Students and Oakland businesses reflect on Pitt’s dining changes

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Fuel and Fuddle is one of the many restaurants in Oakland that will now accept Dining Dollars.

By Betul Tuncer, Staff Writer

Some Oakland restaurants and businesses have taken a big hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. But a small change in Pitt’s meal plans have helped bring some of the business back, according to Austin Morris, general manager at CHiKN.

Morris said the new meal plans — which allocate 25% of students’ dining dollars to off-campus dining locations — was a success that brought in a lot of students. He added that the Pitt ID reader in the restaurant got quite popular with students using dining dollars.

“I think it’s been a success,” Morris said. “Last year students came in a lot and our Pitt dining dollar machine was really popular.”

CHiKN is just one of the 27 Oakland vendors where students can now use their dining dollars. Other vendors include Fuel and Fuddle, Primanti Bros. and The Porch at Schenley. This partnership with Oakland restaurants is a way for students to use their dining dollars at places other than The Eatery at Towers and The Perch at Sutherland

This is one of the changes Compass Group made after Pitt selected it as its new single-source dining contractor beginning last July, following 29 years with previous contractor Sodexo. Compass Group has introduced a number of other changes such as new meal plans, food options and dining locations. Students have expressed mixed feelings about some of these adjustments.

Joe Beaman, director of Dining Services, said the partnership has been successful for the University as well.

“We have been incredibly excited to partner with Oakland community restaurants,” Beaman said. “The dining dollars program has been a huge win for both our students and our restaurant partners.”

Beaman said many changes were made for this semester, including a change to how meal exchanges will operate.

“We have made many enhancements in the spring semester that students will see right away,” Beaman said. “First, ‘guest passes’ that are a part of all residential meal memberships will now become ‘flex passes,’ which allows these passes to be used as meal exchanges anywhere and at any time.”

Though there are currently only 27 dining vendors in partnership with Pitt, the University is continuously looking to create more partnerships, Beaman said. Through the Pitt Eats Local program, the University is especially looking to partner with more Pittsburgh-based and local family-owned restaurants.

Beaman also added that students can expect more meal exchange options at Oakland restaurants for the semester and new meal options on-campus at the Forbes Street Market and the Roost.

“With more than 10 new meal exchange options for this spring semester, we are excited to continue to add delicious, healthy options including new meal deals at the fresh deli counter at Forbes Street Market, as well as our new grilled chicken program at the Roost in the Cathedral,” Beaman said.

Nick Woten, a sophomore biological sciences major, said he’s happy that Pitt has allocated dining dollars toward different Oakland restaurants. He said it gives him more options beyond The Eatery and The Perch.

“It’s good to have a variety because I get tired of eating the same food from the same place every day,” Woten said. “And I have been going to the qualifying restaurants more often since it doesn’t come directly out of my wallet with dining dollars.”

Megan McCann, a junior communication science major, said she’s pleased with all the new additions that have been made to dining services, especially the expansion of meal exchanges.

“I usually never enjoyed Pitt’s dining during my first and second year, but I feel like they opened up so many options during the pandemic,” McCann said. “I also enjoy that they’ve expanded the meal exchange in places like Forbes Street Market, because I am a terrible cook, but I still have options.”

Morris said the new meal plans are a great opportunity for both students and business owners — especially CHiKN.

“It’s a good way for students to use their dining dollars outside of campus and it helps our restaurant as well,” Morris said.

Mike Damas, the manager at The Porch, said students were coming into the restaurant frequently last semester to use their dining dollars. But he said because many students were not on campus during winter break, his business’s income from dining dollars went down.
“We were doing really well when students were up on campus, but it’s not helping us much right now,” Damas said. “We definitely expect more business to come in again once students are back on campus.”

Damas said while most of the time prices are normal, there were some days when The Porch did offer a student discount, especially when other vendors in partnership with Pitt did as well.

“Items are usually just the regular price but there were some days we did a student discount where everyone who paid with dining dollars got a 10% discount,” Damas said. “And there were times when other restaurants did discounts so we did too.”

Restaurants have had to adapt to new COVID-19 guidelines, such as limited capacity indoor dining. Other regulations include requiring customers and staff to be masked at all times and making space for customers to socially distance.

Kimberly Greeme, owner of Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor, said these restrictions have kept Klavon’s from offering dine-in service as an option, which made business slower. But she said students have been coming to the parlor more often because of the new meal plans.

“For the most part, COVID’s been kind of killing it [business], because we can’t really have dine-in for most months out of the year,” Greeme said. “But we do get more students that stop in to use dining dollars.”

Although most of the vendors that accept Pitt dining dollars have benefited from the policy, not all have had increased business. Mola, a sushi restaurant in East Liberty, has not experienced these effects as much. Alex Tang, the owner of Mola, said students didn’t come in much last semester and he thinks it’s because the restaurant is far from Pitt’s campus — which was why he tried offering large student discounts.

“I think my restaurant is too far away from Pitt, so we don’t really get much business from Pitt students,” Tang said. “I did a 50% off discount for a couple weeks before, but we still didn’t do much business from students,” Tang said.

Woten said he’s fond of being able to pick up food from the dining halls since it makes life more convenient, and he would like it if Pitt were to offer takeout even after the pandemic’s conditions.

“I do enjoy being able to take out food rather than having to eat in The Eatery. It’s much nicer to get food for two meals in one trip, especially with how expensive meal plans are,” Woten said. “In the future I’d like to see Pitt continue to allow takeout at The Eatery and The Perch.”

McCann said though dining at Pitt has improved a lot, she would like to potentially see more dine-in options in as well. She said the takeout set up at The Eatery is great for living in the pandemic, but she feels bad that first-year students don’t get to experience “sitting in Market Central with friends.”

“I think Pitt is stepping up in giving more quality ingredients through many avenues,” McCann said. “However, they should offer more places to sit down to eat meals. This can be done 6 feet apart and socially distanced, but more access to dining locations would be great.”

Beaman said all dining services on campus will continue to follow the guidance of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office in order to ensure safety while also “strengthening” menus and operations. He also made sure to add that students and the Pitt community are encouraged to give feedback on dining services in order for improvement.

“Pitt Eats wants to thank our students for following dining safety protocols,” Beaman said. “Pitt Eats welcomes feedback from the University community on both the great things we are doing and areas of opportunity for improvement, making progress together.”

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