Five-star dining

Dining on the Wheaton College campus is earning good reviews from students, faculty and staff.

A comprehensive survey distributed in mid-October found multiple areas in which the college’s dining program won strong approval from faculty, staff and students, particularly in terms of facilities, staff and hours of operation. The survey also showed large gains in satisfaction on the quality and variety of meals offered.

“The survey results are gratifying evidence of progress towards our goal of providing a consistently great dining experience for the students of Wheaton,” said Brian Douglas, executive vice president for finance and administration. “We set out to give the students what they told us they wanted—a fun atmosphere, more culinary choices, and healthier options—and while our work is not done yet, we have clearly taken a huge step forward.”

Winning the greatest approval in the survey were the friendliness of dining hall staff, rated excellent by 69 percent of respondents; the welcoming atmosphere of the facilities (66 percent) and the hours of operation (62 percent).

“It’s great to see that the dining team continues to receive extremely high scores,” said John Bragel, director of dining services. “The dining team takes great pride in serving the Wheaton community. The students have always been very respectful of the hard work each team member puts forth and it’s great to see the survey scores for them rank among the highest.”

The approval for the dining halls’ hours of operations reflects the extent to which the college and dining services provider Aramark have listened to student feedback. At the start of the fall semester, students said that Chase Dining Hall closed too early in the evening. Following discussion, the hours were extended to 11 p.m., offering students more flexibility as well as a popular late-evening snack stop for several hundred students every evening.

Of course, Chase is, itself, a different place. When the dining hall reopened in August following the complete renovation of the dining hall, students found a transformed space—light, open, airy and comfortable. Beyond the aesthetics, the renovation also changed the way the dining hall operates. Nearly all the food served in Chase is now prepared in view of diners and as they ask for it, increasing the emphasis on freshly made meals. “The focus is on real-time cooking, right in front of students,” Bragel said. “The menu items are prepared right before their eyes, 100% transparency, no mystery.” Nutrition information for every meal is far easier to find, too, in the dining hall as well as online.

That renovation has had an impact on satisfaction. On every question related to perceptions of facilities, students, faculty and staff gave the dining program high marks. That work followed earlier renovation of the cafe in Balfour-Hood. The makeover of the college’s dining facilities will be completed in February when Emerson Dining Hall reopens with a new focus on serving as a gourmet cafe and casual gathering spot.

“What has been most satisfying to me about the Chase renovation is seeing students be able to take such pleasure in having a meal together in that beautiful space,” Douglas said. “When Emerson reopens, I expect that it’s unique atmosphere will offer an even more special place to gather and dine together.”

The survey of dining at Wheaton also captured opinions on aspects of the program that have improved the most over the past year, based on a comparison of results from a similar survey conducted in 2014. These included the freshness of food, availability of healthy options, the atmosphere of the dining halls and the hours of operation.

Food quality, which ranked fifth overall in showing the greatest improvement, and menu variety will be a particular focus for Aramark and the college in the semester ahead, according to both Douglas and Bragel.

“We have added many enhancements to the Chase menu selections that will have a great positive impact on increasing variety,” Bragel said. “There will be fun new breakfast items such as egg sandwiches and breakfast pizza. Lunch will have a grill item of the day, pizza served on a frequent basis, deli specials, rotating theme stations and continued ability for students to customize their selection.”

In addition, Bragel said that Aramark plans to stage more special events throughout the semester, to enhance variety. Executive Chef Courtney Cournoyer also will lead more cooking demonstrations, which proved to be popular last semester.