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Dining center serves student-satisfaction

Olivia Braude, Senior Staff Writer

It started with a tweet - "Why don't we serve vanilla peanut butter milkshakes?" - and ended with a new item on the menu at the Armstrong Student Center's Pulley Diner.

The entire process took mere hours. When it comes to a gratified stomach, you can call Miami University's Culinary Support Center (CSC) the fairy godmother of food.

"Our entire department is about satisfaction and having satisfied students and service," Nancy Heidtman, senior director for dining and culinary support services at Miami, said.

The CSC is proud of its response to student feedback. Last spring, the CSC used focus groups made up of a wide demographic of Miami students to review dining holistically, according to Mark Andrea, manager of computer systems and marketing for HDRBS.

"They really tried to get down to what students want," Andrea said.

Through the focus groups, in combination with surveys sent through MyCard, mini surveys in each of the dining halls and a company that surveys students about their dining experience, the staff at the CSC learned what students wanted from them this year and acted accordingly.

"We evaluate our programming every year," Heidtman said. "We look at demographics, we look at usage, we look at hours of operation, what's trending, who is the class of 2018."

What the CSC found was students wanted later dining hours and more grab-n-go options. Request granted. Breakfast Express was created so students could grab a hot meal on their way to class, without having to make time to sit down and eat something. But, Harris and Martin could continue to serve a breakfast buffet.

Several changes have been made in regards to hours of operation, Mary Barrera, manager of culinary support services, said. Bell Tower Place is now open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and MapleStreet Station will open more of its locations on the weekend - Delish and Pacific Rim will now be open Saturdays for lunch, while The Americas and Encounter will be open for dinner on Sundays.

In the past, few on-campus dining options were open during the weekends, but these extended hours are a direct response to student requests.

Feedback also highlighted students' concerns with eating healthy, so the CSC waved its magic wand and opened the fourth Trader's Greens alongside Tuffy's in the Shriver Center.

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Jon Brubacher, director of procurement and food purchasing for Miami, said Scoreboard Market and Grill, located in Martin Dining Hall, was restocked with healthier foods to accommodate requests from students living on North Quad.

The CSC is also concerned with meeting Miami students' special diet needs. One of the biggest changes this year, according to Heidtman, was opening and operating Western Dining Commons, which houses an allergen-free station that provides food without the top eight allergens and gluten.

"I got potatoes and a quinoa mixture, the allergen-free option. It was great and had good flavor," sophomore Tess Cassidy said.

Western Dining Commons consists of the Tea Hive, modeled after a popular tea company called Teavana; the International Station, which features unique cuisine from Asia, Africa and South America, among other countries; and the Grill and Roast, with traditional favorites like flatbread pizzas and sliders, pre-made and ready-to-eat.

According to Heidtman, it is Miami's first new dining hall in 70 years to be built from the ground up, with the intent to serve the ever-changing needs of the student body.

"Overall, the food seems healthier than other locations on campus. It has a wide variety -something for everyone," Cassidy said.

She said she would recommend Western Dining Commons to students who are concerned with healthy eating. Not only was Western Dining Commons opened this school year, but another major accomplishment, according to Heidtman, was opening First Stop South - a mirror to MapleStreet Station's popular First Stop - next to Harris.

Beginning Sunday, Sept. 7, the CSC is bringing back the famed 1809 brunch that ended when the restaurant closed. Located in Western Dining Commons and colloquially termed "Super Brunch," it will consist of the most-loved dishes at 1809 including crepes, eggs benedict and frittatas, Barrera said.

Both First Stop South and the "Super Brunch" were created because of the popularity of their predecessors among Miami students. Miami dining services as a whole is shifting toward à la carte options and away from buffet-style dining, but this might be one trend Miami students are less excited about.

"It is more expensive than other options on campus," Cassidy said. "It's also slower than the traditional buffet-style."

However, à la carte dining reduces food waste, according to Barrera, who said that buffet-style dining sees waste on both the food producing end and the food consuming end with the students taking more than they need and throwing the excess away.

Heidtman said the à la carte dining is also a response to the portable meal plan that allows students to eat whenever and wherever they want. It would be impractical to keep buffet-style dining halls open at odd hours, but with à la carte dining, students can eat whether their stomachs are grumbling for lunch at noon or at three in the afternoon. It is also easier for students to create their own meals with the wider selection of à la carte items.

"It's all customizable," Brubacher said, "Most everything we're adding or new operations are because that's what the students want, that's the feedback we're getting - customizable, fresh."

Speaking of fresh, culinary services sponsors a local vendor day held outside Market Street at MacCracken, Andrea said.

Vendors bring samples of their products to campus once a semester for students to try and the market often purchases items to sell.

"These are where Miami gets the products that can't usually be found in Kroger or grocery stores," Andrea said.

According to the dining website, 26 percent of the food distributed is local, including beef served at Encounter. Other feedback gleaned from student input resulted in a revamped menu at The Americas as well as a create-your-own sandwich option at Delish, Barrera said.

Results showed, however, that a large portion of what students are asking for is already available to them, they are just unaware, Heidtman added.

Sure the CSC cannot meet all student requests - like stocking MacCracken Market with beer - but it weighs heavily the feedback it receives from Miami students and wants anyone with questions, requests or concerns to get in touch.

"We encourage students to contact us if they have questions or look at our website, call us, follow us on Twitter and Facebook," Barrera said.

The dining website features a new blog with space for students to provide feedback, set up to be like a review of dining services, Heidtman said. The staff at the CSC is active on social media, where more than one student has had questions answered and problems solved.

"If you tweet at us, someone will respond immediately," Barrera said.

Just ask the student at Pulley Diner whose wish for a vanilla peanut butter milkshake was happily granted.