Campus Dining is one of the commercial arms of the Cal Poly Corporation and offers 18 different restaurants on campus with a variety of cuisines — from classic American food to Asian specialties.
Mike Thornton, director of Campus Dining, said the goal of Campus Dining is to try to figure out how to service the various niche groups of people.
“We think about what the kids are going to want and make up a plan based on several different business models,” Thornton said.
This spring, Campus Dining initiated a brand new nutrition key system at 19 Metro station.
Yukie Nishinaga, the marketing and public relations manager of Campus Dining, said the system of nutrition labels was voted on using student surveys.
“This winter term, we discussed nutrition labeling and information and had almost 200 surveys submitted electronically from all class levels,” Nishinaga wrote in an email. “From the data presented and group discussions, we have gained some great ideas on how to improve our nutrition labeling and information that is presented in the restaurants and online.”
The new key system comes after First Lady Michelle Obama stressed the importance of the front-of-package labeling initiative as a way to prevent obesity.
The nutrition keys developed by Campus Dining consist of calorie content, saturated fat, sodium, sugars, protein and total carbohydrates. Each are also color coded — green means the item has less than 500 calories and blue means the item has more than 500 calories.
“We wanted to comply with the initiative as well as put our own spin on the key,” Thornton said. “We decided to stick with the basics on the label but also kept sodium on there for the faculty.”
Nishinaga said the nutrition keys at 19 Metro station will be a pilot program, and eventually, the labels are expected to be at every Campus Dining facility.
The nutrition labels are only the first of many changes that Campus Dining has been working on.
“Phase two is going to be looking for an effective way to identify foods for those with food sensitivities at each restaurant,” Nishinaga said.
Both Nishinaga and Thornton said it is difficult to perfect how all of the information is presented to consumers at the Campus Dining restaurants.
“It is a struggle for us to decide how to get the information out there without inundating the glass (at 19 Metro Station) or making it confusing,” Thornton said. “There’s a trick on how to give information in a way that (people) can absorb it and still not look crazy.”
With the addition of the nutrition labels at 19 Metro station, comes hope that eventually the information will be available on an application available via cell phone, Thornton said.
As changes continue to be made at Campus Dining, some students still desire more in regard to food quality.
Evan De La Huerta, a materials engineering freshman, said Chick-fil-A is the only place at The Avenue he will eat on campus.
“I don’t trust the Mexican food because bad Mexican food makes your tummy rumble, and I don’t want to chance it,” De La Huerta said. “If the food looked better, I would try it … but I just don’t trust it.”
Therefore, De La Huerta resorts to a Chick-fil-A sandwich and fries, which boast one of the highest calorie meals when combined with a drink, rivaling BackStage Pizza and Topango’s in The Avenue, according to the nutrition facts offered on the Campus Dining website.
With some students and faculty complaining that too many students resort to eating high caloric foods, Thornton said he wants the students to see the nutritional data and make choices about what to eat by themselves.
“You make a choice to go get a taco or Chick-fil-A,” Thornton said. “There are tempting things, but it is our job to provide the things that consumers desire … If the people did not want the food, they wouldn’t buy it, and we wouldn’t continue to offer it.”
Nishinaga said that at one point this year, students flooded her office with calls to bring back the macaroni and cheese near the salad bar when it was replaced with a different dish one week.
“We are doing our best to provide the information necessary for students to make good decisions, but I don’t believe in dictating what you should eat,” Thornton said. “People believe that we should tell you what to eat, but that’s not what we are here for. We are here to provide a service.”
However, students like De La Huerta said having the same options every day gets old.
“I get sick of eating that same shit over and over again,” De La Huerta said. “There’s a reason I don’t like to eat on campus, especially at VG’s — they call it ‘the vag’ for a reason.”
Nishinaga and Thornton both said that complaints like these are heard all the time.
“We tend to get people who complain,” Thornton said. “Sometimes I just think that it’s considered trendy to complain. Many of the freshmen don’t like the idea of having to be on a meal plan but when I sit down and discuss options with them, many do not have too much to say after that.”
Nishinaga said there is a dining advisory committee and a student dining committee, which are comprised of student members who live both on and off campus and come from different majors and years. These students give feedback and help work to make changes for Campus Dining.
“On the student dining committee, we discuss dining-related topics with the goal of sharing information, feedback and insights from the student’s perspective,” Nishinaga wrote in the email. “There is a segment of the meetings called, ‘the customer insights segment,’ where we explore relevant food topics that students want to talk about.”
Nishinaga also said customer feedback is received often.
“(We) are constantly working on ways to better serve the campus community. In addition, we work proactively with a business marketing class to gain customer insights about different dining-related topics through customer interviews, focus groups, and surveys, which are then presented to the management team,” Nishinaga wrote in an email.
Annie Faller, a food science junior, who must work in an array of Campus Dining restaurants as a lab for class, said her only qualm about Campus Dining is that not all of the food utilized by Campus Dining is fresh.
“There is a lot of canned, processed food,” Faller said. “But it is also a matter of cost. It is hard to make that much food using fresh goods, so it is understandable.”
When asking students on campus about VG Café and other on-campus restaurants, most respond with disgusted looks, but Faller said in general, she thinks Campus Dining does a great job considering the high demand for food and the necessity of being cost effective.
“Personally, I didn’t see anything unsanitary,” Faller said. “People think that the food tastes bad (on campus) because it’s unsanitary, but it is a matter of the quality of ingredients that are used. I think that (Campus Dining) is doing a good job but they need to keep listening to what students want.”
Besides food quality, other students, such as kinesiology junior Lauren Matthews, said people with food allergies and intolerances are not accommodated well on campus.
“Many students on campus who have special dietary needs do not have sufficient options on campus,” she said. “The ones that are offered are minimal.”
Nishinaga said Campus Dining does its best to accommodate customers with food allergies or intolerances as much as possible.
“At most restaurants and markets on campus you can find foods that are dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian and even some vegan,” Nishinaga said. “Several of our restaurants offer build-your-own salad bars, sandwiches, burritos, omelets, et cetera, which allow our customers to modify the meals, ingredients and portion sizes.”
At Campus Market there is also a display of gluten-free foods as well as food samplings. On the “Healthy Food Options” page on the Campus Dining website under the Dining Programs tab, foods that are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free are identified, Nishinaga said.
“Most people with food allergies call us, and we have a detailed list to give them of what foods will or will not be appropriate for them each week,” Thornton said.
Nishinaga said she hopes all of the changes at Campus Dining, like the addition of nutrition information at 19 Metro station, the new pizzas and lounge area at BackStage Pizza and a more informative, people-friendly website layout will all positively affect Cal Poly students, faculty and visitors.
“We have been working so hard on allowing students to make the meals that they want to have, and hopefully, these changes, as well as future ones, are helpful to students,” Nishinaga said.