On Tuesday, March 21, University of Maine Dining hosted two sessions of an open campus forum in the Lown Room of the Memorial Union. The events were intended to present ideas for the future of UMaine dining, as well as review proposal plans and gain further insight from the UMaine community on how to improve dining experiences across the campus to the fullest extent.
Multiple management personnel from UMaine Dining, Sodexo, and Dembling + Dembling Architects offered their visions for dining plans, some of which are already in motion.
Sodexo first came to the UMaine campus in December of 2022 and will be formally running all of the university’s dining locations by July 1, 2023. There has been notable controversy in regard to UMaine’s decision to become the final public university in the state to partner with Sodexo’s dining services, mainly due to allegations of poor employee treatment and a lack of benefits. Despite these concerns, UMaine is moving forward with the partnership and has some exciting plans for dining opportunities that will be implemented in the near future.
After seeking input from hundreds of students through tabling events and other methods of communal engagement, the areas that have been identified as key to improving the dining experience are York dining, Wells dining, Hilltop dining, and the Bears Den located in the Memorial Union.
With the expectation to reopen in the fall, Wells will be receiving some significant updates once the architects of Dembling + Dembling begin construction. Dan Dembling, president of the company, presented 3D designs and other visuals to demonstrate his general vision for the project.
Externally, there are proposed plans for an outdoor dining area located in the corridor leading to the football stadium, equipped with fire pits and comfortable seating areas. There will be many changes happening internally as well, including the addition of a 24/7 automated market, food lockers that students can pick up their food at when ordering remotely from the Transact Mobile Ordering App, and a pizza spot. Sodexo currently partners with Portland Pie Company at other campuses, but remains open to the possibility of partnering with another local pizza spot based on community preferences.
Another notable change will be the relocation of the Bear’s Den Pub & Cafe to Wells. Dining services plan to involve the class of 1944 families in this decision to help ensure that the vision of the original donors is respected and reflected in the plans.
“The Wells issue on campus has been pretty significant in terms of having it closed, and what we’ve seen is the impact on resident housing as well, so we’re hoping that bringing more of a retail atmosphere and consolidating those services to best utilize that space would bridge the gap with a lot of feedback we’ve heard of the pub being closed and Wells being closed,” said Kerry Chasteen, UMaine’s interim director of dining.
York dining also has notable improvements planned. However, this construction is not expected to be underway until the summer of 2024.
One of the first changes will happen right as students enter the doors of York, as students commented on concerns with long lines that often extend outside in all types of weather. The proposal includes card swipes on both sides of the welcome area, as well as improvements to the overall concept of this area so that students are not left out in the cold.
Also in response to student feedback comes new eating opportunities that include a variety of allergy-friendly and plant-based options. Some of these additions have already been successful additions to other campuses in partnerships with Sodexo. Sodexo resident district manager Tadd Stone introduced concepts called Simple Servings, Simple Zone and UCook, all of which are currently incorporated into the design plans for York.
“[The Simple Servings platform] would be its own little kitchen. It’s got all the equipment that it needs to prepare…Essentially, we can do all of our work right in that spot, so there’s no real chance of cross-contamination,” Stone said.
Simple Servings is free of eight of the top nine allergens, with fish remaining to provide a greater number of protein options. The station would also only use utensils and plates that are all purple in order to signify allergen-free items that will not be accidentally used for anything potentially containing allergens.
“[With the Simple Zone] a student could fill out a form with our dietitian and just basically say, not that they have a food allergy, but that they’ll respect the area. They’re not going to bring allergens into the area,” Stone said. This provides a space for a higher level of food safety for all students with special dietary needs.
A third opportunity mentioned was UCook, which will be an area equipped with prep sinks, hand sinks, induction cookers and more for students to actually cook their own meals at individual stations.
“One thing that we heard from students on multiple campuses, not just UMaine, [was that] some of them feel like when they’ve left to college, they’ve not been taught the necessary skills to go and get an apartment on their own…we’ve started to incorporate, not only as an option, but as an educational aspect, U-Cook…The beauty of U-Cook is that you can walk over to the salad part if you really want to add tofu to your dish, you could grab some tempe off the plant-forward station and you can bring those to the U-Cook,” Stone said.
This concept provides students with a way to choose how they want their meals prepared and also has the potential use for cooking classes if desired by student clubs and organizations.
Although plans for Hilltop have not been fully addressed yet, the hall is expected to have similar additions to York installed, including Simple Serving, Simple Zones and UCook. Construction will begin in the summer of 2025. The project managers are still looking for campus input regarding different foods offered across campus and whether there is a desire for potential overlap between some food halls.
The final area of focus in the current dining plans is the Memorial Union. Due to an overwhelming student response that suggested Starbucks as a chain option on campus, the university expects to have a fully licensed Starbucks location in the Union by next spring, as it will take 12 to 14 months for this chain to become fully licensed and operational.
In addition to Starbucks, the Union will also have food lockers installed for remote ordering.
Outside of the food halls, there are a few more dining-related additions coming to campus. Food delivery robots will be roaming around by fall and will provide on-campus delivery for students and faculty ordering through the mobile app. Two food trucks have been purchased as well, with at least one arriving by summertime. There is also discussion concerning the state of the Oakes Room. However, a decision will be made on it at a later date once more information has been gathered. When asked about budget limits for the project proposals, Stone responded confidently that all current plans are fully attainable.
All of these changes bring high hopes for the future of UMaine dining as it works with its new partners to create more opportunities for enjoyable eating experiences on campus.
Additionally, there is the Community Culinary Council in the Bear’s Den Pub & Cafe on April 13. This group meets every second Thursday of the month from 1-2 p.m. and is an opportunity to share visions, feedback and taste sample menu items.
Students can also text “umainediningvision” to 82257 to join an anonymous database to share any feedback regarding these developments with dining.
Hopefully, by listening and responding to student concerns, it is ensured that with these positive advancements comes equally positive opportunities for the campus dining employees who will be needed to ensure the smooth operation of these facilities as they are completed.