February 18, 2011

Late-night dining falls flat

Administrators are reevaluating late-night dining at Hutch Commons following low turnout midway through its debut year. Campus Dining is attributing the lack of interest to student desire to eat even later and to use meal points rather than cash or flex dollars.

Late-night dining at Hutch—which offers an array of food options Monday through Thursday until midnight—averaged just over 47 transactions per night through 16 weeks of operations. It is less than a quarter of the 200 sales per night that Director of Campus Dining Richard Mason said would be ideal for the program’s continuation.

Even when three days’ worth of blizzard-induced closings and other holidays are taken into account, the daily transaction average tops out at fewer than 53 sales per day.

Transactions have been lower than expected since the program’s first stages. Last spring, when it was a one-week pilot program, it averaged 143 transactions per night, which was lower than administrators and SG hoped.

Subway, the most popular of the program’s four options, has accounted for two-thirds of all sales, averaging about 32 transactions per night.

According to Mason, late-night dining’s persistent under-performance can be attributed to a disconnect between students and administrators on the definition of “late-night” dining.

“My sense is, from talking to students, what they really mean is they want a dining hall late, where they can go use the meal plan,” Mason said. “What they’re really telling you when they say late-night is ‘I want to to go to Bartlett from 12 until 3 in the morning.’”

Mason said students want late-night food from their dining hall because they prefer to pay using their meal plan rather than cash or flex dollars, even if the actual cost is identical. “From a transaction basis, it feels different,” he said.

The Global Dining Initiative (GDI), a campus-wide evaluation of food services that uses student surveys, has shown that the demand for healthy options and wider variety trump student interest in late-night dining, according to Mason.

Among the changes being discussed under the GDI program, Mason said that late-night dining alternatives are being evaluated, including a dining hall with designated late hours or extended hours during finals week.

While the University searches for a food service provider, late-night dining is one issue potential bidders must address. “We’re certainly going to challenge these suppliers to think about—and think creatively about—how they would do something like that,” Mason said.

Mason called the three campus residential dining halls “great spaces for students to gather” and noted that the potential for extending their hours was not at odds with the aims of Campus Dining Services.

“We’ve made an investment in these spaces, we continue to make investments in these spaces. We want to use them to their greatest extent, so for them to lie fallow does not feel good to us either.”