Bland college cafeteria food is gone, replaced by gourmet style fare.
ORLANDO - The paella, piping hot and filled with chicken, is at one end of the room. At the other end is a peel-and-eat shrimp bar, tastefully laid out on a makeshift beach adorned with gummi fish.
A chef flips food nearby. He is preparing tofu stir fry, which comes with a choice of bok choy or bamboo shoots.
Though the food looks - and more importantly, tastes - like it came from a pricey restaurant, these are among the daily offerings in the University of Central Florida's dining hall, a million-dollar example of the culinary revolution sweeping Florida campuses.
University food is going upscale. The bland cafeterias that fed Florida students for decades are now virtually extinct.
First came the fast-food franchises, which began infiltrating state campuses 10 years ago. Now comes the "residential restaurant," the latest weapon in the schools' never-ending efforts to attract the best and brightest freshmen."It's all about wooing the student," says Bill Kolb, the admissions director at the University of Florida, which two years ago built a $4-million dining hall while upgrading its menu. "You woo them with academics and scholarships, but with other things, too, like food."
The University of South Florida's aging cafeteria will undergo a $2-million renovation this summer, allowing food to be made to order in front of the student. Administrators expect the changes to attract 75 percent more customers.
Florida International University in Miami recently added a Starbucks and expects to soon provide diners with live entertainment. Florida A&M University can now feed 400 students at a time in its much-expanded food hall. And that doesn't include the new convenience stores on several campuses - some complete with sushi - or future plans for full-scale grocery stores.
University officials say the food revolution is smart business. Schools that used to lose money on food services now hire private companies, which pay for the renovations and run the operation.
The universities break even while students get better food. And the prices have barely budged.
USF students pay about $1,300 per semester for the most popular meal membership - don't call it a meal plan - which is 15 meals a week plus $150 that can be spent in on-campus restaurants. That amounts to $4.20 a meal. Many students, though, just pay cash.
Graduate student John Peters often ate in the old cafeteria when he started at UCF six years ago. Now he eats in the new dining hall.
"It was decent food before but not nearly as good as now," says Peters, 24, as he ate a lunch of ham and mashed potatoes. "And it's all you can eat."Targeting stomachs
The changes are the newest element in the amenities arms race that has transformed Florida campuses in recent years.
Ratty dorms with no air conditioning have been replaced by modern apartments with vaulted ceilings and high-speed Internet access. New student unions have high-tech game rooms, big-screen TVs and deluxe fitness centers. Some include rock-climbing walls and juice bars.
The next logical step, administrators say, was targeting student stomachs.
A decade ago, students had to wait in long lines to get into their school's cafeteria. Most of the meals were prepared hours earlier in the back kitchen. The food was bland at best, and the butt of frequent jokes and complaints.
Many students opted for cheaper fast-food restaurants off-campus, so schools invited in the competition. Early arrivals included standbys such as Burger King and Taco Bell. Less traditional fare, including smoothies, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and gourmet coffee, quickly followed.
"We needed to figure out how we could bring those kinds of brands to them," says Tom Saine, vice president for market development at Aramark, which serves food at about 400 campuses nationwide.
It didn't take them long: Almost every Florida school now has a food court similar to the ones found in shopping malls.
Students can use their meal cards at those restaurants, or in the campus convenience store. They can even use them to order in Domino's pizza.
Senior Laurin Converset, 23, ate at the food court in the UCF student union almost every day last year. Her favorites include Sbarros pizza, or a Subway sandwich if she's on a "health kick."
"I can't afford the dining hall," says Converset, who pays about $3 for a slice of pizza and an apple juice. "It's cheaper here - and there are a lot of different places to eat."
But companies such as Aramark saw another niche. Their surveys showed that college students were changing the way they eat. They wanted their food to go, smaller but more frequent meals and were increasingly willing to try new types of food.
Enter the "residential restaurant" - food-service speak for the new dining halls. Aramark calls its product "Real Food on Campus."
"That's what students have said they want - real food," says Ed Boswell, general manager of dining services at UCF, which contracts with Aramark. "They appreciate the quality."Grit cakes with relish
At UCF, the cafeteria line has been replaced by individual stations where chefs prepare food in front of students based on their individual tastes.
Each station has a theme that changes from day to day or week to week. Aramark has 20,000 recipes in its bank, which it tests at a culinary center in Philadelphia.
The "Mediterranean Kitchen" includes pesto flatbread pizza and fennel and tomato pasta. The "American Grill" has Monte cristo sandwiches and lemon broiled cod. The "Produce Market" touts its chicken Caesar salads and hummus and veggie wraps.
Chefs use organic ingredients to prepare the meals, which include vegetarian and vegan dishes such as grit cakes with pistachio relish.
"Students are much more sophisticated when they get to our doors," said Matt Mantini, executive chef at Sodexho, a company that serves 900 campuses. "Their expectation levels are much higher."
Administrators say those expectations can help determine which campus students choose to attend.
The average high school senior applies to seven to 10 colleges, with the most important criteria being quality of academics, cost and location.
But "anything can be the trigger," says John Barnhill, the admissions director at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "You never want to overlook anything that can makes the school more attractive."
The renovation at UCF certainly worked: The number of students who use meal plans has tripled since the dining hall opened.
Jenny Sabataso, a 20-year-old junior from Stuart, isn't one of them. But she still eats in the dining hall, where she can pay a fixed price of $6 for lunch.
She likes the quality and selection, though she complained about her macaroni and cheese on a recent day.
Rob Franek, author of the Princeton Review's Best 345 Colleges, which ranks the quality of college food, says a lot of schools are trying to one-up each other.
And it's not just food. Companies also pay attention to lighting, colors and convenience. Several of the dining halls are open extended hours, some as late as 3 a.m.
Next up: full-scale grocery stores on campuses.
"Students want the mystery taken out," says Cameron Schauf, president of the National Association of College and University Food Services. "The old days of hairnets and white aprons are gone."
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.Facts:
The average university student spends 13.5 minutes at lunch.
One-fifth of students on a meal plan eat breakfast each day.
Universities offered students about 800 different foods 10 years ago. Today it's about 3,500 foods.
Campus food service was a $9.5-billion business last year.
8.5 percent of residential students are allergic to at least one food.Most popular on-campus restaurants
Pizza Hut Express
Freshens Smoothie and Ice CreamMost popular snack items sold on campus
Extra Peppermint Gum
Combos Nacho CheeseMost popular dining hall food, by category:
Comfort food (meat loaf)
Mexican food (quesadillas)
Healthy foods (rotisserie chicken)