By Anne Hartman Raether
When food is in season, the UChicago campus will see a lot of it.
For the summer months, this meant a variety of dishes with asparagus—chefs served it roasted for the salad bar, drizzled with a sweet chili sauce, and in soy sauce with beef and noodles. Fall also promises a bevy of fresh fruits and vegetables from the region, like pumpkin, squash, and sweet potatoes.
Bon Appétit Management Company began operating as the campus’s primary food service provider July 1, and is now serving the residential dining commons, academic cafés, and retail markets. It was the company’s dedication to preparing healthy, locally sourced meals—along with a host of other qualifications—that led to Bon Appétit being selected as the food service provider, said Richard Mason, executive director of UChicago Dining.
Campus diners can expect to see some differences with the transition to Bon Appétit, especially in the variety and presentation of the food and the availability of made-from-scratch dishes. Retail locations, for instance, feature similar concepts to what had previously existed, but the fare is “elevated in taste and quality of ingredients,” said Stacey Brown, assistant director of dining operations. Campus diners can now enjoy hand-tossed pizzas with house-made dough from Hutchinson Commons, made-to-order pies and quiches at the Press Café, Asian-inspired bowls at the Gordon Café, and sandwiches from an Italian-style deli in Midway Market.
There are also familiar mainstays, like the Kosher, Zabiha Halal, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan stations in the residential dining commons. Students still have the opportunity to meet with UChicago Dining’s registered dietician, who can assist with meal planning, and participate in the Saturday Night Social Club or Mystery Diners Program.
A committee comprised of students, staff, and Resident Masters assisted UChicago Dining in the decision-making process, and ultimately decided that Bon Appétit could best fulfill students’ desires for a variety of healthy, locally sourced meals.
Michael Meng, a third year who helped select Bon Appétit as a member of the Student Government Dining Advisory Board, saw both immediate and future potential in the vendor. “Kitchen enhancements, trainings, a potential in-house bakery, and special events are just some of the goals that Bon Appétit expressed when bidding on the University’s contract. I can’t wait to see how far Bon Appétit will progress during my time as a student,” Meng said.
Bon Appétit also stood out as a vendor because it breaks with a common trend in the food service industry to adapt a four-week-cycle menu, planning out a month’s worth of meals at a time. Instead, the company takes a different approach, thinking up breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare one week at a time. This gives chefs more flexibility—they can better consider the availability of fresh, locally grown ingredients and incorporate feedback from diners.
“So often we’ve been disconnected from our food, and so I think it really harkens back to much more sustainable practice,” Mason said of Bon Appétit’s approach to meal planning.
The shift to Bon Appétit will also mean a shift to a more chef-driven culture. Bon Appétit places an emphasis on training and developing the culinary skills of new and veteran UChicago Dining staff, and chefs are encouraged to take part in menu planning. The approach, Mason said, translates to an increased sense of pride among chefs and a higher-quality and greater variety of food.
“The community approach that Bon Appétit takes through their local hiring, local purchasing, the development of their staff, and building people up is consistent with UChicago Dining and with the University,” Mason said.
Bon Appétit is also dedicated to engaging with the greater community—the company is working with UChicago Local and the Office of Business Diversity to solidify partnerships with local businesses and farms in the region that can provide ingredients.
“As we look to fall, I just want students to be excited about the fun, positive changes they’ll see in the food that we offer, and the quality of the experience,” Brown said.
“We want to create distinctiveness because we want to have places that draw people in, bring people together, and build on the community. So if a place has a really good sandwich, you can get your friends together to try it, and there’s another opportunity to get together, talk, and bond,” Mason said.