Lucky Seven: Bates Dining Commons

Seven years after opening a new building for the college's dining operation, Bates College keeps counting its lucky stars.

In 2008, Bates College moved its dining operation into a new, $24 million facility, and seven years later there’s no itch in the college’s love affair with the building known simply as The Commons.

Located at a busy campus crossroads, the 60,000 square-foot structure is clad in brick, granite, slate, copper and ample glass. In the collegiate gothic style, “it is not a hip, swinging building but it is a great complement to the Bates campus and it has enormous architectural integrity,” said the late architectural critic and author Philip Isaacson.

Founded by Maine abolitionists in 1855, Bates has always been coed and has never had fraternities or sororities. “The liberal arts college’s dining culture has advanced that community-minded ethos,” says Christine Schwartz, assistant vice president of dining, conferences and campus events at Bates.

Distinctively among private colleges, Bates has just one dining hall for the entire campus and operates its own dining operation. With some 90 employees, Bates Dining Services serves more than 4,800 meals every day of the academic year to 1,700 students.

In the early 2000s, when architectural firm Sasaki Associates began working with Bates on its long-range campus plan, both Dining Services and students re-embraced the tradition of students dining together under one roof. “The traditional model still held,” says Schwartz. “Maybe because our students are so busy, it felt even more important for them to have a home base where they can come together and reconnect over meals.”

The Commons dining operation comprises one large dining hall plus two smaller dining rooms and a mezzanine; a multi-platform servery; kitchen and storage space; and office space.

Sustainably constructed equivalent to LEED Silver rating, Commons also features a fireplace lounge, a study-lounge area and five meeting rooms. Creating meeting spaces reflected the college’s interest in reducing the catering staff’s forays onto campus to deliver meals to 80 locations. “We wanted to bring the catering to us,” she says. And it worked. “Our staff is out a third less than we used to be because it’s convenient for people to meet here.”

Long a leader in sustainable dining, in 2013 Bates Dining earned a third star for sustainability from the Green Restaurant Association, joining just a handful of U.S. colleges or universities with the rating.

Schwartz and Director of Dining Cheryl Lacey recently talked about the simple lessons they’ve learned from their new building – such as “never install any shelving that’s higher than your shortest employee!” – and a number of big lessons they’ve learned as they’ve turned a building into a community-builder.

1. Change Means Opportunity

As Bates planned its new Commons, Schwartz used the impending change as a catalyst for professional development among her staff. “We knew the profile of our work would be very different in a new building. So we asked our staff to ask themselves a question: ‘What you want to do?’ We said that if they want to do something different, come talk to us. If it’s in the realm of possibility, we will help you make the move.'”

The plan paid off in staff satisfaction, as longtime servers moved into the kitchen and dish-room workers moved to the bakery, and so on. “In some cases, this was the first time in their lives that someone asked them, ‘What do you want to do?” says Schwartz.

The building benefited, too. As workers shifted around, their new perspectives informed the design process. “We had people with fresh perspectives looking at the design of the platforms, and they were very engaged,” Schwartz says. “That was the coolest and most fulfilling thing about the whole move.”

2. Stay Flexible

The servery features a marketplace model, where student take their food from one of several platforms – Vegan, Grill, the Round (deli, brick oven, and the salad and pasta bars), Euro and Bakery, as well as Choices, for alternatives such as gluten-free foods.

The Bates team resisted the temptation to define the platforms by menu item. “We didn’t name a taco station, for example,” Schwartz says. “We wanted versatility, and that has paid off.”

The flow of diners to and from the platforms is fluid, easily handling 500 students in a 30- to 45-minute period. “Combine that with open seating areas on two levels and you have a very appealing dining environment,” Schwartz says.

3. It’s A Classroom, Too

Commons is a place to feed intellectual curiosity as well as the body, and Bates Dining gets valuable help from students and faculty who wish to conduct dining- or food-focused projects.

Recent projects have included vegan trends and a scholarly paper by two faculty members who investigated the college’s 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak, and whether the mingling of students in the dining hall helped to spread the virus (it did not).

A student did a senior thesis that compared traditional food thermometers to a newer style, specifically looking at their self-sanitizing capacity to prevent bacterial and allergen cross-contamination. “We found out that the traditional, and much cheaper, style is more effective at preventing cross contamination,” Lacey says.

Recently, psychology students did a survey that measured student awareness of food allergies and cross contamination. “The results helped us create signage to make everyone more aware,” says Lacey. “We live for that sort of thing because it allows us all to be part of a larger Bates experience,” Schwartz says.

4. Know Your Chef

The old Bates dining operation was in a cramped, outdated building, a veritable warren where the chefs did their work far away from dining students. Now, chefs work at platforms out front. For students increasingly curious about their food, this has been a boon for Bates.

But it’s more than just a service relationship where students grill chefs on what’s in the sauce. “It goes beyond that,” says Schwartz. “They can talk about home, life, studies, social life and just what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes students just need an adult they can vent to.”

Schwartz recalls a first-generation-to-college student who was struggling with her life at Bates. “She really found a home here. Her professors knew we were talking to her, and they could check in on her through us. As a group, we then helped to build her confidence and teach her how to succeed.”

5. Trays Be Gone!

Before Bluto piled his tray high with foodstuffs in Animal House, the tray has been a symbol of the college dining experience. But trays are on their way out as dining operations across the country work to reduce waste and discourage overeating. At Bates, tray-free dining is propelled by the dining hall’s layout featuring multiple platforms.

As students take more ownership of their dining experience, they treat each serving like a course in a restaurant. “And that’s what we want,” Schwartz says. “We don’t want you to fill a tray so half the food gets cold while you eat the other half.”

New students still grab a tray and load up, older students know better, Lacey says. “When you’ve been here awhile, you realize you don’t need to – you don’t want to!”

6. The Menu Is Just A Starting Point

Bates students are savvy about what they want to create by mixing and matching items from the several platforms. The most popular foundations are pita pockets, bagels, tortillas and wraps. What emerges can be anything from bruschetta to a strawberry tart, or almost anything with pesto on it. “Students are fantastic chefs in their own right,” says Lacey. “It’s amazing the things they come up with.”

A Bates version of Iron Chef last spring yielded dishes like “Pita with Spiced Shredded Beef and Homemade Yogurt Sauce,” “Toasted Rosemary Borealis Turkey Sandwich,” and “Chicken Pasta Primavera.”

“They are invested in their food. They are always thinking about it,” Schwartz says. “And they don’t want a cafeteria experience. They want a dining experience.” “That takes creativity,” says Schwartz. “I equate it with being in your own kitchen. They feel comfortable enough to say, ‘We own this.’ And that’s wicked cool.”

7. Be Trendy

Since the 1990s, the Bates dining hall has featured a Napkin Board. Students write questions or comments about their food on a real napkin, and an anonymous student replies. The answer is affixed to the napkin and placed on a wall in Commons. There’s an online version, too.

“They love the napkin board,” says Lacey, who estimates that 95 percent of the napkin comments are made on napkins rather than online. The latest trends are diverse. Hot sauces are, well, hot. Frank’s and Tabasco were big; now it’s sriracha and Tapatio. And students, surprisingly, “seem to be connoisseurs of fake maple syrup.”

But students don’t always get what they request. “At some point you have to say no,” explains Schwartz. Take the two recent requests popping up on napkins: new hot sauces, and panini grills. “Hot sauce is cheap and will make students happy, so yes, we’ll do it,” Schwartz says. “Are we going to put out a panini grill? No way.” “Sometimes you can take the napkin comments with a grain of salt. Some requests are important today and gone tomorrow. But some persist, like the latest fad: Reddi-wip.” Cereal tastes change, too, and Lacey just finished a survey that shows a new favorite, Fruit and Yogurt Special K.

When students break bad news to their fellow students, it goes down easier. “If you can get a student to say it to a student, in a way that makes them understand why, all the better,” Lacey says.

About the Author
Jay Burns is the editor of Bates Magazine and editorial director in the Communications Office of Bates College, a nationally recognized residential liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine. He finds that writing about Bates Dining when he's hungry does not aid the creative process.