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UB’s new dining hall redefines campus cuisine

A decade past graduation, Kevin Purdy has fond memories of a freshman year spent living in the University at Buffalo’s Ellicott Complex.

It’s the french fries he’d like to forget.

The dining hall’s were limp and pale, as if “you took an Ore-Ida bag from the freezer and cooked it half of what the directions told you to,” Purdy remembered, wincing.

Forced to buy UB’s dining plan, dormitory freshmen were herded into a boxlike room filled with tacky furniture, and fed from steam tables. Fried chicken and fried fish “had been sitting so long the skin separated entirely from the meat, so when you went at it with a fork, you resurfaced it.”

Like many UB students, once freed from meal plan shackles, Purdy successfully urged his parents to fund a sophomore year food plan that didn’t rely on dining hall attendance.

Earlier this spring I told Purdy, a former student and colleague of mine at The Buffalo News, that UB’s dining hall operator had poured $12 million into a state-of-the-art restaurant-style cafeteria. He was eager to check it out.

He wasn’t alone. Since October, when the Faculty-Student Association opened the Crossroads Culinary Center inside UB’s largest dormitory, the 30,000-square-foot facility has become a highlight of campus tours. Football team recruits and the parents of prospective students are taken through its shining expanses as a matter of course.

Five years of planning and student focus groups, idea-cribbing visits to 20 campuses nationwide, and a spend-what-it-takes attitude have resulted in a cafeteria that aims to redefine American dormitory dining.

Here’s the big picture: 16 months of construction, one-third new and two-thirds renovations, have created what some undergraduates call “resort-style dining.”

Eight mini-restaurants are arranged in a circle, with pastas, calzones, stir-fries, noodle soups and much more made to order. Restaurant flavors include Asian wok dishes, Brazilian churrascaria barbecue, vegetarian, comfort food, pizzeria and desserts. That’s all-you-can-eat for one swipe of the UB dining card, about $9-$13 depending on your plan.

At each station, a video camera focuses on a rotating plate of tonight’s special. As the hungry hordes line up for admittance outside Crossroads’ doors, they glance at a billboard-sized screen that shows individual live shots of tonight’s specials. No more having to hunt around and peer over shoulders to see what’s new.

For a second swipe, you can get the night’s premium dinner: sirloin grilled to order with jumbo shrimp one night, lobster tail the next. Premium customers get a buzzer that lights up when their plate is ready.

Made-while-you-wait dishes aren’t new, but Crossroads has added enough cooks and burners to make good on their promise.

“We had a stir-fry station that moved at the speed of an electric car,” said Purdy. “Took four minutes for each one, so if you wanted to eat with your friends, you couldn’t. Now you have six stations like that.”

Smartly decorated areas offer a variety of surroundings, from long communal tables to soft couches near the central fireplace. There are secluded nooks for couples, high counters with stools and plentiful electrical outlets, for students whose dining companion is their laptop.

“It looks like you’re eating at Ma Peche right there,” Purdy said, referring to David Chang’s Manhattan restaurant. “This is 200 percent better than it was.”

From the grand plan to the little touches: At Crossroads, tap water comes in still or sparkling. The silverware is real, heavy, bought from a local supplier at a cost of $4 per fork and spoon. The waffle irons on the make-your-own breakfast station are crafted to emboss the UB logo into every confection.

The customized waffle irons come to mind when people ask, as many do: How on earth can you spend $12 million on a campus cafeteria?

First, you have to recognize that’s it’s not a purebred commercial restaurant; it’s the flagship operation of the Faculty-Student Association, better known as UB Campus Dining and Shops, which is a nonprofit corporation created in the 1960s to run dining halls in UB dormitories and classroom buildings.

For years, FSA saw its food contract numbers drop in the spring semester, as students who had a choice to leave the plan exercised it. The existing Red Jacket kitchen could hardly do better. “Given the space and limited equipment, we had to have 50 percent of the meal cooked and in warming boxes by 3 p.m.,” said Jeff Brady, FSA executive director.

Determined to not just upgrade but also create a showcase, FSA staff studied. Besides visits to schools like Purdue, San Diego State and Cornell, Brady said, they conferred with quick-serve chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s. When they identified better pizza as a goal, they met with Buffalo’s Rich Products. “We went to them and said, ‘You can have this station if you can perfect the New York pizza in a personal pan,’ ” Brady said. After two months, demonstration pizzas were served to students, Brady said. “They said, ‘Please get rid of the pizza you’re serving now; we want this.’ ”

Give the students what they want and they’ll come back, Brady said. But FSA tries to give parents what they want, too, offering a staff dietitian to consult with parents of students who are gluten-free, have peanut allergies or other significant food issues. “Our dietitian goes shopping every day at Wegmans for students who have allergies, and need stuff our vendors can’t supply,” said Brady. Vegan and kosher options are a daily fact.

The determination to create a showcase went further than food. After study, FSA decided Crossroads wouldn’t have trays, because they contribute to food waste, memorably demonstrated by Bluto Blutarsky in “Animal House.”

Crossroads also redid the garbage. Students have been conditioned to take their plates to “the river,” a 6-inch-wide, water-filled gully than runs beside a rubber conveyor belt. Napkins and food waste gets scraped into the water, which carries it away. Plates and glasses go on the belt, and the silverware goes into a hatch underneath.

The river’s sediment is captured, ground and turned into compost, along with other kitchen food waste. It’s part of the plan to have the Crossroads building certified as partly environmentally compliant.

How’s it working so far?

With 6,000 people on FSA meal plans, “every spring the numbers go down,” Brady said. “This spring, for the first time in history, an additional 302 students signed to the meal plan. That has never happened before.”

Even students are impressed. Freshman Westin Doney lives a mile away in the Governors dormitory complex, and walks to Crossroads for dinner. “It has fresher food, more made to order, and the overall quality of food is far better,” said Doney. Plus he gets lobster and steak regularly, like he never did at home.

Doney even talks up Crossroads to parents who call the honors program where he answers the phone. “It’s one of those things, that extra little thing, that gets them interested enough to come visit,” he said.

“The best word I’ve heard to describe it is ‘resort-style’ dining,” said Megan Leach, a senior.Leach, a resident adviser, does tours for prospective parents. Purdy’s generation may have been steered away, but today UB is betting that the path to students’ hearts, and their parents’ wallets, is though their stomach.

“It’s innovative, and they get a little more excited,” Leach said of parents. Tours used to “avoid the dining hall,” she said. “Now we go not only because the atmosphere’s better, but the food’s better. You can tell it’s made by people who care.”