Revamped plan offerings designed for flexibility, value, and the modern student lifestyle
That was then
Back when all on-campus housing comprised four highrise residence buildings, the Residence Dining Hall (RDH) was the only place on campus for hot food three times a day. A meal plan took the form of circles printed on a vinyl sheet that was folded multiple times and affixed to the back of the UNCC ID. Students would unroll the sheet for the cashier to punch. Every hole represented a meal eaten, every skipped-over circle was a meal not used. It was a very simple, low-tech system.
As the University grew, new residence halls were built with multiple living configurations like suites and apartments. Meal plans changed and expanded, too, as did dining options. Favorite national brands were established all over campus: Chick-fil-A, Salsarita’s, Bojangle’s, Subway, Starbucks, Einstein Brothers Bagels, Papa John’s and Wendy’s all have presence at UNC Charlotte. Declining Balance (DB), by itself or as part of a traditional and block meal plan, provided easy, card-swipe access to all the retail choices.
This is now
Crown Commons opened in the Student Union as the new all-you-care-to-eat dining hall in 2009. Its gas-fired pizza oven, made-in-front-of-you cooking stations and ability to apply endless customization to numerous entrees made RDH appear as tired as the linoleum floor in grandma’s kitchen. Equally dated and due for an upgrade were the meal plans UNC Charlotte offered. Plans had become overly complicated and ill suited to the fast-emerging trend of eating several smaller meals during the course of a day. Social meals with friends are now as likely to be for mid-morning coffee or a late evening burger but “traditional” meal plans are modeled on old-fashioned breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Time for a change, just in time
UNC Charlotte Business Services in collaboration with dining services partner, Chartwells, spent two years studying meal plans and developing a new model. The goal was to retool meal plans so they would provide:
- simplicity in purchase,
- meal flexibility,
- greater value,
- be financially sustainable,
- balance facility use and balance/lessen wait lines.
How 2014-15 Meal Plans measure up
Simplicity – Plans are based on housing assignment and hours earned.
- Students living in “required housing,” which are residences without private kitchens, require selecting a meal plan as part of the housing contract;
- There two meal plan choices for first year resident students (freshman/those with 29 or fewer credit hours), four for sophomores, five for juniors, six for seniors.
- Commuter students may pick any offered plan, regardless of class status.
“Traditional plans” consisting of a number of meal swipes per week are no more. All plans for 2014-15 offer either unlimited swipes or are block plans that have a set number of swipes that may be used at anytime throughout the semester. All plans have either $200 or $300 attached Declining Balance (DB) funds that can be used at any dining facility, including all the national retail brands.
Flexibility – Expanded dining options give more choices for students.
In a few weeks, after four decades of service, RDH will close and South Village will have a new dining facility, one that will, says Bill Bremer, resident district manager for Chartwells Dining Services, “serve students with a 22nd Century program.”
New “unlimited plans” (seven days or five weekdays) allow students to eat smaller meals throughout the day on a frequent basis. No more having to load up on a full meal to get their money’s-worth. Students can stop in for cereal and juice before class, grab a sandwich for lunch, a yogurt at midafternoon, some dinner, and then coffee and dessert later. Meal swipes are truly unlimited throughout service hours, and, at South Village, can be used for meals from a take-out venue.
In addition to flexibility in when they eat, the new dining facility further expands the flexibility of what they eat. SoVi, like Crown Commons, is set up in multiple stations, with food preparation and action stations in the front of the house. “This gives us a real opportunity to improve choices, said Bremer. “We will go from seven to eight entrees per meal to 15-18. There will be expanded menus for vegans/vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions [e.g.., gluten and dairy sensitivity]. And just about everything can be customized to individual preference.”
Greater Value – The design of the plans is based specifically on data from meal plan use on the UNC Charlotte campus. “We know that students with traditional plans tend to lose meals,” said Bremer. A primary reason is because those plans limit the amount of meal swipes given per day and the time in which those meals can be taken. “If a student has meal times fixed by their plan but a class schedule that’s all over the place, that student is going to miss meals.” So, to provide greater value, traditional meal plans had to go.
“Block plans are used more fully,” he explained, “because swipes can be anytime throughout the semester. There’s no reason to lose meals.” Therefore, block plan choices remain and have been refined based on how students historically use them (first-year students typically use more meal swipes per semester than upperclassmen).
The new unlimited swipe plans may be the best value for many students, particularly first or second-year students who will take most of their meals and make most of their first social connections in the dining halls. Athletes and those who enjoy bigger meals as well as those who prefer to eat smaller portions several times a day will also benefit from an unlimited plan. And with two new, state-of-the-art dining facilities to use — Crown Commons in the Student Union and SoVi at South Village, meal plan dining is more convenient than ever before.
Unlimited meal swipe and block meal plans also come with either $200 or $300 in DB. The amounts were chosen to be practical; dining habit data indicates these are amounts proven to be sufficient for most students.
Financial sustainability – Meal plan sales provide a framework to ensure maintenance of existing dining facilities and expansion when needed. Business Services’ mission statement mandates providing “essential human, financial, facility and administrative support to the university…” Supplying wholesome food from properly equipped kitchens is most certainly essential! The last part of that mission statement, “…customer focused, results oriented, fiscally sound, and integrity bound,” is equally important. Plans designed to give students the most value for the dining services they need and expect, falls fully in line with that mission.
Balance facility use and wait lines – All restaurants experience peak times around meals, but dining venues on a college campus are subject to concentrated surges around class times. The new SoVi at South Village will take some pressure off Crown Commons by providing convenient premier dining for the thousands of students who will live on the South side of campus. Unlimited meal swipes mean that quick meals and snacks can be had in the dining halls, too. And while a burger from Wendy’s and nuggets from Chick-fil-A will always be very popular, expanded healthy and customizable entrée options will attract students who seek greater balance in their diet.
New plans take advantage with expertise in the kitchen
The trend in dining halls now demands broader menus and greater opportunity to eat a balanced diet. Chartwells has a full team of campus chefs with over 100 years of combined experience. And, to underscore their commitment to good nutrition, Chartwells added a full-time Registered Dietitian (RD) to the UNC Charlotte culinary staff. The Chefs and the RD work together to plan menus that offer meal options for students with different palates and diverse dietary needs and preferences.
The updated Meal Plans set the table or the students, providing the broadest dining choice, best value, and an experience that’s as much about ‘breaking bread’ and connecting as it is about being fed.
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Photo credits: 1.) RDH 1973; courtesy of Atkins Library Archives; 2.) Crown Commons 2012; Wade Bruton