“Meet me at the Bear’s Den” — the old, traditional catchphrase which dates back to the 1950s when the Memorial Union was first built — has returned, and its homecoming arrives with an all-new feel and a reinvented menu to transform UMaine’s nucleus dining facility back into the premier hub of campus’ social gatherings it once was.
The Marketplace — which many refer to now as, “The Union” — is now officially known as the “Bear’s Den.”
UMaine Dining director of dining operations Kathy Kittridge says there may be some confusion for the first couple of months, but she’s confident the new name will catch on.
“We think the name is good and it’s got some really nice history. [...] What’s old is new again,” Kittridge said. “I’ve had people say, ‘That’s really confusing,’ and I’ve replied with, ‘Yeah, it is, but a lot of people didn’t know the real name — The Marketplace — anyway.’”
The Bear’s Den Pub & Café’s name will remain the same as part of the Bear’s Den’s connecting areas along with the main dining area, the North Pod and Union Central.
In the past, when promoting upcoming events at the Marketplace, Kittridge says “students would look at us and say, ‘Hmm… Marketplace… is that the store at Hilltop?’ … That was happening a lot.”
Late last year, Marketplace dining service manager Al McAvoy suggested the entire place be called the “Bear’s Den,” which makes sense if you know Memorial Union’s dining history.
Sixty years ago, the Bear’s Den was located in the lower level of the Union and featured a grill, sandwich line, a pizza hut and beer and wine. It also held weekly entertainment events, which were coined “Thursday Nights at the Den.”
Undoubtedly, the location of the Bear’s Den proved to be why it became so popular back in the day. It was located inside the busiest building on campus — foot traffic came from all directions: students, faculty, guests and staff alike — and, it provided food and a place for social gatherings, main necessities to any college student’s daily life.
In 2001, the Bear’s Den was put upstairs into its present site, and with the addition of several new kitchens and serving apparatuses, the Maine Marketplace was created.
In 2010, “Pub & Café” was added to the Bear’s Den’s name following a Class of ’44 donation, which further renovated the area, added coffee and extended the hours. This facelift proved to be good reason to continue improving the look of the area.
“People really seemed to like the atmosphere,” Kittridge said. “So, we thought, ‘Let’s pull that feel from the Bear’s Den out into the larger area … use the same darker tones, put some booths in and perhaps add some blue to it.”
Over the summer, UMaine Dining introduced an entirely new look to the main dining area, replacing chairs and tables that had been around since the first renovation in 2001. And it’s not done yet; Kittridge says there’s still more soft seating to come, along with a vast collection of “old to new” pictures that once hung on the walls a couple of years ago.
“[The main dining area and North Pod were] a little too generic, the way [they were] before,” Kittridge said. “It was time to get some new furniture in there.”
In addition to its renaming and revamping, the Bear’s Den will also offer a more diverse and changing menu.
UMaine Dining director of culinary services Glenn Taylor is “spicing things up” in order to try and attract crowds at different times of the day, especially dinner.
“Everyone knows lunchtime is pretty popular [in the Union], but at other times of the day, we don’t see nearly as much traffic,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to reinvent our menu so people are able to say, ‘Oh, this is something different.’”
From Sept. 17 to 19, employees of UMaine Dining offered a “tasting booth” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for students to try the new dinner options, as well as several 44 cent deals to honor the Class of ’44.
There are several changes to the menu, but the three biggest ones are the additions of the “Artisan Pizza of the Day,” the renaming of burgers and the specialty dinner menu.
Artisan pizzas are cooked with a whole grain crust, and this month’s flavors include: Rustic Pesto; Chicken Broccoli Alfredo; Mediterranean; Havarti, Apple & Bacon; and Smoked Gouda, Sausage & Local Greens.
There is an entirely new line of burgers at the grill, and the names include: the Union Burger, Bear’s Den Burger, Hauck Triple Cheese Burger and Blue Sky Burger.
Specialty dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and it includes one entrée and two sides for $5.99. For the first three weeks of September, the Bear’s Den menu features no duplicate meals, meaning you won’t eat the same thing on Thursday of the third week as you did on Monday of the first week.
Dinner entrées for the first three weeks have included: Thai Chicken Curry, General Tso Chicken, Meat Lasagna, Gyros, Chicken Parmesan, KC Brisket, Grilled Ginger Salmon, Sesame Chicken, Roast Turkey, Spicy Shrimp in Coconut Milk, Kung Pao Chicken and Chicken Broccoli Alfredo.
Taylor says Nature’s Palate will also be “livened up a bit.”
“We’re going back to the roots of it,” Taylor said. “Back to the dips and homemade hummuses we used to sell there three or four years ago.”
Taylor also says he is continuing to source locally as much as possible.
“This menu change came out of suggestions from the regular meetings with [UMSG’s General Student Senate Services Committee],” Kittridge said. “[Taylor] and I worked on new list options over the summer — something different and interesting that you don’t see during the day and priced at a good value.”
In an effort to bring more people to the Bear’s Den for dinner, Kittridge is reaching out to Asst. VP of Student Affairs and Senior Associate Dean of Students Kenda Scheele, among others, to encourage on-campus organizations to choose the Bear’s Den as a place to host all sorts of events, from entertainment activities to banquets.
“Ultimately, we hope we can connect and have more things going on,” Kittridge said. “We’re open to allowing groups to utilize the space during after-hours.”
Kittridge says she is looking into getting audio and visual equipment into the area — most likely the North Pod — so that if a sports championship or the Olympics are being aired, they can make an event out of it.
Another main concern for Kittridge is attracting commuter students.
“We’d like to see a better connection with those who travel here so they don’t immediately feel like rushing off campus,” Kittridge says. “Maybe they can hang out, have dinner and interact with the campus for a longer day.”
Overall, it looks like the Bear’s Den is attempting to climb back to its roots as a reliable space for comfort and camaraderie, building upon the innovations it has introduced within the past decade.
“We’re excited to see what people think of the new Bear’s Den,” Kittridge said. “And of course, we always welcome feedback.”