Aug 08, 2020

University Courtyard — the campus buffet

Juan Villa / The Collegian

There’s a new item on the University Courtyard Dining Hall lunch menu this semester, bringing with it a taste of Japan and approval from some campus diners.

Each Monday through Friday, a chef from Bentley’s Fresh Market on Fort Washington Road in Fresno arrives at the dining hall to prepare fresh sushi for the customers.

David Binkle, director of Dining Services, said hiring the sushi chef is part of his goal to provide freshly prepared food.

“We’re able to do more presentation,” Binkle said. “More cooking in front of the customer as opposed to all the food being prepared in the back and then being brought out as the day goes along.”

Binkle meets with the Residence Hall Association and other student groups on campus on a regular basis. When students asked for more variety and healthy food options, Binkle said he expanded the salad bar and introduced daily feature specials.

Jessica Maddox, a 21-year old pre-physical therapy major, eats at the dining hall about once a day, usually for dinner. She’s tried the sushi, describing it as “pretty good.”

“I know a lot of people really like it so that’s one good addition,” Maddox said.

Although the main dishes don’t always meet with her approval, Maddox said the salad bar and sandwich bar are “usually good.”

“It’s hard to know if you’re going to get a good meal or not,” Maddox said. “When they have a barbecue, it’s a good variety and it’s good.”

Freshman Danielle Escover eats at the dining hall about 10 times a week. She likes the sushi, salad and deli sandwiches.

“There are a lot of side foods and, personally, I like a lot of vegetables,” Escover said. “There aren’t a lot of veggies there unless you have a fresh salad. The greenery in the salads is always pretty fresh.”

The dining hall, which is also open to the public, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. The prices range from $5.10 for breakfast to $7.95 for dinner. During the “Five Buck Friday” weekly special, all meals are $5.

The menu features food stations, including The Back Line, or main entrees, Daily Features, The Grill, The Deli Bar, Soup Stop, Salad Bar, Potato and Pasta Bar, and Dessert Bar.

Brent Hansen, marketing coordinator for the California State University, Fresno Auxiliary Corporation, said The Grill station provides students with more options for made-to-order food, including hamburgers, veggie burgers and grilled chicken.

“We have a chef on site that will cook for students right in front of them,” Hansen said. “Students can ask for specially prepared foods, whatever the theme meal of the day might be.”

Hansen said the dining hall holds spirit nights on football game days, theme nights and outdoor barbecues.

“There’s sometimes the monotony of eating at the same establishment day in and day out,” Hansen said. “That’s why we’re trying to come up with some new ideas and some new dining options to give our students while eating in the same facility.”

For those students who want a quick sandwich or snack for studying, the Courtyard Express is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The restaurant, which opened in the spring of 2007 on the Atrium patio, is based on what Hansen calls the “grab and go” concept.

“It provides students with a late-night snack option and it’s in a safe and secure location,” Hansen said. “It is within the Atrium, and the only way you’re allowed to get into the Atrium past 5 p.m. is to have your residence keycard.”

But with the customer base so diverse, providing food options to please everyone is a challenge, Binkle said.

“My goal is to always get better at it,” Binkle said. “I know we have a long way to go and I’ll be the first to admit that. I think we have come a long way from where we were a year or two years ago.”

Yet, the changes in the University Courtyard Dining Hall aren’t happening fast enough for some students.

After Fresno Bee food columnist Joan Obra wrote an article about Binkle’s improvements, fourth-year student Lauren McQuone said in a letter to the editor that the menu was upgraded for Obra’s planned visit.

“That particular day, when you enjoyed the fresher and healthier entrees of University Dining Services,” McQuone said in the letter, “the students who dine there on a daily basis were delighted though puzzled by the unexplained improvement in the menu.”

McQuone said she might discontinue her meal plan if the dining hall menu doesn’t improve.

“This talk of plans of new, healthier, organic, eco-whatever food options is lovely, but students paying now should benefit now,” McQuone said in the letter.

Obra, who received more than one letter, said students might have misunderstood the purpose of the article — to highlight a local example of the national trend to improve menus at college and university dining facilities.

“The story was pointing out this is a work in progress,” Obra said in a phone interview with The Collegian. “These are things that they’re trying to do and they’re instituting. This is something that’s being done at other universities across the nation, but at no point was it ever intended to be a review or an investigative piece.”

Obra said she toured the kitchens as part of her visit to the dining hall.

“I was with David, but that’s because I had set up an interview with him,” Obra said. “We were doing this specific news story to look at the changes that he’s trying to implement.”

Obra said the letters from students are useful.

“What Lauren says in her letter actually makes a good point,” Obra said. “If you’re going to be paying now, you should benefit now, and certainly I think that’s one of the things David Binkle is trying to do with some of these changes.”

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