Crowded at the caf
Popular on-campus cafeterias see influx of students during peak hours
Pasta is psychology sophomore Taylor Williams’ favorite dish. But it just isn’t worth braving the winding lines at the Shaw Hall cafeteria.
Instead, she often uses her meal pass for quick snacks. Sometimes even that is too much to ask.
“I really don’t have time to wait, so I might go get some cereal or something,” Williams said. “Last time they were all out of milk, so I had a bowl of dry cereal. Sometimes I just go through and get a banana.”
Overcrowded cafeterias have been altering lunch habits for the better part of this year. Although not all dining halls are consistently crowded at lunchtime, it is ironically the newer, centrally-located ones suffering the most.
Many students are forced to decide when and what to eat based on the crowds, while also contending with class times. Those who dine during the lunch rush often resort to standing or sitting on the floor rather than bumping elbows with a stranger.
It’s not as simple as seating capacity not matching the number of students, housing officials say.
Seating shortages are sometimes driven by students’ reluctance to join a stranger at a table, even when that is the only viable option. Robbia Pipper, who manages the Gallery at Snyder and Phillips halls, said when someone is appropriating most of the table space, students “may not feel comfortable” sitting there.
“I avoid the busiest times because I don’t wanna have to sit with strangers,” biosystems engineering junior Caleb Bruhn said. “We’ll hang around tables like vultures. That’s what you have to do sometimes to get a spot.”
Lunch workers have taken notice. Rather than students hunting for spaces to sit, cafeteria employees sometimes assist students by directing them to open seats.
“Some of our table cleaners, during the course of lunch, will actually look out for a seat and tables for some of our guests and have found seats for them,” Rivertrail Neighborhood dining complex manager Mike Gardner said. “They raise their hand and say, ‘I’ve got room for one, I’ve got room for two,’ and will help guide some of the students around.”
Chemistry and criminal justice senior Joshua Champine said he often makes use of these staff members who, during the mid-day rush, direct students to available seats.
“It worked for me, but I’m more open and sociable, it doesn’t bother me to sit with a stranger,” Champine said. “For someone who isn’t like that, I don’t know if they would have listened.”
The remodeled Vista at Shaw opened in January 2013, expanding the seating capacity by 50 percent, or from less than 500 seats to 720, culinary services spokeswoman Jenna Brown said.
Pre-renovation, the Vista saw about 1,200-1,300 people in the cafeteria from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gardner said. Now nearly 2,500 cafeteria-goers visit everyday during that period.
Officials are aware of how problematic it is to dine during the lunch rush. Gardner said between 11 a.m. and noon, an average of 800 people visit the cafeteria, but he noted many don’t stay a full hour.
“This is a challenge for us, given the timing and the crowd,” Gardner said. “We know they’re on a crunch time, so we do want to get them through as quickly as possible.”
The Gallery recently expedited the entrance process by implementing the practice of bringing out a remote access card reader when there are long lines, Pipper said. On-campus students with meal plans can enter into this line to avoid the wait involved with using money or credit cards.
“(We) might see 20 people in line and at that point we’ll bring out someone with the remote access,” Pipper said.
To prepare for the larger crowds, the Gallery staffs “heavier” stations with popular menu items, she said.
Apart from cramped-quarters dining, the lunch rush also hinders those hoping for a quick meal in between afternoon classes. From the time it takes to get in, receive food and then find a seat, the wait often dictates whether students skip a class or a meal.
“Lines are just horribly long,” Champine said. “It’s takes like 10 to 15 minutes to get a meal. So if you were just trying to eat, if you had to go between classes, that’s really hard to do.”
Champine, who has a chemistry lab after lunch, has never been late to it because of the wait times, but more often is “barely on time.” Rather than risk being forced to have last pick of the lab stations and working at a cramped one, Champine often orders delivery.
“I live in the dorms, but I get Jimmy John’s sometimes,” Champine said. “I can wait and take 40 minutes to go eat or I can just order Jimmy John’s and be done with my meal relatively quickly.”
Those students who opt to eat in the cafe between classes often compensate for lost time by choosing food they normally wouldn’t.
Finding more space
To combat the cramped cafeterias without turning students away from lunch, both the Vista and the Gallery currently give students a take-out meal option. Using their Combo-X-Change, students can select what cafe food they want, and then eat it elsewhere.
The Vista at Shaw Hall is slated to gain 74 more seats, set to be added to the East and West lounges some time after spring break, Brown said.
“We’re trying to give students some alternatives to alleviate some of the seat hunting they’ve had to go through,” Gardner said.
The stools will be placed along the lounge windowsill, which will act as a bar-like table that will provide students a “place to put their laptops or books and still have a bit of privacy,” Gardner said.
By increasing the amount of individual seating, the renovation would help diminish the amount of group seating occupied by one or two students, he said.