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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

November 19, 2004

Very un-cafeteria

The name says it all

by Karen Bolluyt

It is 11:30 a.m. and there is no good place to stand and observe, to take notes for a news story. The Union Drive Marketplace is just too full of hungry people and fast-moving employees.

Marketplace is the newest residential dining hall. It opened in August 2003 and serves 5,500 meals each day, mostly lunches and dinners. Staff members prepare food at six stations, following a four-week menu cycle. The most popular station in early fall is Oregano's, the place to get pizza and pasta.

"Oregano's is right near the entrance, and many students in the fall are not familiar with the entire Marketplace," said Ryan Osterberger, manager of the Union Drive Community Center's Marketplace, Clyde's Sports Club and West Side Market.

After a few weeks, demand for pizza slows down.

"Then we see increased demand for home-away-from-home food at Country Cuisine. Students get hungry for mashed potatoes and gravy," Osterberger said. "And they like the ham loaf, an old favorite Iowa State recipe."

Something for every craving

The food station names were suggested either by a consultant or by staff in a name-that-station contest. At one station, Wok Your Way, diners can select Mongolian stir-fry or dish up Mexican fare.

The most difficult station to work?

"Flipping burgers. Backyard Grill, no question," Osterberger said. "Cooks work over an open flame at a very fast pace. The burgers are raw when they go on the grill and they spatter as they cook, causing the flames to flare up.

"Many fast food places reheat precooked burgers. Using fresh meat makes a big difference in flavor, and people notice. We serve 1,600 burgers when they are on the menu," he said.

In the fall, when Oregano's is especially busy, pizzas can disappear before replacements are ready. A minute or two can seem like a long wait to a hungry pizza lover. Cook Ben Ingham has a strategy for dealing with waiting pizza customers.

"Don't look them in the eye! If you can't find anything else to do, stare at the oven and make sure you look really impatient," he said.

Once students branch out to more stations, the pizza problem is solved, Osterberger said.

Osterberger said most food is prepared from scratch on site, and customer responses indicate they believe they are getting value for their money.

"Sales of off-campus plans have increased. And since Marketplace opened, our suggestion box has contained many compliments and only one negative comment," he said.

"Our staff works very hard and they do an outstanding job. I know how alert and careful our employees have to be to do their jobs right. I really admire them. They are a big reason people say 'Wow' when they come here to eat," he said.

Getting to the Marketplace

Any moments in his own career he'd like to forget?

Osterberger's head dropped just a little and his face wrinkled into frown. "Burning an oven full of Cornish game hens." That cuisine catastrophe happened when he was a student employee at the University of Northern Iowa's Redeker Dining Center.

"Maybe I put the glaze on too early. Maybe I set the timer wrong. I don't know," he said.

The birds were the entree for a VIP dinner. But one mistake was not enough to cook his goose. He went on to earn two degrees from UNI, one in business management administration and one in food science and nutrition. Now he manages a facility that he saw through design, construction and start-up.

"Having several food stations offering buffet, build-your-own, and made-to-order choices is called the 'marche' concept. We visited others to help us design this one," Osterberger said.

Among his favorite stolen ideas: steak night, when diners can pay an additional charge and choose a fresh T-bone or sirloin steak cooked to order.

Don't forget the dishes

But perhaps the most important thing he learned from all those campus visits was to invest in the dish room.

"None of the people we visited were pleased with their dish rooms. They had not invested enough in them. Managers said they spent their opening weeks in dish rooms sorting out serious problems," Osterberger said.

The Marketplace dish room is a Cadillac, according to Osterberger. Conveyer belts, magnets that pluck flatware from trays, and other labor-saving devices speed cleaning and eliminate some of the tasks workers disliked the most.

It is easier to get people to work in this dish room than it was in the Friley dining hall (which Osterberger also managed). And, it is a lot easier to recruit student employees in general, Osterberger said, perhaps because of the nice facility and the difficult economy.

Full-time employees for the Union Drive Community Center (Marketplace, Clyde's Sports Club and West Side Market) include 40 merit staff, one manager, three assistant managers and two merit managers. About 220 students work part time, two of them as assistant managers.

The operation is self-supporting. Diners cover the costs of food and labor. Meals purchased individually cost $4.75 for breakfast, $7.50 for lunch and $8.75 for dinner. With a meal plan, the cost per meal can be as low as $4.58.

The business of food

"My business background is as important as my food background," Osterberger said.

Among the calculations a manager makes: Serve chicken nuggets (popular and expensive) on the same day as grilled cheese sandwiches (popular and inexpensive).

But a manager cannot control all costs. While the dish room worked well during Marketplace's opening, the ventilation hoods did not. Fire alarms went off as often as twice a day until smoke sensors were replaced with heat sensors.

"We seat 825 people. They cleared out and by the time they returned, hot food was cold and they got fresh servings," Osterberger said.

He said most food waste occurs because diners take more than they eat. But, he said, waste decreases as the year goes along and people learn how much they can eat.

Ryan Osterberger

Marketplace manager Ryan Osterberger in an unusually quiet moment near Oregeno's. Photo by Bob Elbert.