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Colleges whet students' appetites

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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

Robert Morris University senior Ryan Phillis had just finished lunch in his school's new $2 million cafeteria when he compared it to a mix between T.G.I. Friday's and Eat'n Park.

"I didn't expect it to be this nice. It doesn't look anything like it used to," said Phillis, 22, as ESPN scores flashed across a nearby flat-screen TV. "It's nice to see that what you pay is put towards something nice."

Robert Morris joined several other area colleges this year in upgrading its dining facilities -- a popular trend as universities try to attract students and compete with each other. The school, and its vendor Parkhurst Dining Services of Homestead, modernized the seating area while offering students more food choices with healthier options.

"Quite frankly, I think students expect it. It's their home," said Jonathan Potts, Robert Morris spokesman. "I think over the last several years, residential and dining facilities have gotten much, much nicer. Students have a certain level of expectation about where they're living and eating that maybe students didn't have 20 years ago."

Besides installing flat-screen TVs, the Robert Morris upgrade includes tiered seating and selections from at least eight food stations.

At La Roche College in McCandless, renovations last year at its main cafeteria opened it up with high ceilings and lots of windows in its seating area. The college offers food stations similar to Robert Morris, using SAGE Dining Services of Lutherville, Md., as its food provider.

"I think the food is good compared to what I had in high school and other schools I visited," said La Roche freshman Ana Smalley, 18, of Crafton, as she finished a lunch of pizza, pasta and fries. "My dad thought the food was good."

Nicer dining isn't just for schools where students live on campus. Butler County Community College, to which students commute, invested $1.4 million in its renovated 170-seat cafeteria, said Susan Changnon, director of communications and marketing.

The Pioneer Cafe got a kitchen upgrade in 2010 that included a wood-fire brick oven for pizzas, while the seating area features a wireless Internet connection and flat-screen TVs, she said.

"The entire dining area upgrade looks like a Panera Bread setting," Changnon said. "Part of it is just being competitive. Food is evolving."

Healthy eating is popular and many of the dining service providers make the meals from scratch using local ingredients. Tom Gregg, vice president for operations at Grove City College, said its food vendor, Bon Appetit, follows that trend. Grove City upgraded its dining facilities five years ago, he said.

"Variety is the key to keeping people happy. I think there's a greater interest in healthy options," said Gregg, who noted that students today have experienced more types of food than in the past. "Their tastes are more discriminating and we need to understand and accommodate that."

Schools such as Geneva College in Beaver Falls have added at least one environmentally conscious procedure for its upgraded cafeteria. Dining trays are a thing of the past, said Cheryl Johnston, director of marketing services and public relations.

The college first got rid of the trays as a trial for a month. Then, student government voted on whether to continue the practice. Fifty-five percent of students voted to go "trayless," Johnston said. They now carry just their plates of food to their tables.

"Students will not get as much food to waste without a tray. Food waste was reduced 45 percent," Johnston said. The school saved $250 on its water bill during the monthlong trial because it did not have to wash trays.

The schools emphasized using food produced locally.

That helps keep food fresher, said Russ Williams, Parkhurst general manager at Robert Morris. Twenty percent of the produce at RMU comes from farms within 125 miles, he said.

"It definitely makes a difference, and we do market that. I think students look at that more than we think they do," Williams said.

"Students themselves are a lot more knowledgeable, and their standards are higher."





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