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Colleges boosting cuisine St. Bonaventure among schools whose menu is improving

Chicken a la King is on the afternoon menu.

Pork stir fry is cooked to your liking on the spot.

Try the vegetable lasagna, whip up your own waffles or gorge at the ice cream bar -- there's plenty to go around.

It's lunch time at St. Bonaventure University.

Sick of perennially making the list of college campuses with the worst food, St. Bonaventure spent nearly $4 million last summer overhauling its dining hall and menu and greeted students in the fall with a whole new culinary experience.

"The facility is beautiful, and the food is 100 times better than what it was," said Curtis Middlebrooks Jr., 20, as he munched on clam strips. "There's so much more variety."

It's not the only campus concerned about its food.

Colleges across the country are spending millions to turn outdated cafeterias into cool cafes, cozy coffee shops and chic bistros, where the menus have been expanded.

Why get Sloppy Joes, when there's Thai Chicken Curry with steamed rice?

Cheeseburger? How about a Teriyaki Swiss Burger?

Pass on the fish sticks. Grab the vegan wrap with soy cheddar cheese, avocado, alfalfa sprouts and dill dressing -- rolled into a whole wheat tortilla shell, of course.

"The bar has been raised, as far as students' level of expectations for food service on campus," said Jodi Smith, marketing director for the National Association of College & University Food Services. "They expect to see the same diversity, quality and price they see off campus."

Changes in campus cuisine began five to 10 years ago, in part, because colleges faced more competition from restaurants and fast-food joints sprouting up nearby, Smith said.

Geneseo State College, for example, spent nearly $5 million in 2003 to turn an old dining hall into a two-story food court.

Fredonia State College last fall completed a multimillion-dollar renovation and addition to include a Starbucks, convenience store and a marketplace-style dining area.

Today's students come from more diverse backgrounds, have more diverse tastes and want greater choice when it comes time to eat, said Charles Notaro, associate vice president and executive director of the Faculty Student Association at Fredonia.

"The food always has been good here, but there wasn't the choice or the flexibility," Notaro said. "You have to keep changing."

There's also greater awareness among students about diabetes, food allergies and eating a balanced diet, compelling colleges to turn campus kitchens over to dietitians and chefs, who are dishing up a wide array of foods, from Thai to Latin to Indian, Smith said.

And don't underestimate what good food can do for a school.

"Colleges have realized a good food service program is a wonderful way to attract students," said Ginny Geer-Mentry, director of dining at Geneseo. "That's one of the things they want to see when they tour the campus."

At St. Bonaventure, Hickey Dining Hall hadn't been renovated since the 1970s and was overdue for a makeover.

School officials decided to move up the renovation timetable in 2003, when St. Bonaventure hit No. 1 on a list of campuses with the worst food.

The Princeton Review -- a New York City-based company known for its educational services, books and test-prep courses -- surveys students at the top 361 colleges in the nation and annually ranks the schools in more than 60 categories.

The controversial ratings guide named St. Bonaventure No. 1 for the worst campus food three straight years, until last year -- when it ranked No. 2.

The food wasn't bad, said Brenda McGee Snow, vice president for business and finance.

But, she said, the university's own survey did show problems. Students, for example, wanted fresher foods, more variety and better hours of operation at "The Hickey."

"We weren't aware of the depth of dissatisfaction from the student body," Snow said. "We got the message loud and clear."

So, the university borrowed the money and last summer overhauled Hickey into a brighter, more airy dining atmosphere.

Under construction is an attached coffee house, with wireless Internet, double-sided fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Aramark, a food services company, was hired to run operations and revamp the menu, which now boasts a bountiful variety of breads, cereals, soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas, desserts or grub from the grill.

Freshman Jayme Vacheresse admits the reputation the school earned from the Princeton Review survey made her a little apprehensive.

"I'm a picky eater," said Vacheresse, 18. "But the food's OK."

The menu changes from lunch to dinner, and most of the entrees are served only once every three to four weeks to avoid repetition, said Anthony Criscone, senior food service director.

But there are still the college staples -- a brick oven stays stoked, baking an average of 70 pizzas each lunch and dinner.

There are also plenty of options for vegans, the health conscientious or those in need of some home cooking, like Southern-fried chicken or meatloaf.

Upperclassmen, like Middlebrooks and Anthony Coccia, can taste the difference.

"Last year, it was all Prego and Ragu," said Coccia, 21, as he finished a bowl of ice cream. "Now, it's actually homemade sauce."

Criscone is hoping the changes are a little more palatable for St. Bonaventure, which also ranks in the Princeton Review among hard-drinking schools.

"I don't think we want to be known as a party school with bad food," Criscone said.

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com.

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