Needed: A Commons Solution

Excellence, friendliness and casual flavor of the Bates dining scene is exemplified by Dining Services staffers like Pablo Colon, seen here on the cover of the Winter 2006 Bates Magazine with student Maggie McCally ’08.

Finding the office of Christine Schwartz, director of Bates Dining Services, involves a human-scale game of Chutes and Ladders. Entering Chase Hall opposite Carnegie Science, you walk though two sets of doors, pass the Concierge, bear right, bend left up a ramp, take two rights, a left, two more rights, go through a doorway, descend 13 steps, and walk straight ahead. Got it?

Overlooking the kitchen, Schwartz’s ground-level office has a decor of upbeat clutter. In one corner is a bookshelf, from which Schwartz plucks her new favorite book, the Best of Gourmet 2005: A Year of Celebrations, already fluttering with stickies. Propped in another corner are rolls of architectural schematics for Bates’ new, $28.65 million dining Commons, set for groundbreaking in the fall.

In another corner is a case of Isomil baby formula. It’s for a student with dairy allergies. “I order it for her. She’s a first-year without a car,” Schwartz says. I register a bit of surprise. “It’s what we do,” she says.

Dining Services currently dishes up 4,000 meals a day in Commons — and caters another 5,000 events annually — despite funhouse wayfinding, comical space limitations, and less-funny workplace challenges. Head chef George Dimond used a pedometer to discover that he walks three miles in a typical day, which includes countless trips up and down the 18 steps between the upstairs dining hall and downstairs kitchen. “You feel it in the hamstrings,” he says. “But a cook needs to see the customers. We know they have ideas about the food.”

On the busiest weekdays (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), classes end at 11:55, sending hungry hundreds streaming toward Memorial Commons.

Lunch at the current Commons is a hectic time, and on the busiest days up to 900 students flow into a dining space that accommodates 600 at a time. Shown here are Morgan Brown ’07 (left) of Ellsworth, Maine, and Kim Alexander ’07 (right) of Cumberland, Maine.

Within the hour, up to 900 students will be seated, or tryto be seated, in a space that accommodates just 600. The savvy early arrivals scamper in before getting their food to claim a seat by leaving their Bates ID card at a table. Others, less strategic, will end up circling the seated with tray in hand, penitent, waiting for an open spot.

“You learn pretty quick when not to come to Commons: noon and 6,” says Sam Welles ’07. He and Peter Strumolo ’07 are caught in a rare post–1 p.m. backup along the entry ramp. A quizzical Welles turns to Strumolo: “Is it noon?” And they’re veterans of the Commons scene. What about those wide-eyed parents with sub-frosh child shuffling through at noon one weekday? “I’m sure when visitors see the layout, they see a deficiency,” Schwartz admits. “But when they look at the offerings and personal service, it overrides those concerns.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, the crush has come, dined, and gone. Before taking a seat in the dining room, Alex Smith ’06 moves leisurely, stopping by the pizza bar but taking no pizza. It’s not a matter of taste; his visit to “Pablo’s Pizza Palace,” staffed by Pablo Colón, is purely social. A physics major who likes jazz, Smith often checks in with fellow music aficionado Colón. “Pablo has great taste in music,” Smith says between bites of his tuna melt.

Smith’s visit with Colón exemplifies the second of two reasons Bates is willing to plunk down $30 million to build a new dining hall. The first, of course, is simply about replacing an outdated building with a better and newer arrangement of bricks and mortar. The second recognizes that what goes on inside has everything to do with a Bates education. “Bates people have a great affinity for gathering and being with each other,” says Dean of Students Tedd Goundie, now in his second year. “And Commons is where students talk about what’s going on in their lives, with each other, with workers, with faculty. We need to preserve that.”

Last spring and summer, Sasaki Associates, the project architects, heard Dining Services and students compare Commons to a bustling family kitchen, a relaxing and no-frills space where conversation ebbs and flows, where students gain confidence by chatting about everything from “the weightiest matters of state to the last ball game or worst ‘flunk,'” in the words of The Bates Student in 1887.

So rather than offering a plan for “distributed” dining options, popular at other colleges, Sasaki recommended that Bates retain a single dining hall. “We were open to finding a better way to organize dining,” Bates president Elaine Tuttle Hansen says. “But the old model still holds. Because students are so engaged in different activities and communities, a home base where they can come together and reconnect over meals may be even more important today.”

Indeed, with a sense of mission, students want Bates to maintain a family atmosphere in the new Commons. “Most people say that the Commons workers treat them as their own grandchildren or children,” says Melissa Simones ’06, who was involved in the spring discussions. “We know their names, we interact daily with them, and we don’t want to lose this.”

In 1950, Bates added Memorial Commons onto Chase Hall, built in 1921. Renovations and additions in 1967, 1971, and 1978 created eight different elevations in Chase. Navigating inside is like finding your way through a cornfield. As with the case for prior building projects at Bates, the College now walks a line between noting flaws in the tired facility and celebrating what nevertheless works well. In her Virginia drawl, Christine Schwartz offers a deadpan comment: “Well, let me say that we’ve always maligned this building.”

Schwartz and the staff recently added another food-service rule: “Don’t Run the Robot Coupe [an industrial food processor] and the Computer Printer at the Same Time” — it trips a circuit breaker.

Commons kitchen below the dining hall, Joseph Albert, sanitation and safety worker for Dining Services, winds his way past the cooks at lunchtime.

Assistant chef Aaron Lord points to the grill. “We can’t cook burgers from start to finish because smoke goes into Commons,” he says. “So we mark the burgers on the grill and finish them in an oven.”

Around noontime, the lunch staff is at work and the evening staff is prepping for dinner. “Every space is taken, and the computer workstation, where we print out recipes, is blocked with carts,” Lord says. “There’s a lot of ‘excuse me,’ ‘behind you.'”

A new facility will solve the space and efficiency problems and save money by permitting larger, bulk-purchase discounts. A single level will save Dimond’s hamstrings. But there’s more. Dining Services already prepares three-quarters of its menu offerings from scratch and routinely wins awards for its environmental, creative, and quality-control efforts. In a parallel to the restaurant world’s “open kitchen,” the new facility will put much of this acclaimed food prep — and the preparers — into public view for the first time, further promoting rapport between students and Dining Services staff.

The marketplace model “is where the industry is and will continue to be,” says Schwartz. Food stations — the hot-dish line, pasta and salad bars, and so on — are currently scattered, seemingly at random, around Commons. But the new facility will incorporate a “servery” that clusters nine themed stations into a sort of critical mass of temptation. Rather than a strict flow from check-in to serving line to chair, students can enter, scope out the scene — who’s where, what’s to eat — then circulate through the marketplace.

The heart of the servery will be a giant brick-and-copper oven, ringed by a counter offering the most popular eats: pizza, pasta, soup, salad, and deli. Students will find more complex entrees — your lemon pepper pollack, your shepherd’s pie — at a “Euro kitchen” in one corner. The “marché grille” will brown the burgers and fry the fries in another corner, well away from the curried veg and spicy tofu at the vegetarian station. Dominating the back wall like the fireplace in a Colonial house, a large display bakery will provide comforting views of danishes and muffins sliding into the oven.

Schwartz and her staff use natural human curiosity about food to educate students about food issues and, by extension, the world around them. “Consumers want to know about the preparation of food, where it’s happening and how it’s happening,” says Schwartz. “They know that food impacts every aspect of human life.”

Indeed. A student, writing a comment for the Napkin Board in Commons, recently expressed an interest in a food services career, but wondered if her parents would approve. “It is not so much what you study,” Schwartz wrote in her reply, “but rather that you have a passion for what you do. Isn’t that why we all choose a liberal arts college?”

Providing opportunities for conversations like this — in Commons, dorm rooms, or on the team bus to an away game — is “the most important secret weapon we have to open students up to the life of the mind,” says Hansen. Students who arrive at Bates with the misguided notion that they must learn to “do” something, instead learn a more abstract skill: how “to play with ideas” in lively conversations, says Hansen. “They learn to banter in a safe environment free from worries of the ‘real world. That’s why people leave a liberal arts college feeling transformed, believing in learning for learning’s sake.”