Saturday dinner program undersubscribed, despite University efforts

Dining is looking to improve its Saturday night dinner program in response to low student turnout during its trial period.

By Cairo Lewis

On November 14, the University of Chicago’s Dining Committee held its third Saturday Night Social Club in the Ida Noyes Theatre. UChicago Dining has so far experienced consistently low turnouts for all three dining events but is looking toward using the quarter’s pilot experience to improve the program for the rest of the school year.

One hundred fifty students signed up for the first dinner, though only 51 attended. One hundred forty seven and 145 signed up for the latter two, but 105 and 107 showed up, respectively.

Based on feedback from the dinners, Executive Director of Dining Richard Mason said that he gathered that students want Dining to continue to develop the program.

“Feeding students is important, but another one of our intentions is to foster a community while feeding students. At the University of Chicago, dining is more than eating—it’s eating and sharing ideas and thoughts. This really is the best way to provide a community dining experience, and as with any pilot experience, you learn a lot,” Mason said.

As a result of the low turnout, UChicago Dining is now looking toward improving and expanding the program. Some suggestions involve offering more dinners per quarter and holding them closer to events that are happening on campus. Other options involve enabling students to use guest-swipes to bring friends to the dinner and allowing students who live off-campus to use Maroon Dollars to pay for the dinner.

“It would specifically be great to collaborate with RSOs and houses on-campus to see if we can tailor dinners to their events. In terms of advertising and making ourselves more accessible, we are working on posting calendars with the dinners listed so students can plan their activities around them,” Mason said. He added that the Committee will review the feedback from students’ comment cards and will take suggestions from the University’s Student Advisory Committee.

Wickham also offered some solutions that he thinks would better support the University’s initiative to provide more dining options for students. “The first thing the University could do to better advertise this program would be to reach out to students who are on financial aid first. Additionally, there could be better collaboration with student groups, programs, and RSOs that are dedicated to low-income and first-generation college students such as SDA, QuestBridge Scholars Network (QSN), and CAAP.”

Some students around the University believe that these low turnouts are representative of larger problems at hand: under-advertising of the program, the $10 fee that even low-income students who live off campus would have to pay, and the overarching notion that providing food in a space that also allows students to socialize for three Saturdays out of the quarter is sufficient. So far, the $10 fee goes toward funding the program along with UChicago Dining’s yearly budget. Mason said that keeping one of the University dining halls open would be much more costly than hosting the Saturday dinners.

In a Maroon Viewpoints article published November 9 by Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) members Kyle Wickham, Stephanie Diaz, Derek Caquelin, and Claire Moore, the SDA expressed dissatisfaction with the current program. “[W]hat low-income students really need is simple: to have the dining halls open on Saturday nights.”

Wickham attended the very first Social Club dinner, and although he enjoyed it, he believes that the dinner’s seeming exclusivity and unfamiliar environment are contributing factors to the program’s poor turnout.

“Capping the dinner at 100 students makes the dinner seem exclusive and might discourage students from signing up.”

Wickham also said that the three course meal with servers “may seem enticing to most,” but that, “it can make many students feel uncomfortable and out of their element. A more relaxed and natural dining experience would accommodate the needs of more students and would most likely encourage more students to attend.”

This most recent dinner was more formal than the previous buffet-style one. Students were seated in groups of 10 as servers brought out family style three-course meals and side dishes, which featured roast beef, tofu, spicy baked sweet potatoes, and chocolate mousse cake. The event lasted an hour, and students had the opportunity to offer suggestions for improvement by filling out comment cards on the tables.

Many of the students enjoyed the event and said they would attend again.

“I like the relaxed vibe, and the servers were really nice. The food was really good—the dessert was exquisite. It was also nice to meet new people and see some new faces,” first-year Sam David said.

Second-year New Grad resident Casey Mulroy attended two out of the three dinners. She said she was encouraged as a member of Orientation staff and Midway’s House Council to try the new dining option. “I like the idea of having the dinners being event-themed. The first time I went, it was Day of the Dead themed, and one of the chefs was specifically trained in Mexican-style cooking, so he was really excited to do it and was in charge of all of it,” Mulroy said after the third social club event.

Rosemarie Ho, a second-year Broadview resident, suggested several improvements to better appeal to students. “I’m not sure if it would work, but maybe just having people sit where they want, instead of at round table and have dinner served family style like that. They should also find way to prioritize low income students and should have more publicity for the event.”

Students can sign up for the Saturday Night Social Club on UChicago Dining’s website.

Annie Guo contributed reporting.