasize about how things could be improved. Imagine being able to dine occasionally on rib eye steak or seafood imperial at a reservations-only facility. On other days, you might be able to choose the salad bar, potato bar, special pasta, or Mexican food. And if none of that suits, you could amble over to the food court and, by using cash from the meal plan you already paid for, choose from one of 10 food outlets. Then, if the food still does not meet your standards, you can complain to someone who will listen and follow up.

That fantasy is reality at Virginia Tech. Culinary Services, led by director John C. Engstrom, has introduced what he calls an "explosion of change" to make eating at the university a more palatable experience. In addition, the department has moved into direct marketing, selling its services at the Hokie Grill & Co. and the newly opened Owens Food Court to faculty and staff members.

While no one dreams at this point they can eliminate the old dining hall image, the new culinary services and the more attractive alternatives have drawn 8,700 dining package buyers on campus and another 3,500 from off campus. "That's 2,500 more than last year. I guess we're making some people happy," says Bruce Jensen, assistant director for strategic marketing. "If you don't do a good job, you might have only 8,000."

The newest addition to the package is the Owens Food Court, a collection of outlets such as Wok of the Town, Tour of America, La Cantina, and Sweet Temptations. Students who decide to eat there can convert credit for a meal from their meal plan to a set amount of cash toward their purchase. If the food runs over that set amount, they pay the difference from their pockets. Staff and faculty members also can purchase "dining dollars" for use at the food court.

Culinary Services has improved the look of the regular dining halls, and when they designed the food court they avoided institutional stainless steel and other reminders of dining hall nightmares. Diners still have to deal with the lines at busy times, but seating is more like a restaurant, and ever-changing decorations allow for different looks. "Food is important to the well-being of the human being" and if students eat better, they do better in school, says Jensen when asked about why the university should bother with improvements. "Students have enough pressure already with what they're here for."

Student's complaints continue, of course, and Jensen knows it will always be that way. "Their perception is: ‘I paid $700 [the cost of board for a semester] for this meal, so why aren't I happy?'" Jensen says. There's simply no way to please everyone. For example, when Culinary Services heard from numerous students they really liked buffet-style dining at banquets, a buffet system was installed. "But now we hear from the folks who don't like it," Jensen says.

Students have someone to gripe to now. Laura Worley, a 1991 Virginia Tech graduate who worked as a student manager in the dining halls, acts as a consumer advocate for the students, trying to provide "what they want, not what is easiest or what we think they want." She fields the complaints, calls the students, and then follows up with a letter. If it's evident the diner had a particularly bad meal, she'll arrange for a replacement. "I do more than they [the students] ever thought I would," Worley says.

More changes are on the way. A cook-chill system being considered would give foods a longer refrigerator life, allowing Culinary Services to prepare more items further ahead. One result would be labor savings that would allow the department to pay for more highly skilled cooks. It also could result in students being able to choose from a "food library" if they don't like what they see on the line.

Four stars from three alums

Jim Dymock's ('52) memories of "awful" dining hall chocolate pudding are so vivid that, to this day, he cannot eat the stuff. He still can envision a spoon sinking through the thick pudding crust. Ron Gibbs ('66) remembers enjoying Sunday breakfast because it was the only time he could get fried eggs, and fried eggs guaranteed they were not powdered.

Dymock, Gibbs, and Rita Purdy ('63) got together recently at the new Owens Food Court to check out the way students can eat today, and to compare the cuisine and the setting with their memories of college dining. All were favorably impressed.

"This is enough for three days. I didn't eat like this when I was a freshman," said Purdy, who is an associate dean in the College of Human Resources. She had just ordered a heaping plate of Oriental food. "There's no reason in this facility you wouldn't find something you'd want."

The old days weren't this good, according to the three. "There was a fixed menu with virtually no choices," said Dymock, who runs the Davidsons clothing store in Blacksburg. "It was not the greatest, but it wasn't that bad....When I look around at this, this is just mind-boggling to me."

"There was virtually no choice," said Gibbs, who works at Management Systems Lab and is president of the local alumni chapter. "This is quite tasty."

With the exception of powdered eggs and crusty chocolate pudding, Purdy, Gibbs, and Dymock had few truly awful memories of student dining. The lines were long, the settings bland, and, primarily, the choices were much more limited than today. "You might have had two meats," Dymock said. "It was strictly on the assembly line."

By comparison, the Owens Food Court, where students can eat when they choose by converting meals from their regular dining plan to set dollar amounts, offers 10 food venues. Even the regular dining halls offer more variety on the line, as well as salad, pasta, and Mexican food bars. Future plans call for new equipment that will allow Culinary Services to cater to highly specialized diets or ethnic tastes.

The changes, of course, have not eliminated the long line or the occasional caustic letter to the Collegiate Times bemoaning "hamburger frisbees" or the lack of some favorite. But Purdy says she sees much of the complaining as the natural reactions of students who are unaware of the challenges of cooking in quantity, and who have yet to appreciate the convenience of having practically every meal prepared for them. "What students need is a good dose of reality," Purdy said.

There seemed to be little doubt what Purdy, Gibbs, and Dymock would do if given the choice between student dining in their days and college cuisine now. "There's been so much change at the university...the place has been transformed," Purdy said. "The food has changed in the same way."

Virginia Tech Magazine, Volume 14, Number 3, Spring 1992