Central Washington University’s (CWU) Campus Executive Chef Joe Ritchie has a background in fine dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, but he sees his current role managing the CWU’s dining programs as his biggest opportunity yet — introducing young consumers to new foods and styles of cooking.
At CWU, he’s responsible for all food and beverage programs on the entire campus, which includes about 20 different operations.
“It’s neat because you have this huge, massive clientele who are just blank canvases in terms of what they’re into and what they’re willing to try,” he said.
A perfect example of this effort, the newly launched Fresh Bar, is designed to use produce from the campus farm.
“We wanted a smaller concept so we could do small batches and more creative food,” Ritchie said. “We collaborate very closely with (the farm), giving them the list of things that we’d like to see in the future and the concepts, and we were able to plant those seeds and have that produce come from the farm.”
Fresh Bar also filled a need, Ritchie said, for healthy, more plant-based food options — “smaller portions of proteins, less processed foods, less sugars, more healthy oils” — that still taste good. ‘Healthy’ and ‘delicious’ shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, he said.
Ritchie also said that even he, who is “definitely not a vegan,” loves the vegan menu items and eats them often.
And he’s not alone. Sometimes called ‘flexitarian,’ there’s a growing number of people who simply want to add more plant-based options to their diet. In fact, according to Innova Market Insights, ‘plant-based’ claims for food and beverage launches are experiencing strong growth globally, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% from 2015 to 2019.
Ritchie pointed to Fresh Bar’s Mediterranean bowl as a popular menu item and his personal favorite.
“It’s a tabouli salad, it’s got fresh cucumbers, hummus, tzatziki, and then crispy pita bread,” he said. “It’s light, it’s refreshing, but it’s also satisfying and filling.”
The vegan wrap is also popular, as is a buckwheat waffle topped with fresh cashew butter and fresh fruit. Fresh Bar also offers fresh-squeezed juices, which Ritchie said have “really, really taken off.”
However, that doesn’t mean the entire menu is healthy. Ritchie noted traditional comfort foods — french fries, hamburgers, pizza, chicken tenders — are still super popular.
The idea is to have options. A student might grab a slice of pizza for lunch and then eat a vegan wrap for dinner. But no matter the offer, dietary or ‘free-from’ labels are also increasingly important, and Ritchie said he and his team are working to stay ahead of this trend.
“We have the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans), and then we also indicate whether it’s vegan and vegetarian,” he said.
Ritchie also makes a point of offering a diverse selection of menu items and will reach out to student groups on campus, particularly the different international or cultural groups, to find out what they’d like to see on the menu and ensure their favorite foods are represented.
The dining services will also host pop-up dinners (three are scheduled for this quarter) as a way to test new menu items or ideas. If the response is positive, it may be added long-term.
“We opened a ramen concept recently, and that was based on positive feedback we got from one of our pop-ups,” Ritchie said.
While CWU does have a fairly diverse student population, Ritchie noted that Gen Z as a whole is exposed to more diverse, international foods overall and are “more willing to try things than (older) generations.”
Since its start, the Fresh Bar has been operating as a takeout-only model, and that’s expected to continue through the winter quarter.
Other safety precautions include plexiglass shields for cashiers, face shields and masks for all guest-facing staff, a 15-minute sanitation rotation and altered queuing.
“It’s all about speed of service,” Ritchie said. “We’ve definitely made a lot of changes in that area.”
At the start of the fall semester, campus dining is also rolling out mobile ordering through GET Mobile for five of its concepts — an initiative the team got up and running in just three months.
Students can order and pay with their student card, all through the app, then retrieve their order at a designated pickup point. So far, Ritchie said, the response has been “really, really positive.”
“It’s something that I normally wouldn’t suggest you do in three months,” Ritchie said. “(But) it was worth our while to make it happen. … We’re hoping 20%, 30%, 40% of our orders end up being mobile by the end of the year.”
While safety is the priority, there are some notable disadvantages to takeout versus dine-in, such as the presentation of the food, or plating. Packaging is also especially important with a takeout model.
The entire campus dining program is currently moving to all-compostable, eco-friendly to-go packaging through World Centric, with the goal of reducing dining services’ footprint.
Prior to the decision, the team conducted a study with a student group to find out how much disposable packaging it was going through each day in its dining hall alone. Ultimately, Ritchie said, making the switch was a no-brainer.
“It was pretty staggering,” he said. “It made us understand that this is impactful.”