From the first busy days at Ullman Commons, when most students arrived in fall, lines have been seen at the Mongolian grill and the build-your-own-sandwich deli. Routines are taking shape. One professor heads down the steps toward Memorial Parkway with a salad from Ullman To Go, while another holds “office” hours over hummus and pita bread on the east balcony overlooking Kingsmen Park.
In evenings, as shrimp and more fish for dinner appear upstairs, public lectures and career workshops get going in the downstairs conference rooms. Starbucks, one of the largest in the region with seating for 65 indoors and 50 on Jack’s Corner patio (named for the late donor and former regent Jack Gilbert), closes only from midnight to 7 a.m.
The rhythms of campus life are changed because of the $15 million, 20,000-square-foot hub newly installed at the center. According to Tom Visvikis, who oversees Ullman Commons as Cal Lutheran’s new director of auxiliary services, efforts to drive students to the new facility’s eateries have worked so well that other venues will probably have to be reimagined. (No longer the modern place to eat on campus, the Centrum Café suddenly feels removed from the center of things. It may ultimately be converted into a branded franchise or a similar concept within the repertoire of Sodexo, Cal Lutheran’s food services contractor.)
With his experience with strategic planning for kitchens and caterings at large companies including Microsoft and Amgen, Visvikis can guess what his younger and hungrier clientele is now about to demand.
“Whenever you have a locked-in audience: it’s change,” says Visvikis, about seven weeks into the semester. “The Ullman Commons is great, but in two more months, it’s, ‘OK, now what have you done for me?’ And I’m already starting to hear that.”
To stay ahead, he says, management will have to be flexible and keep improving the menus. Sodexo has brought in full-time culinary talent equal to the task: a head chef from Four Seasons hotels, a sous chef from Amgen, a catering chef from UC Davis, and a regional chef from Seattle for large events.
So while the Mongolian grill may be Mongolian for now, its large cooking iron could also become the centerpiece of a Greek, Italian or Japanese station. If the vegan offerings don’t do well, they’ll be revamped and possibly moved forward to a more visible spot. Breakfast, meal plans, sauces in the Asian wok: everything is subject to change.
Visvikis plans to take opportunities to pursue themes like heart health and international cuisines, and to introduce unfamiliar ingredients. In moving from corporate food services to a university, he wanted to be part of a community that would push the envelope on locally sourced, organic and sustainable eating and on water and energy conservation.
“Give (students) an educational experience,” he says, “not just a dining experience.”