Record enrollment takes a toll on dining venues


Photo: Megan Wolff/Iowa State Daily

Students eat at Union Drive Marketplace during dinner on Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Liz Zabel

Record-breaking enrollment this year is having many ripple effects throughout the university, including those affecting ISU Dining. Even with 20 dining venues this fall, it has been difficult to support the overwhelming number of students on campus, especially during the noon lunch rush.

Union Drive Marketplace is the dining center that has been hit the hardest during lunch. The facility can seat a maximum of 824 people, but serves nearly 2,800 for lunch.

Nancy Levandowski, director of ISU Dining, said Union Drive Marketplace has always been the “biggest crunch.”

“If students would walk back to Conversations or Seasons during lunch, they would find that there’s no waiting,” Levandowski said, adding that the typical distance to walk from campus to Seasons or from campus to Union Drive is the same.

“I’ve actually timed it once,” she said before speculating that it’s perception that confuses students. “There’s just more buildings you have to walk past [to get to Seasons], I guess. Maybe it isn’t on the way to their next class. I think convenience is a big part.”

The Hub Grill & Cafe, located nearly smack-dab in the center of campus, sees a rush similar to that of Union Drive. Host to a grill, cafe and Caribou Coffee, the building is usually densely packed with students both in the morning for an early cup of java and around noon for a lunchtime meal.

With less space than other dining centers, the flow of traffic at the Hub can be slightly suffocating. A line extends all the way to the doors on a typical morning around 9:30 a.m. for the Caribou side. During the lunchtime rush, the line extends to the back of the building, and occasionally wraps around the booths.

“We brainstormed a lot of ways to help the flow,” said Angela Witt, manager of the Hub. “Unfortunately, with the space that we have, there aren’t really better options than what we’re doing, but we’re always looking for ways to help.”

Witt said ever since the Hub opened, they have struggled with the lack of space — finding enough room for food in the back, seating for customers, room for traffic — but they are working to make sure customers have a good experience.

Making sure people are in the right positions when needed at the grill and having them be flexible for moving around is crucial to help speed things up during rushes. Adequate staffing at Caribou, too, is a key to a better-operating facility.

“The more training we can do, the faster they can be,” Witt said. “So we’ve done a lot of training this week to get new employees ready.”

Michael Parker, freshman in computer engineering; Katelyn Todd, freshman in kinesiology; and Maia Palma, freshman in apparel, merchandising and design, all agreed the only problem they have had is finding a table — however, their Destination Iowa State leader forewarned them of the lunch and dinner rushes, so they try to avoid them.

One question does arises: Why not create a new dining center or expand the others?

Levandowski said it would be nice to open a new dining facility, but with the way finances are, it is not realistic — or necessary.

“If you look at it, during dinner and breakfast, we are not as overloaded; it’s really just the lunch crunch,” Levandowski said, explaining that even if they built a facility so that nearly 31,000 people could eat at noon, there would be a lot of dining centers without anyone in them — it would just be unrealistic. She said ISU Dining is working hard to try to find the right balance.

In her 35 years working for ISU Dining, Levandowski said she has seen this trend at the beginning of every year. She suggests students learn how to stagger their meal times. Perhaps their schedule opens up at noon for lunch, but then again at 2. If they wait, they would find there are fewer people in the dining centers. For this reason, certain facilities have extended their hours for students who prefer a later dinnertime. For example, both the West Side and East Side markets will be open until 2 a.m. this year.

“Take a look at your schedule and look for spots that aren’t the tradition and that will give people an opportunity to enjoy the meal program,” Levandowski said. “I mean, there are so many things it offers. … But when you all try to cram at the same time, it just doesn’t work.”