Compass looks to further improve Pitt dining experience this fall

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Compass Group, Pitt’s dining contractor for the past year, is planning to make some changes to the dining experience for the upcoming fall semester.

By Betul Tuncer, Staff Writer

Pitt’s new dining contractor came to the University last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic — making for statistics distinct to a pandemic.

Compass Group distributed 49,300 meals to students in quarantine from January to May 2021 through their new digital ordering platform. Students also made more than 4,600 reservations to eat at The Eatery and The Perch — Pitt’s two main dining halls — in the mere 61 days they had in-person seating, according to Quintin Eason, vice president of operations for Pitt Eats.

“The global pandemic ushered in a new wave of thought processes for safe and enjoyable dining on campus,” Eason said. “The safety of our students and guests is always our top priority and navigating the ever changing protocols forced us to be hyper-vigilant in providing a well-rounded experience.”

After 29 years with dining contractor Sodexo, Pitt switched to Compass Group last July. This new partnership brought many changes to dining at Pitt, namely with meal plans. As the pandemic eases, Compass is planning to make more changes in the fall to food options and open dining spaces.

Julie Bannister, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor for auxiliary services, said due to the pandemic, meal plan rates were not increased for the 2020-21 academic year. But Bannister said the University and Compass made a “modest” increase in costs for this year’s meal plans.

“To continue providing a top-notch dining experience to students, rates were assessed and a modest annual increase was determined to continue meeting regular costs and additional engagement opportunities in the dining program,” Bannister said.

Bannister said the only meal plan that will change for the 2021-22 academic year is  one “Unlimited” plan to include dining dollars for use at on-campus restaurants and Forbes Street Market.

“This enhancement comes as a direct response to customer requests, and we are excited to provide an upgraded version this year,” Bannister said. “All plans experienced a small regular annual increase.”

Eason said Compass is reinstating dine-in seating and self-service in The Eatery and The Perch, but they’ll continue to provide take-out options for students who decide not to dine-in. 

“This will allow meal plan holders to have an all-encompassing dining experience and a place to break bread with their fellow peers fostering a stronger sense of community and togetherness,” Eason said. 

He also said Compass is planning to bring more diverse menu options and let students serve themselves at the dining halls rather than pre-packaged meals like last year. Students can also expect two new dining options in the William Pitt Union — PA Taco Co. and Wicked Pie. 

“PA Taco Co. will be serving delicious street tacos with chef-inspired cultural fusion recipes and house-made salsas and sauces,” Eason said. “Wicked Pie will bring in hyper-local ingredients for fast-fired customizable creations creating a crave-able farm to pizza concept.” 

Other new food options for students include the Smokeland BBQ line and food truck, which includes a savory fresh-smoked barbeque menu. Saxbys Coffee, a student-run coffee company, is opening a location in the Cathedral of Learning and Hillman Library. Menu line-ups at The Eatery and The Perch will also be expanded to include more plant-forward dining options, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher and halal options.

Danielle Obisie-Orlu, president of the Resident Student Association for this past and upcoming school year, said the new partnership with Compass has been a “dynamic and feedback-driven one” which allowed for new opportunities, such as more healthy and sustainable options.

But she added that students have given the RSA mixed responses about some of Compass’ changes, including the way meal swipes operated under the new meal plan. 

“Many students were happy with the opportunity to use their dining dollars on off-campus locations and look forward to a possible expansion of such a program, while others have provided critical feedback that certain aspects of the meal swipes system have caused their concerns over food insecurity to rise,” Obisie-Orlu said.

Under these plans, 25% of students’ dining dollars were set aside for 27 off-campus dining locations, which Bannister said will remain the same in the fall. Some of the off-campus businesses students could go to included The Milkshake Factory, Fuel and Fuddle, Primanti Brothers and Atarashi. Evrett Rogers, a manager at the Primanti Brothers location on Forbes Avenue, said because of the pandemic, business was considerably slow with fewer students on campus. But he’s hopeful that more students will visit the restaurant to use their dining dollars in the fall.

“I’m expecting we’ll be super busy with Panther Funds and dining dollars once kids start coming back on campus,” Rogers said. “And I’m expecting our corporate office to be doing a lot of promotions once that happens.”

Obisie-Orlu said students play a “crucial role” in RSA’s relationship with Compass, as a way to help them provide feedback to improve dining services at Pitt. One of the ways RSA has taken to improving dining at Pitt has been to form a joint Task Force with Student Government Board in order to promote healthier, more accessible and sustainable dining options for students. 

Annalise Abraham, co-chair of the joint Dining Task Force, said the task force’s goals are to advocate for students’ dining concerns and find an effective way to keep RSA and SGB in constant communication with Compass. Over the course of this past year, Abraham said the task force has focused on finding ways to address students’ concerns around COVID-19 safety, new meal plans, meal plan prices and allergy concerns. She said they also managed to organize the first Dining Town Hall as a way for students to provide feedback directly to chefs and dining staff. 

“We hope that having this set student body with an ongoing relationship with the dining team will center students’ voices and improve their experience,” Abraham said. “Next year the group hopes to build on the work done this year and also organize more events for students to provide feedback.”

To tackle issues such as food insecurity, Bannister said Pitt is continuing to allow students to donate their dining dollars and meal swipes to those in need and restaurants like True Burger are donating some funds to the cause.

“To support students experiencing food insecurities, Pitt continues to provide dining dollar and meal pass donations,” Bannister said. “Additionally, True Burger allocates 5% of proceeds to fighting food insecurities. In partnership with Compass Group, the University is exploring additional ways to combat food insecurities and aid students in the coming academic year.”

Eason said Compass hopes to make the dining experience at Pitt as enjoyable as possible and to ease back into a sense of normalcy for students in the fall, despite the ongoing pandemic.

“We are excited to bring enhanced value back to our meal plan holders and guests,” Eason said. “Being able to create a more inclusive and enjoyable environment when dining with us and experiencing all of what we have to offer is going to bring back a sense of normalcy while still innovating and working towards a bright future.”

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