GRAZERS, Fresco discuss future in dining services


Students line up at Wholly Habanero, located in the Student Center’s HUB, on Aug. 29, 2015. Wholly Habaneros is new to the HUB and offers a create-your-own burrito bar.

Henry Palattella

The Kent State Board of Trustees voted to approve Aramark as the new dining services vendor on March 2. The company is planning on adding Fresco Mexican Grill & Salsa Bar and GRAZERS to campus, but when Aramark reached out to the establishments, the owners didn’t know how to react.

“The first time Aramark called, I thought it was just a sales call so I said, ‘No, we’re not interested in anything,’” GRAZERS manager Carl Bauer said. “But then they called back, thankfully, and they said ‘We’re working on putting together a bid for Kent State, and we saw your online presence and what you guys do with students already, and we think it would fit with our mission to help Kent State be the healthiest campus in the United States.’”

The plans involve changing every dining hall so there is more of a focus on fresh food and vegetables, as well as healthier eating choices. This is evident in the Student Center where GRAZERS and Fresco — both local establishments who pride themselves on their healthy menus — will be located.

T.J. Ingersoll, the owner of Fresco, shared the sentiment.

“I was a little hesitant at first,” he said of Aramark asking for a partnership with Fresco. “We’re a small mom and pop restaurant that a giant international conglomerate (came to). It’s a big corporation.”

GRAZERS’ menu features numerous items and dishes of both vegan and non-vegan variety, which is something owner Stacey Lasher said she believes helped Aramark take notice of them. 

“The university is looking to be part of the local community … so they wanted to find business that were locally owned and locally operated but also (help) fit in becoming the healthiest campus in the country,” she said.

The process of changing dining suppliers began in December 2015 when the Board of Trustees approved the university’s strategic roadmap, which put of a focus on making Kent State’s campus healthier.  

This led to the search for a new dining supplier, which started in March 2016 when the university hired Innovative Hospitality Solutions to work with a group of about 30 stakeholders to help do an assessment of the dining program, Vice President of Student Affairs Shay Little said.

“We had heard from students that students wanted more flexibility and that they were taking classes at different locations and wanted to use their meal plan at different locations,” Little said. “So we got through that documentation process, and that released the formal request for proposals in October, and that really began a series of meetings of dialogue.”

The same stakeholder group interviewed each of the three bidders, who also participated in open forums with the Kent State student body. The Board of Trustees then approved the recommended partnership with Aramark on March 2.

Little said the early feedback about adding GRAZERS and Fresco to the HUB was positive.

“Aramark proposed adding GRAZERS and Fresco to the Student Center, which — anecdotally from students — I’ve heard lots of enthusiasm about,” she said. “Students want healthier options in the HUB, and GRAZERS and Fresco certainty bring that experience there.”

The expansion will provide drastic changes for both establishments, but both owners stressed that their ingredients will not change between their respective restaurant and the Student Center.

“(At the chains) they have one central kitchen where they make everything and then bag it and distribute it through all the stores,” Ingersoll said. “No matter how big we get, I don’t want that to happen, because I know that detracts from the quality of the food.”

Despite this, both establishments will still have to change some parts of their menus to accompany the new demands.

“We’re going to keep all of the same bases, except for the quesadilla because (Fresco) is going to do quesadillas, so we don’t want to do a repeat of what they’re doing,” Bauer said of the GRAZERS menu. “We’re most likely not going to carry the pizzas. (Kent State) is also keeping Prentice gluten-free, so I think we’re going to let go of the gluten-free pizza that’s on our menu now up there, but you’ll still be able to get the full menu down here.”

Lasher said GRAZERS will still offer Gluten-free items. 

Both stressed that the GRAZERS in the Student Center will still have the same quality ingredients as the GRAZERS found at the corner of Summit Street and Franklin Avenue.

“People who know GRAZERS and come here now, we want them to go to (the Student Center) and know it’s still GRAZERS,” Lasher said. “We plan to have additional specials there, like a vegan special of the day.”

For Ingersoll, his restrictions aren’t so much due to other establishments, but due to sheer quantity.

“I’m still trying to figure out if we’re going to have the salsa bar or not. We might just change the name to Fresco Mexican Express if we don’t have the salsa bar,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to incorporate the salsa bar somehow. But I can’t have it like here because there’s a thousand people in the dining hall. (That would) be disastrous.” 

Ingersoll also stressed time constraints could play a big part in what gets moved to the Student Center.

“It’s going to be a little more limited menu (on campus),” he said. “We cook our seafood to order, so it takes 10-15 minutes, so we might not have the seafood (on campus).”

Lasher and Bauer are currently grappling with the idea of how they are going to change their ordering process, which normally involves customers circling the items that they want on a menu.

“We want it to be that you go down the line — like a Chipotle or a Subway — where you pick your stuff in front of you to streamline things,” Bauer said. “There will be some difference, but the heart of GRAZERS will stay the same.”

Ingersoll said the new location will open his brand up to a new demographic of clientele, which is something he is excited about.

“Center of campus is going to be mostly students and faculty; (downtown) is more a great mix of people,” Ingersoll said. “You’ve got locals, businesses above us, people coming from all the surrounding areas … so we get a ton of that down here, which isn’t going to happen in the Student Center. We don’t get any commuters (downtown). Kids commuting to school are going to campus, studying, eating on campus and leaving. They’re not coming downtown.”

Aramark has said that all current Kent State dining employees will keep their jobs throughout the transition.

The close proximity of the businesses to campus is something that both owners will allow owners flexibility in traveling between both locations. 

“At the beginning, I’ll be in the Student Center all the time,” Ingersoll said. “I am going to bring a few of my guys to train and work over there.”

Lasher also said she and Bauer will be very involved in the GRAZERS at the Student Center, especially during its inception.

“We have a very reliable staff (at our current location),” she said. “They understand our mission about healthy food and they’re real good with the customers, so I think it can start out where we’re in the (Student Center) quite a bit until we get it running smoothly, and then we may switch off. I’m sure we’ll be back and forth.”

The move to the Student Center will be a new environment for both vendors, which is something that both restaurants will have to adapt to, as they’ll be occupying places that weren’t originally designed for their establishments.

GRAZERS will be in the space currently occupied by The Slice.

Little said more drastic renovations will occur next summer.

“I think the biggest renovations in the Aramark proposals are planned in the summer of 2018,” Little said. “I think they plan on hiring a health and wellness manager who will be involved in our Kent State of Wellness Initiative … and that individual will also be available to work with students on their own individual needs and questions.”

Henry Palattella is an administration reporter, contact him at [email protected]