by Jocelyn Arceo
photography by Jaren Cyrus
With stainless steel fixtures, marble counter tops, modern table settings, an actual pizza oven and a barstool eating area, the new dining hall on campus, The Spot, has proven to be a huge step forward from the old Davenport Dining Hall. In addition to its modern ambiance, some may call it a definite step-up from the same old cafeteria food, with its variety of several different food options offered day in and day out. Guests can see the difference as soon as they take that first step in—look, no wooden interior in sight! The facility comes across as very ultra-modern chic from the food choices to the décor. Just ask longtime student worker, Trista Rios, who says, “Overall, The Spot is a much nicer facility and a stronger business than DP ever was simply because of the larger space we have to work in and the accountability our supervisors hold us up to.”
Although The Spot may be considered a campus dining hall, all are welcome to dine-in—or take out, for an added 50 cents. This dining hall has become a place not only for students, but families as well, where you can eat a buffet-style lunch for only $7.
For those feeling a bit of nostalgia, the structure still resembles that of the old Davenport Dining Hall in the sense of what is offered. Upon entering, guests must first pass through the register area, like Davenport, except there are now two functioning registers instead of only one. A refreshment and condiment area await upfront as well, with a wide range of different soft drinks and condiments, like ketchup, mustard and steak sauce.
On weekdays, cucumber infused water is replenished throughout the day. The coffee, both regular and decaf, is right next to the iced tea and hot cocoa dispensers. A waffle station, with powdered sugar and syrup—yes, you cook your own waffle without having to clean up the mess—remains available well past the breakfast hours, typically meaning all day until closing. An area designated for different jams and butters is set up right next to the toaster and fully stocked bread bar; multiple kinds of bagels, sourdough, wheat and white bread are among some of the options available. Gluten free breads are offered as well. A milk station, fully stocked with 2 percent, non-fat, whole and soy milk, fronts an array of different cereals: Fruit Loops, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Rice Krispies, Lucky Charms and even Raisin Bran (for the older crowd with a more refined taste). A full salad and deli bar remains stocked from breakfast until closing, with options like kale, two choices of salsa, an arrangement of dressings, pasta salad, and a vast array of salad toppings such as olives, feta cheese and hummus.
Then, comes the grill and line area. Dinner and lunch tend to be served on what is called the “line,” where the pans holding the hot food reside. Directly next to this area, with no separation space, is the grill. This is the home of the hamburger, veggie burger, hotdog, seasoned fries, onion rings, chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches. All one has to do is take a paper ticket, fill out the order, then hand it to the grill cook. A simple enough algorithm, which anyone can pass (unlike those high school algebra classes) leaves things running smoothly and guests happy. Across from the far end of the grill sits the pizza station. Whereas the Davenport pizza station was simply just a revolving oven, the new pizza station at The Spot is an actual wood-fired device built into the wall. With dough made from scratch daily, and fresh ingredients, the pizza station at The Spot is a welcome improvement from days gone by.
The Spot, built in the ground floor of the new Citrus Hall Residence Hall, was one of four buildings planned for phase one of the University’s master plan. This starting phase called for a new residence and dining hall, a parking structure, the Ludwick Center for Spirituality, Cultural Understanding and Community Engagement, and a new academic building. Because The Spot is part of the new residence hall, the entire cost for the project was just under $42 million and took 13 months to complete, Clive Houston-Brown, vice president of human resources, information technology, and facilities and safety, says.
The initial planning phase for this part of phase one took about three to four years, Houston-Brown says. The last part of phase one will be the academic building, which is currently in the fundraising process. Houston-Brown, who led the building project, says, “Davenport was 50, 60 years old. We had a lot of issues with the building due to its age, and a lot of the equipment that was jammed in there was problematic. We were at the end of life for Davenport, not necessarily as a building per say, but there was no room to expand it.” The old Davenport building will see new life as a wellness center, with construction beginning during the 2018-19 school year.
The Spot is 100 percent larger than Davenport, Houston-Brown says, being about 14 to 16 thousand square feet; essentially 15 percent of the entire Citrus Residence Hall building. When the original Davenport was built in the 1960s, it was for a population of a couple hundred students, but with the new residence hall the University is now at about 1,000 residential students, which Davenport did not offer the capacity to support. Previously, Davenport was able to seat up to 146 guests indoors, while the outdoor seating increased the overall maximum capacity to 244 guests, meaning there were about 100 outside seating options. Cold, rainy days proved to be a huge problem.
With the new dining hall, the indoor seating reaches capacity at 244 guests, while outdoor seating increases capacity 106 more, with an additional 77 available seats in the quad area, although those are not technically considered to be part of the outdoor seating area for The Spot. Overall, the outdoor seating was reduced by 33 percent from Davenport, while the indoor seating was increased by 67 percent, Houston-Brown says.
With an increase in size came an increase in Bon Appetit employees as well. Anthony Bencomo, Bon Appetit general manager, says there are about 28 staff members, not including the additional 50 max student workers.
Maintaining the switch from Davenport to The Spot was logistically difficult when it came time to decide how to run things in such a larger space, especially when it came to having an adequate number of staff members on time for the Aug. 22, 2018, opening, Bencomo says. “I think it all went over very smoothly in my opinion,” he says. “It’s the same but different. Our job is to make sure the students are taken care of, fed and happy regardless of where we’re feeding you. From what I’ve heard, students seem to be very happy.”
Houston-Brown says he has heard very few issues with the new dining hall as well, saying the times he has eaten in there he has seen things running very smoothly. He says he really enjoys the available options for seating, comparing the old options at Davenport to the dining situation at Hogwarts, from Harry Potter, with the long rows of tables. “Overall, it’s absolutely been successful,” he notes. “Many construction projects don’t come in on time or on budget, but this project was right on schedule and came in a little under budget.”
Chef Justin Alarcon is head of the food program, deciding what will be served, and how it will be made. Above each food station, menus are placed so that guests can see not only what is being served, but also what is going into each serving, including notations as to whether the food is vegan, vegetarian, contains shellfish, organic or any other necessary labeling pertaining to the preparation process. The chef says he takes great care in the food he provides for the students by treating it with the upmost respect and teaches his staff to do the same. “That’s very important. That’s part of what I do is letting them know and reminding them that it’s not just about pulling out a piece of ingredient, chopping it up and putting it out there. There’s much more to it than that,” Alarcon says. “It’s a full circle; if you treat these things with respect, and you put love and compassion and detail into what you’re doing, it’s going to show in the final product.”
He is the captain of his kitchen. He cites past incidents where employees hastily put together ingredients while completely ignoring the placement because, for example, there may have been about 15 minutes left of the serving time. Alarcon says there is no reason for someone who comes even five minutes before closing to not be presented the dish in the same way that those who came earlier were presented.
He uses past incidents as learning experiences for his employees, taking the time to show them what to do step-by-step instead of allowing them to continue making the same mistakes of not appreciating the food as it should be appreciated. Alarcon often instructs by doing. On this day, the prep cooks gather around him in a circle as he demonstrates how to quickly make tofu and yet preserve the excellent presentation aspects.
“There’s no reason to be giving diners something that is mediocre. This goes back to appreciating the item; allowing the item to be recognized at its beauty. If you chop the ingredient into pieces and people don’t know what it is, that’s sad,” the chef says. “It doesn’t matter if there’s five minutes left of service; we still use it.”
Although The Spot is set up in a buffet style, meaning guests can go back for as much food as they want, Alarcon still strives to adhere to the nutritional standards of a balanced meal—four ounces of protein and five ounces of starch and vegetables. Following his standards, he serves all chicken and poultry in four-ounce portions and avoids using butter as much as possible in the food his kitchen produces. Alarcon has a system in place that replaces the use of butter, or at least decreases the use. His kitchen uses either extra virgin olive oil or an olive oil blend when needed for sautéing. If butter is absolutely necessary for the recipe, then the kitchen will typically use a 50-50 blend of olive oil and butter, so as to reduce the butter intake.
Alarcon’s daily menus always have a vegetarian option. In every restaurant, food stand and cafeteria, the main focal points are typically the meat entrées. “Some places do not offer a vegetarian option at all, something that needs to be brought to the front line,” the Chef says. He sees no reason as to why the vegetarian options should get any less attention than the typical choices.
His thought process extends to how food is being prepared as well. When preparing ribs, for example, the meat is braised, marinated and given a specific type of care that needs to be applied to tofu, “or any other vegetarian option as well,” he says. “I don’t want the vegetarians or the vegans to be neglected. They’ve always been pushed aside, and I really want to go ahead and change that,” Alarcon says. “What I’m doing with my vegetarian entrées, I give them as much love and treat them as I would a piece of meat.”
Much of the produce used in the kitchen comes from local sources. For example, on this day, some vegetables are from Underwood Ranches in Somis, Calif., while fruits come from the trees of the Weiser Family in Tehachapi, Calif. Some beef products come from Mariposa Ranch in Turlock, Calif. The Spot even gets tortillas from La Fortaleza in Los Angeles. Locally sourced products are considered “Farm to Fork,” and are a standard that the dining hall makes an effort to maintain.
The goal is to keep the students fed and happy, the Chef says. If there are any issues that students have with the menu, and what is being offered, he keeps his card in open view at the register where anybody can contact him to provide feedback. “Tell me what you would like,” Alarcon says. “I want to make sure that everyone’s happy here. I know that’s not realistic, but the ones that do have problems, I want to try to fix that for them at La Verne.” ■