The first things you notice at Burton Dining Hall this semester have nothing to do with food and everything to do with pizzazz. Over the summer, the serving area at Burton underwent a $1.5-million renovation.
With the exception of about a half-dozen pieces of equipment, the transformation was “floor to ceiling,” co-director and chef Michial Neal said. “Everything is new.”
Seeing the changes for the first time, Justin Cummings ’19 said, “This looks amazing!” Lacrosse player Stephen Jarzynski ’18 was equally stunned. “I was really surprised,” he said. “I liked it when I came in. It looked cooler, more appealing to the eye.”
Overall, Michial said, the reaction has been “very, very positive. The biggest comment we get from students is basically, ‘Wow!’ They knew a renovation was coming, but didn’t expect this big a change.”
In the serving area, more than a dozen, bright-red, rectangular pendant lights illuminate the stations where students pick up their food. Other light figures are suspended from red, grid-like structures. Ryan Kardux ’18 said it was “really cool to see” lights reflecting Hornet red.
There’s also honey-blond paneling with aluminum accents, neon lights, black granite counter tops, and an overall mid-century vibe. “It mirrors the building now,” Michial said, speaking of Drysdale Student Center, where the dining hall is located.
Drysale was literally built around Burton Dining Hall in 2014, but Burton itself hadn’t been revamped for about 20 years. According to Dining Services co-director and operations manager Shaun Dearden, more than five million meals were served over those two decades.
Steve Bright, vice president for business and finance, was quick to say, however, that the renovation was about more than maintenance. It was about “trying to create excitement” among students and prospective students and their families.
“Every potential student and parent who visits this institution will go through this line,” he said, adding that dining is a hot topic when he meets with students to talk about campus news.
The renovation also opened up more lines, allowing people to get through the servery more quickly. The overall layout is more conducive to picking one station, rather than proceeding down one long line to visit several stations. One popular station now has two serving sides, helping lines flow more quickly around it.
While Ryan admitted the changes were “kind of overwhelming” at first, he said the new configuration has increased efficiency. “It’s definitely quicker. The lines are great; the people are great. The people make the cafeteria what it is. You can’t walk through here without saying, ‘Hi.’”
Indeed, the old cafeteria-style setup has been replaced with multiple stations. Some are self-serve, while others are staffed. Some stations are familiar — there’s still a comfort-food section named “Traditions,” for example — while others are new or have been totally redesigned.
“Pantry Fare” was created for those with food allergies or other dietary restrictions. According to Michial, using the word “Fare” refers not only to the variety of food offered, but also to Food Allergy Research & Education — FARE — a Virginia-based organization that advocates for people with food allergies.
Pantry Fare includes a home-style fridge stocked with frozen dinners and other items Michial described as “gluten friendly.” The staff also will continue working individually with students to ensure special dietary needs are met.
Even for people without allergy-related needs, the dining staff makes a conscious effort to serve food they can feel great about. “Students are more aware and educated and want to know what’s in their food,” Shaun said, adding that the College is committed to using local, sustainable, clean-label, and non-GMO food whenever possible.
Other food stations include “Mangia” — that’s “eat” in Italian — where pizza, pasta, and sandwiches are cooked in a brand-new deck oven. “It gives you a more traditional-type pizza, with the crispy crust,” Michial said.
“Chef’s Corner,” with its made-to-order food, is now part of “Destinations,” an area that includes, among other features, a new rotisserie oven. The dessert station, not surprisingly, is called, “Sweet Street.”
Ideally, Michial said, you can get an entire meal — meat, starch, vegetables, etc. — at each station, making perusing all of the day’s offerings unnecessary. For example, at the deli bar, located in the dining room, diners can get salad, soup, and a sandwich in one place.
Shaun proudly points out while many colleges and universities have contracted facilities management companies for their food service needs, Lynchburg has operated its own dining services since the College was founded in 1903.
Lynchburg’s Dining Services achieves a participation rate (the percentage of meals included in the meal plan that students use) of about 90 percent — an almost unheard-of number according to Steve.
“That is an unbelievably big figure,” he said. “It shows that students are appreciating what we are providing for them.”
On that line, both Shaun and Michial said it was important, in planning the renovation, to increase opportunities for “face-to-face” contact between employees and diners. “We see students up to 19 times a week,” Michial said.
“Our customer interaction with them is very important — that we’re taking care of their needs and wants. If you’re getting good customer service and good interaction with staff, that’s what makes it a good experience.”
Michial said it’s not only good for students; it’s good for staff as well. “That fills you back up and gives you energy to carry on,” he said. “It’s a positive experience for staff to be able to accommodate the needs and wants of the students.”