University dining as a “third place” experience, the next big thing

University dining services everywhere are facing a challenge. Students are reassessing the value proposition of their institutions. To create an environment that fosters and promotes that value proposition requires campus venues that deliver on the feeling of community.


University dining services everywhere are facing a challenge. Students are reassessing the value proposition of their institutions. To create an environment that fosters and promotes that value proposition requires campus venues that deliver on the feeling of community. For one university in California, a plan has been put together that translates the best and most relevant macro and micro restaurant trends, captures the student and university customer voice, applies technical research, and designs a unique community-based dining solution to create a true “third place” environment for a modern dining services experience.

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Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term third place to distinguish a location where people gather outside the familiar places of home, school, and work. Our first place is home. Second place is work (or for the student, higher education campuses). Third place is that anchor of community life that facilitates and fosters broader, more creative interaction. The fresh thinking about this is the intentionality of seeking out a third place as vital to current societal needs.

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So how do you create that sense of third place community that adds to the university value proposition?

Like all universities, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, faces these challenges. The town of San Luis Obispo encompasses 13 square miles of farm land, vineyards, rolling hills, and sandy beaches as well as a small town charm that delights the population and tourists. Art, wine tasting, cultural activities, farmers markets, and quaint shops frame the essence of this place. Restaurants are independently owned and operated with little penetration of outside brands. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Laurus College, the University of La Verne, and Cuesta College are all located here. This is a college town.

The story begins with strategic planning work, grounded in the nuts and bolts of the technical research:

  • Guiding principles are established to influence the decision making.
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On-campus research includes interviews, focus groups, and campus surveys to understand the buying behaviors and satisfaction for the food service locations and the meal plans.
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Peer campus benchmarking is used to determine how the dining services are positioned compared to competitors.
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A demand and capacity study is used to identify the current situation and future demand for facilities in terms of points of service, location, velocity, and concept.
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Operations, financial, and facility assessments are conducted to understand the boundaries and factors in development

Once these issues are understood, we apply the design filters of a true third place environment:

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Neutral Ground “I am here because I want to be, not because I have to be here.”
  • Leveler “I am just as important as the senior next to me.”
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Conversation Is Main Activity “It’s a fun place to eat with friends or just hang on my own.”
  • Accessibility “It never feels empty or closed.”
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The Regulars “I go there because I like the vibe.”
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A Low Profile “The environment is just my style.”
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The Mood is Playful “I feel good there.”
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A Home Away From Home “It’s comfortable.”

Then we begin to craft the best solution to the specific issues through macro and local trend analysis and translate that into the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo culture. Trend analysis is critical to seeing the whole story and the bigger picture and will help translate relevant dining trends into successful, thriving, and enduring future concepts. Through this process, we generally find successful alignments and see opportunities arise.

In the case of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, we were influenced by where students go to eat socially, as well as the chef-driven food halls created by the visionary chef and trendsetters Tom Douglas, Mario Batali, and Todd English (see graphics below). Businesses everywhere, including restaurants pioneered by these chefs, are building on the notion of creating a third place. The reason: It drives intent to return, offering a comfortable environment where you can lounge, relax, and purchase products and services that are conveniently placed within the space. This is a competitive advantage in the world of business.

These third-place style food halls contribute to this sense of belonging and neighborhood vibe for many reasons:

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Spaces are constructed in neighborhoods with accompanying food and retail offerings.
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Food and beverage are readily available near any lounge and gathering area.
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Seating is a combination of soft lounge chairs, community tables, high bar stools, and intimate gathering spots.
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Activities such as board games and shuffleboard stimulate group interaction.
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Fireplaces provide warmth and comfort to the areas.
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Natural and reclaimed wood, metals, glass, and fabrics add texture and depth.
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High ceilings with natural light bring the outdoors inside.
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There is an ease of entering multiple venues with smooth circulation allowing access from room to room.
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Signature food concepts create authentic representation of farm-to-table meals.

For Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the trend analysis allows us to realize a clear and completely customized story to rebrand, update, reshape, and reinvent. We form the strategic plan with both quantitative and qualitative analytics to process and understand where the gaps are and, then we start to build concepts that address these gaps.

What is the result of the research, food and flavor trend analysis, strategic planning, and design evaluation?

California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo Program Plan, 42,000 Square Feet

A rustic, modern destination assembly style food hall celebrating diversity, “made fresh for me” restaurants and shops with signature to-go offerings featuring Cal Poly farm-to-fork foods and promoting healthy lifestyles — all in a convenient, modern, comfortable vibe.

Filters: Authentic, modern/rustic, farm-to-fork, clean food, nutrient focus with a comfort twist, diverse

Assembly Hall One:
Upcycled burger bar, carved-to-order salad, chicken concept, hand-crafted sandwiches

Assembly Hall Two:
Mexican/Latin concept, modern sushi, local BBQ, Indian street food

Cornerstore (Concept photos):
Fair Trade coffee, artisan bakery, steel cut oats and ancient grains bar, daily mom’s home-cooked meal, made-to-order creperie, RTE fresh-baked rustic sandwiches, RTE specialty salads, cold-pressed juice bar, beverages and snacks, local fresh fruits and vegetables

Sage sit-down restaurant, main kitchen (supported by commissary kitchen), farm-to-fender food truck
Creating a value proposition for students and food operations is integral to developing a sense of community that fosters value. How do you craft a plan that creates a visceral connection with stakeholders so you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you, and the president says “Love it! When can we start building?”

Gather around the fireplace. Engage in games. Converse. Interact.

The key to success is using the art of storytelling and the science of business strategy to drive an emotional connection that sells the plan.


Susan Wilkie
Susan Wilkie is Vice President Strategic Planning at Webb Design.

Marion Edwards
Marion Edwards is the Creative Principal at FOODTHINK.

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