SJR Column: Dining Services, November 2016

An old Spanish proverb says: “The belly rules the mind.” That might explain the appreciation students, faculty, staff and visitors have for the outstanding dining services provided on the UIS campus. With an average of 4,500 food service transactions taking place every day, members of the campus community probably interact with Dining Services more than any other entity on campus.

Excellence starts with leadership and the leader who ensures all this planning, procuring, cooking, baking and serving runs smoothly is Geoff Evans. A Springfield native, Geoff completed his bachelor’s degree at SIU- Carbondale and then attended the prestigious California Culinary Academy in San Francisco – eventually working in London and Tucson, Arizona before returning to Illinois. Geoff was chef at the Illini Country Club before joining the culinary team at UIS in 2003.

Randy Williams, who earned his culinary credentials at Parkland Community College in Champaign, has been part of the UIS Dining Services leadership team since 2009. Randy is well known in Central Illinois as a successful restaurateur who owned and operated the Trucker’s Homestead near Divernon for many years as well as Conn’s Corner, a popular food vendor at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Randy also teaches culinary arts courses at Lincoln Land Community College and often judges various food competitions at the State Fair.

What’s the secret to keeping food service customers happy? “We serve affordable, fresh and appetizing food every day,” says Geoff, “and emphasize providing great service in every transaction.”

With about 35 full-time employees and 45 part-time student workers, the departmental culture in Dining Services emphasizes teamwork, collaboration and striving for the highest possible level of customer satisfaction.

It starts each day with breakfast – a very popular meal that is in high demand throughout the day! Dining Services uses about 45 dozen eggs daily (mostly for made-to-order specialty omelets) and about 4,000 pounds of bacon each semester.

“Thanks in part to Food Network on cable TV, our customers have more sophisticated palates today than students had several years ago,” says Randy.

“Responding to requests from our customers, we’ve expanded vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menu items during the past few years. At the same time, we’ve introduced foods like quinoa, couscous, orzo and edamame (a preparation of immature soybeans).”

International dishes are also more in demand by both international and more adventurous local students. In fact, everyone seems to know when popular cook and UIS Employee of the Year Danny Lau is serving his fried rice! Customers start lining up two hours before lunchtime to ensure they will be able to pick up their order.

Students and other customers regularly provide suggestions to the culinary team for new menu items familiar from their own backgrounds. For example, some Chicago-area students recently recommended Dining Services offer Sweet Baby Ray’s bar-b-que sauce – a Chicago favorite. It has since become a popular choice for customers regardless of their home address.

Beverage preferences have also changed in recent years. Fountain soda used to be the big draw; but now specialized bottled drinks like mineral water, sparkling water, fruit beverages and specialty teas and coffees are more popular.

And what can students and other customers look forward to when UIS Dining Services moves into the new Student Union next year? According to Geoff, “Plenty!” Members of the culinary team have worked closely with Dewberry Architects and Ricca Newmark Designs (the food service consultant for the project) to design a state-of-the-art kitchen, servery areas and a second-floor banquet facility that can serve up to 450 guests. An emphasis on sustainability throughout the facility, including a green roof, will add to both its economic and educational value.

“The new kitchen equipment is going to greatly increase efficiency of operations,” says Randy, “and a display cooking station will add a little drama – allowing students to watch our chefs prepare fresh, made-to-order dishes right in front of them.” Attractive new dining areas, including a “sports grill,” will also enhance the dining and social experience.

One of the most exciting additions Dining Services will provide in the new Student Union is a much-anticipated Starbucks franchise  – which will be located on the mezzanine level of the building overlooking the main lounge areas.

“Our new home in the Student Union will certainly contribute in positive ways to the reputation of UIS Dining Services at the same time it will enhance student life and add new opportunities for the campus,” says Geoff, “but our core mission to serve fresh, appetizing food and provide exceptional customer service will remain what we always strive to achieve every day.”

It sounds like that proverb will continue to prove true at UIS for a long time to come.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch