‘Just having fun’: UK gears up to continue dining expansion

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Jacob Eads

Those within UK Dining are eagerly eyeing the start of the fall semester, itching to unveil their newest culinary transformations to the student body.

Whether they’re making their maiden voyages onto campus or returning for their final year, students can expect to be wowed by UK Dining. Students can expect to see six new dining locations added to the campus, accompanied by a change in dining plans.

The bulk of UK Dining’s new lineup will be confined to the Bill Gatton Student Center UK unveiled in April 2018. The multimillion dollar expansion will play home to a medley of new spots for students to get their fill.

UK Dining is welcoming a new residential dining option to the student center in Champions Kitchen, a 750-seat vessel for all things quesadillas, meatloaf, burgers and more.

The student center will also see the addition of new retail dining locations in the familiar Chick-fil-A, Panda Cuisine and Subway previously housed in Bowman’s Den. The university has also added another Wildcat Pantry location and an Auntie Anne’s, which is sure to grab students by the nose on their first trip into the building.

With these new retail locations, students can expect more points of sale, larger restaurant locations and shorter waits to grab their food, according to UK Dining officials. And the benefits are already attracting some excited customers.

“Just a better atmosphere, like I want to be in here,” said UK RUF employee Wilson Jamison. “The student center is going to have an impact on campus by really changing the flow of campus. It’s going to build a lot of unity on campus.”

Resident District Manager for UK Dining Pulkit Vigg said he is excited to invite these new and improved options onto campus, in hopes of being top dog when it comes to university food standards.

“Our goal is, as usual, being the best in the SEC, and I think currently we are currently the best,” said Vigg. “We’re just doing a lot of fun stuff.”

Returning students might be surprised by the absence of UK’s previous hotspot for retail dining options, Bowman’s Den. The once bustling temporary location is now just a patch of grass.

Bowman’s Den seated approximately 450 students, while the student center boasts around 1,400 seats between Champions Kitchen and its retail locations.

“We know community isn’t built with taking your food out in a bag. It’s sit down and enjoy,” said Associate Vice President for Administration Penny Cox.

With the recent elimination of Wildcat Deals, students will no longer be able to purchase food from retail dining options with their meal swipes, but UK Dining has a plan for that.

UK Dining will now incorporate all-access plans with varying amounts of flex dollars into its dining plans. Students who opt for the new plans will be able to frequent the campus’s residential dining locations as much as they like during the semester without the fear of running out of meal swipes.

“We truly believe that community and engagement is achieved at the residential dining locations,” Vigg said.

Vigg said that the majority of students who have bought meal plans for the fall semester are opting for the all-inclusive package. But students who don’t spring for the all-access plan can still rely on a base meal plan with 10 meal swipes per week.

While these developments in UK Dining are sure to engage and excite some students, others in the campus community don’t seem to feel the same way.

Just off campus exists a community of restaurateurs vying for attention from the thousands of campus diners, a feat that has proven nearly impossible for some.

In less than two years, about 10 restaurants in the South Limestone area have either closed or been sold into new ownership. Businesses like Jimmy John’s, Street Craves, Noodles & Company, Blaze Pizza, Pazzo’s and Smashburger top the list.

Those who operated these fallen off-campus restaurants seem to share the sentiment that UK is strangling their business.

But while some businesses are moving out, others aren’t wasting time filling their spots.

“Places close all the time, and something opens there six months later,” said Crumzz Bar and Grill General Manager Chris Geisler. “Everybody always tries to build a better mousetrap.”

Crumzz Bar and Grill recently filled the vacancy on the corner of South Limestone and Avenue of Champions left by Street Craves, and has essentially had a front-row seat to the university’s efforts to expand its dining options at the new student center.

Geisler said that restaurants in the South Limestone area are essentially catering to the university population, and that can come with some pitfalls.

“I think it was probably better for the businesses around here for the last two years, and now we’re going to see what happens now that you have a multimillion dollar student center opening,” said Geisler.

Geisler grew up in Lexington and earned his Master’s degree from UK, and his restaurant even has a picture of the campus hanging on its wall, but according to him, that doesn’t mean the university owes him anything.

“I know it’s not the university’s… responsibility to prop up the local businesses that surround the campus or that are adjacent to the campus, but I think it’s in the university’s best interest,” said Geisler.

While members of Crumzz management hopes for a long stay at their new location, they aren’t blind to the possibilities. Geisler said while he does his best to ally with the university, he wishes there was more they could do.

“It’d be nice if there was some type of partnership where we could participate in flex or something like that,” said Geisler.

However, in the midst of a dog-eat-dog private business atmosphere, UK Dining isn’t turning a blind eye to its community.

UK Dining officials say they’re working to implement a food donation program to better utilize the university’s extra food and help other organizations around town. UK Dining currently partners with a local firm to train community members with less means and hire them as employees.

While UK Dining officials work to change the landscape of the campus’s food options this semester, they are certainly keeping one thing in mind.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to the most. Just having fun,” Vigg said. “Food is so much fun.”