University officials taking steps to improve Larson experience

After a semester following a new meal plan requirement for freshman students, South Dakota State officials and students are seeing changes in campus dining services.

Traffic at Larson Commons has increased because of the requirement for freshman students to have at least a 50 block plan. SDSU officials have taken action to increase food quality and services at the dining facility, which in turn has produced more positive student reactions about Larson Commons.

 “The thing I think I want to work the hardest on is maintaining quality,” said Doug Wermedal, associate vice president of Student Affairs. “That’s the main thing you go there for — it’s not the lowest rated item, but what I really want is for people to perceive value [at Larson’s].”

A survey conducted by campus staff evaluated what students who ate at Larson Commons thought were the best and worst qualities. The three best items were beverage selection, service and salad bar. The worst included entrees, selection options and deli quality.

Even with low ratings on quality and selection, Wermedal is optimistic about the results, especially since another survey conducted last semester showed students have seen improvements in the dining facility.

“The second biggest increase [in student approval at Larson’s] is in food quality. So Larson’s compared to Larson’s [the year before] shows that we’re on the right track,” Wermedal said. “Larson’s compared to the rest of campus shows we’ve got room to grow.”

Kay Goebel, a sophomore family and consumer sciences major, said she can see the improvements at Larson Commons within the last year.

“A lot of people have that stigma that Larson’s has bad food but [this year] they’ve amped up the taste, their presence and how they want to present everything,” Goebel said.

Goebel decided to go with the 50-block default plan because she prefers Larson’s over other dining options. She follows a vegetarian diet and Larson’s offers a better selection for her tastes.

This year, Goebel has seen Larson’s menu expand its food option because of the influence of a new executive chef. This addition has helped the food quality, but many of her friends still don’t come to Larson Commons with her because of their experience their freshman year — Goebel recalled poor memories as well.

“It just wasn’t good and tasted processed,” Goebel said about her freshman experience.

Despite that, Goebel used up a 150 block plan her freshman year, and used her 50 block plan last semester. She even used some extra blocks from friends’ plans.

Ben Kallas, on the other hand, had an unlimited amount of block last semester. The freshman computer science major hit just below the 100 mark for his block use.

“I thought [the meal requirement] was kind of stupid last semester, but as the semester went on it was kind of nice because Larson’s was a place all the freshmen had to go to use blocks,” Kallas said. “You could get a group of people or at least another person who wanted to use the block. It was good to form friendships and enforce a sort of floor community.”

Kallas prefers going to Larson Commons with other people, so he didn’t use his meal requirement to its full potential. Now he’s lowered his meal requirement to the 75 block plan.

Although Goebel and Kallas used more than 50 blocks at Larson’s during the fall semester, the average student had between 30 and 38 percent of their block plan left over by the end of the semester. That’s about 15 blocks left over.

“I want students to get everything they pay for, but it [follows] a national norm,” Wermedal said. He and other university officials have been working to help students get the most out of their meal plans at Larson’s.

The variety of food and buffet style option at the dining facility is what appealed to Kallas the most, but he’s noticed areas of improvement for the facility as well. Pizza longevity was his biggest issue, but he was also concerned about the reliability and safety of the deli selection.

“The cheese kind of scares me sometimes,” Kallas said, referring to lukewarm temperatures of the deli options.

More students coming through Larson’s has helped put money into changing the menu, Wermedal said.

“But the response to that is to cook more food further ahead of time,” Wermedal said. “What we need to get to is more food closer to real-time delivery, so good food isn’t sitting in those pans waiting for people 40 minutes, or whatever the time length is. That’s how we get to the next level.”

Wermedal knows there’s more improvements to be made at Larson’s, and plans to give students the best experience he can at the dining facility.

“This is a validated step in the right direction, but there’s more growth to come,” Wermedal said.