It’s the first day back from winter break, and this place is as crowded as its lunch menu (vegetarian chili and a well-stocked Mediterranean bar and fresh-made deli sandwiches and veggie quesadillas and on and on). A woman in white is making roasted-turkey Caesar salads upon request. Stationed behind a sizable countertop, she mixes and tosses, handing the results off to hungry students. Behind her, crates of fresh peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are lined up neatly, ready to be diced or chopped, then plopped into another fresh meal.
Think you’ve stumbled into West Philadelphia’s trendiest new eatery? Not exactly. You’re in 1920 Dining Commons and, like the rest of Penn’s dining halls, it’s cooking up fresh, local, sustainable and seasonal meals—and they’re pretty tasty, too.
Going Green, Buying Local
About five years ago, a group of determined students visited Laurie Cousart’s office. “They literally knocked on my door and said, ‘We want local food,’” the director of Penn Dining recalls. “I’d never really thought about it in that way, and I said, ‘You’re right. Tell me what to do.’”
She began working with Penn’s then-dining services provider Aramark to bring in food from local sources, and this past fall Penn Dining teamed up with Bon Appétit—a food-services management company that now oversees all campus dining and retail facilities.
“We were looking for a partner who understood what it meant to bring in fresh, bold tastes to our students, and who was committed to local programs and our Climate Action Plan,” says Marie D. Witt C’81, vice president of the business-services division. They found it in Bon Appétit, a company that bills itself as Food services for a sustainable future and focuses on “fresh, from-scratch cooking and serving food in a socially responsible manner,” says Paul Bulau, the company’s district manager.
Since arriving at Penn, Bon Appétit has forged relationships with local farmers and dairies, including Pennsylvania-based Hendricks Farm in Telford and Beechwood Orchards in Biglerville, as well as Kilby Creamery in Maryland. About 20 percent of the dining halls’ food now comes from local sources.
Meals are also prepared without short cuts. “Nothing is processed, and nothing is coming from a can,” Bulau says. In particular, salad dressings, pasta sauces, and soups—foods many dining halls remove from cartons, bottles, or freezer packs—are all made from scratch at Penn. Bon Appétit has even created an herb garden in the greenhouse-like basement of 1920 Commons, so a chef who needs rosemary can simply run downstairs and snip a sprig. They’re planning to add tomatoes, strawberries, and other plants soon.
Student response to the new management company and its approach has been overwhelmingly positive. Witt says voluntary meal-plan enrollment has gone up nearly five percent this year, and in December, The Daily Pennsylvanian gave Bon Appétit one of its tough-to-earn “cheers” in its biannual “Cheers and Jeers” editorial, “for bringing its mission of using locally grown and organic products to Penn Dining.”
The dining-hall fare is now “much fresher,” says Kevin Tucker, a Wharton senior who’s had a meal plan his entire time at Penn. While he says the overall difference in taste isn’t as vast as he’d imagined, he’s enjoyed trying new dishes, such as a goat cheese and tomato tart (“I was like, ‘Wow, I definitely did not see this in the dining halls a few years ago’”).
College senior Roopa Gogineni hasn’t had a meal plan since her freshman year, but still eats in the dining halls on occasion. She’s been there a handful of times this year, and says that “it seems a lot better now; there are more options, the sandwich selection is a lot better, they have multiple soups instead of just one, and the food just seems fresher. It’s nice to visit and have [access to] a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, because those can be hard to find elsewhere on campus.”
Foodie alums have also been excited to hear about Penn Dining’s change in management and priorities. “That’s exactly the kind of step that a university of Penn’s caliber should be taking,” says Lolis Eric Elie W’85, a food writer and author of Cornbread Nation 2 and Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. “The move from these cookie-cutter conglomerates to an organization that is more concerned about the quality of food is consistent with what the Penn mission should be.”
Still, some members of the Penn community are more difficult to impress: “I think it’s okay,” says Nursing freshman Andres Sepulveda as he’s finishing off some French fries in 1920 Commons. “For cafeteria quality, this is pretty good.”
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FEATURE: Dining a la Penn By Molly Petrilla
Photography by Greg Benson
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette