Utilizing Empty Space for Something Sweet

When it comes to college dining, food is not just nourishment but a fundamental part of the student’s college experience. The dining halls, food courts, and coffee shops are more than just brick and mortar buildings where students obtain nourishment. Rather, they are places for studying, socializing, and building communities. As a result, dining programs are critical components of the culture and environments created on campuses. What does this mean for the food options being served? Well, it is significant for the student experience and should not be overlooked. This is exactly what the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) did when creating SoVi at South Village Crossing. This all-you-care-to-eat dining hall incorporates action stations throughout the location, enhancing the freshness and overall quality of the food, while also helping to reduce waste by serving single, customized portions. This focus on food includes desserts, too. When entering SoVi, guests are welcomed by a gelato bar – a relatively unique treat for a college campus. Executive Chef Patch Hadden shares his insights on how to design a successful dining program that meets customers’ expectations, and recaps the results of their SoVi gelato program.

Kaitlin Strahler (KS): First, we need a proper introduction for you! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your experience, and role at UNCC?

Patch Hadden (PH): Hello, my name is Patch Hadden and I have been in the culinary industry for over twenty years. I was previously a chef at Johnson & Wales University-Charlotte, where I was also in the inaugural graduating class of that campus. I am currently the Executive Chef of the South Village Crossing Dining Facility on the campus of UNCC.

KS: How about offering some insight into UNCC Dining Services. How many units do you have? What types of operations? How many students do you serve on average?

PH: It is my responsibility to oversee the daily operations of South Village while managing a staff of 60+ and feeding an average of 5000 students per day. There is one other dining hall on campus and eight retail locations on campus.

KS: The UNCC students are obviously very important customers for your operation. In terms of UNCC students (also known as 49ers) favorites, what would you say are some of the most popular foods/favorite times to eat, and the most popular requests you receive?

PH: One of the most popular stations at South Village is The Wok station. It is very actionable and has tasty authentic Asian cuisine that the students love to eat. Our most popular service period is dinner. It seems the majority of the students don’t have class during that time and with us being on the housing side of campus we see a larger crowd for dinner. Surprisingly enough, we get a lot of requests for more vegetarian options such as tofu, tempeh, and fresh vegetables.

KS: Now, let’s focus on desserts (since we’re PreGel and it’s kind of our thing) – what would you say are the most popular desserts on campus?

PH: Quick grab and go items such as cookies & brownies have always been a crowd favorite, but gelato in our building is very popular, too.The fact that the students can see it being made and the different flavors we offer make it one of our biggest sellers.

KS: Do dessert preferences change per daypart? If so, how?

PH: I would say during the day the grab and go items are more popular due to time restraints of students having to go to class. They also change per season; during the colder months, the students seem to gravitate towards the cobblers and pies.

KS: Time to focus on our main attraction: Gelato! Provide us some insight into the gelato program you offer at UNCC.

PH: The fact that we offer gelato in our dining hall, I feel, is unique in itself. We have an open kitchen concept where the students are able to see and interact with the chefs as they work. We make the gelato in our bakery, and with the cost of the gelato being a higher menu option than other desserts, it becomes a served item. Our bakery attendants are more than happy to scoop and serve the flavor of their [the customer’s] choice.

KS: What are some popular flavors? Have you tried creating any crazy flavors or recipes?

PH: Salted caramel is our number one requested flavor by far. Green apple, watermelon and mango come next. We are looking forward to trying pumpkin-flavored gelato. We have yet to try any crazy flavors or recipes.

KS: How have (or did) UNCC students react to the gelato program when it was implemented? How has the program changed over time?

PH: The gelato program was/has been well received by the students, faculty and staff. The only change we have made since last year is that we have decreased the amount of flavors and housed them in the same freezer as the hard ice cream to help cut back on costs.

KS: Concerning operations, how easy or challenging was it for your staff to work with the gelato?

PH: I must say it was very easy to work with the gelato. We sent three people, including myself, to PreGel [International Training Center – Charlotte] for gelato training, and the machine and mixes we use simplify the process.

KS: As UNCC’s executive chef, how have you seen dining preferences change over time?

PH: At South Village we implemented a new dining approach, getting away from the traditional scoop and serve, and focusing on open kitchen stations where all the food is prepared out front and we are physically making a dish for the guest, or making a plate and having the guest pick it up from the serving line. Considering the number of diners, we focus on smaller portions and encourage the students to come back for seconds to cut down on waste.

KS: To meet your customers’ ever-changing dining needs and expectations, what do you think is most important as a chef and operator?

PH: To get to know your clientele, and to be approachable and humble enough to listen to their requests.