Otter Up

Otter Kitchens Executive Chef Mary Russo says pizza is the number-one favorite among CSUMB students. As the year progresses, students are willing to be more adventerous.

It’s 4:55pm on a Monday afternoon and around 20 CSU Monterey Bay students are hovering outside the dining hall entrance, waiting for the magic moment when the door is unlocked. Inside there is a bounty of food waiting at several stations. The aroma of pizza, roasted meats and taco fixings is filling the hall.

When the door opens and the students check in, most of them make a beeline for three very large pizzas waiting at the Italian food station called “Cucina.”

Pizza is hands-down the daily favorite menu item at The Eatery, the new name for the university’s dining commons. Tonight they are serving up big slices of sausage, pepperoni and classic cheese. The night’s pasta item is fettuccine alfredo. Nearby at the “Flame” station, which focuses on comfort food, there are three dishes on offer: roast turkey, creamy polenta, and stewed tomatoes. A few students head there, and a few others make their way to “La Mesa,” the taco bar.

Such choices are standard and expected within university dining halls. But there’s more to this new iteration of the CSUMB dining hall since a national company, Chartwells Higher Education (a division of parent company Compass Group), took over food concessions at the university this semester. Chartwells has contracts at over 300 campuses in the U.S., but it’s not cookie-cutter. In fact, the company prides itself on creating programs unique to each campus. At CSUMB, dining services go by the name Otter Kitchens and the food program is tailored to fit the needs and interests of the university’s students.

The company is also committed to serving students with different dietary needs and interests. For example, to the right of the popular pizza station is the “Rooted” station, dedicated to vegetarian and vegan meals made with alternative proteins like beans, peas and quinoa.

“We don’t use ‘fake’ meats,” says Otter Kitchens Executive Chef Mary Russo. “Our vegetarian and vegan menus are quite extensive. We spend a lot of time making them beautiful with garnishes and switching them up and making sure they’re colorful and appetizing and also nutritionally sound.”

Rooted is popular, even among meat-eating students who want to incorporate more plant-based meals. Marketing Manager Alexandra Perez says they’ve noticed there are more vegetarian and vegan students at CSUMB, and even President Eduardo Ochoa is vegan. “We try to incorporate that into our strategy,” she says.

Next to Rooted inside The Eatery is “G8,” representing gluten-free and the eight common allergens: wheat, eggs, dairy, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, peanuts. G8 serves dishes free of those items and prepared in a separate area with its own set of cooking tools and serving utensils to avoid any cross contamination.

“Someone who has a food allergy can safely come into our dining commons and know that if they eat at that station they won’t encounter any of the major allergens,” Russo says. The station has “quite the crowd” daily, as even students with no allergies line up there.

Otter Kitchens’ reach stretches outside The Eatery, too.

The dining service contracts with Ace Sushi, which makes fresh rolls daily inside CSUMB’s convenience store, the Sea Store. “Their chef team is here, and from the morning until they leave they never stop,” General Manager Michael Rodgers says.

And playing off the popularity of ghost kitchens, a trend started in New York City for delivery-only or takeout-only foods, Otter Kitchens launched its own – called simply “Ghost Kitchen” – which is open after 8pm when other campus food locations are closed. Students can order food like tacos, chicken tenders or waffle fries off of the company’s mobile app, pay for it in-app and then pick it up at the student union. The plan is to change up the menu often based on student input, Russo says.

Even though Ghost Kitchen is only several weeks old, it’s already proved successful, according to Rodgers. Keeping up with trends, as well as students’ needs and desires, is built-in to the company’s culture. “The culinary world continuously evolves,” Rodgers says. “As trends change we want to change with it so we don’t get left behind.”

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