Breakfast is at Roxy’s, a sort of stripped-down, comfort-food-focused version of the dining hall I remember, and it is wonderful: I inhale a breakfast burrito and a bundle of French toast sticks, washing it all down with a glass of Creamery chocolate milk. (This rekindles a long-held dream: If I ever hit the lottery, I’m getting one of those big stainless-steel milk dispensers installed in my house. Chocolate only.) I’m joined by Jim Hopey ’82 H&HD, associate director of residential dining, who endures my reminiscing about how little Findlay has changed physically since my undergraduate days—and in truth, since the commons were built in 1965. It’s a perfect segue to a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen and food prep areas, where Hopey shows me a wall covered with color-coded maps—plans for the Findlay Commons renovation, a complete overhaul that is set to begin in February.
For lunch, it’s on to Southside Buffet at Redifer Commons, where the future of campus dining is here and now. Redifer was renovated in 2004, and Southside is what I would’ve called its dining hall. The food services folks now refer to it as an “all-you-care-to-eat” venue; you’ll never hear them utter the word “cafeteria,” and even “all you can eat,” with its implication of gluttony, is discouraged. Of course, in the traditional dining-hall setting, I can gorge myself if I choose, which is both a bad idea and—you remember they’ve got Creamery ice cream in here, right?—really, really tempting. But it occurs to me that unless I plan on buying bigger pants, my current pace of caloric consumption—Chick-fil-A yesterday, French toast sticks this morning—is unsustainable. So it is that I end up with a plate full of broccoli, farro, and parsnips.
And here’s the thing: It’s all really good. So good that I get seconds, of everything. I say as much to Richard, the interim food services director, whose smile registers satisfaction, but not surprise. Richard and his colleagues are proud of their work, proud of the food and the people who cook and serve it, and they want more people to know about it. And not just students: Every dining hall and retail establishment on campus is open to the public, and they’re eager to get the word out—especially to alumni, those of us for whom nostalgia and curiosity might provide a powerful pull. They want us to come back, give them a try, be surprised. Be impressed.
At Redifer, it’s easy to see why. In addition to the more traditional setup at Southside Buffet, Redifer’s South Food District offers no fewer than eight other walk-up options—burgers, pizza, Mexican, Asian, soups and salads—for a la carte buyers. It’s a similar vibe to the HUB food court, only smaller and without the restaurant chains. Hopey refers to the “living room” appeal of the commons, where it’s not unusual to see bleary-eyed students stumble in for breakfast in their pajamas. Combine that level of convenience with a lineup of options that mirrors the likes of the Chipotle or Five Guys across College Avenue, and you wouldn’t blame the students living on campus if they never felt compelled to leave.
As for quality? More than ever, how the food tastes matters, too.
“Students today are so much more educated about food,” says Bill Laychur, the university’s corporate executive chef. Though his title doesn’t quite make it clear—he says he prefers “Chef Bill,” anyway—Laychur oversees the preparation, recipe development, safety, and training for the food services operations at the 11 Penn State locations throughout the commonwealth that offer on-campus dining—meaning he’s ultimately the guy in charge of serving 65,000 meals a day. He came to Penn State food services 18 years ago after a stint at the Nittany Lion Inn, and he’s substantially expanded the operation, adding an executive chef in Mark Kowalski, a registered dietitian—Melissa Filchner Hendricks ’07 H&HD, who originated the position in 2013—and managing chefs at the individual commons. In every way, the expansion is motivated by quality control, which Laychur makes clear isn’t a mere luxury; the shift in student awareness, and therefore expectations, makes it mandatory.
“When I started, we could have something a little bit more upscale once or twice a week, and it would keep everyone happy,” he says. “Now our menus are much more diverse. It’s no longer just Chinese food—we do Korean, we do Vietnamese. American is no longer just burgers and fries—we might do Cajun food, low-country Southern. Fish is extremely popular. We constantly see what’s out there that’s within the realm of affordability and get those items on the menu.”