U. staff, students: spice up McDonald Dining

Kara Hull and Kara Hull

If University officials have their way, once renovations to McDonald’s dining are done patrons won’t be able to recognize the place.

“Renovation” is actually a polite word for what officials hope to do to the space that now houses McDonald’s Dining Center, the GT Express Convenience Store and the Campus Corners restaurant, said Marc Brunner, project manager with the Office of Design and Construction.

“It’s more than a renovation, it’s a major overhaul of the whole space,” he said.

Requests for qualifications of interested firms were sent out last week and a company to handle the project should be selected by the beginning of December, Brunner said.

Still sporting the “cafeteria line” serving areas that were part of the original design of the building in the early 1960s, starting from scratch will transform McDonald from what David Maley, assistant director of the Union’s food services, describes as “dark” and “claustrophobic” into an area more inviting for students. McDonald was last renovated in the late 1980s when the dining hall was divided into two areas: the “Cow” room on the west side, which now houses International Programs and the establishment of a “Street side” area on the east, which is still used as a dining room.

“The trend is open spaces obviously, which is the opposite of what Mac is now,” Maley said. “(Renovation is) going to give us an opportunity to have a showcase place and we want to make the best of it so we’re going to do everything we can do. Old Mac will be gone.”

But unlike renovations to Founders Keepers Food Court and the Sundial Food Court in the Kreischer Quadrangle during the last decade, this project will involve more than just aesthetic changes.

With a narrow kitchen, inadequate storage areas and much of the original 1960s equipment still being used, this project will require tackling the “back of the house” too, said Gail Finan, director of University Dining Services.

“We have a number of (pieces of) equipment now on campus that we can’t get parts for anymore,” she said. “So when it goes down, it’s down. When you have deferred maintenance, which this department has had for years, at some point you’ve got to pay the piper.”

While the layout of McDonald’s Dining Center may have worked in the 1960s when the building was built, preferences have changed, forcing the kitchen to struggle to keep up, said Linda Newman, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and director of Residence Life.

“Today we’re used to having just so many choices and people’s palates have changed over the years,” she said. “The existing kitchen is really not conducive (for making) the types of food that students are interested in eating these days. It’s not very easy to produce them on mass with the existing kitchen conditions and equipment, which consists of big ovens and big kettles.”

As of now, the estimated $7 million project will also include keeping a convenience store and some type of restaurant in McDonald. Adding a second floor to the area above the dining hall for Residence Life and Dining Services’ offices is also being considered, Newman said, but no price tag has been assessed to that option.

But the renovations shouldn’t try to mimic the design of other dining halls on campus, Newman said.

“I don’t think we’re looking to replicate Founders, Kreischer and the Union,” she said. “But just kind of take campus dining to the next step as Dining Services evolves on campus in general.”

To help brainstorm ways that the University could transform McDonald into a venue that will “delight the customer,” Finan along with Maley and other Dining Services staff members recently toured other universities like Penn State, Ashland University, the University of Akron and the University of Toledo, Finan said.

Officials will use the ideas they’ve gathered from other places as well as feedback from student focus groups and McDonald kitchen and serving line staff to detail the changes they’d like to see.

“This will be an inclusive decision and we will include as many people as we possibly can,” Finan said.

For students like sophomore Allyson Felder, plans to alter the McDonald’s set up while spicing up the atmosphere sounds like a good idea.

“I really love it here, I just think for the serving places there needs to be more room to walk through,” she said while eating in the dining center late last week. “It seems like it’s a nice atmosphere because they try to decorate, but it seems bland.”

University sophomore David Emch echoes Felder’s views, saying that he’s reminded of his high school days when he eats at McDonald.

“It’s so dreary,” he said. “The Sundial (Food Court) has a lot more open space. This just feels like high school.”

The changes that will be made certainly will help, Newman said, but officials must be careful that the design decisions that are made won’t be “out of style” soon after the project is completed.

“You don’t want to be so state of the art that you’re faddish,” she said. “You’re making decisions for many years to come.”