Food court gets green light; Taco Bell, Sbarros and Blimpies coming to campus

By summer's end, Tennessee Tech students won't have to run for the border to get hot, fresh tacos -- or hot, fresh pizza, or subs on hot, fresh bread, for that matter. Tennessee Tech's new food court is finally a reality, and no sooner will spring commencement end than construction begins on the ground floor of the University Center.

For the past three years, Food Services and the university administration have been doing their homework about what kinds of food students, faculty and staff would like and how best to renovate the existing space to accommodate a food court, which has become an expected fixture at universities nationwide.

"Most of our students grew up on fast food," said Teresa Hall, director of Food Services, "and we're tickled to be able to offer them what they want."

Hall is quick to point out that they won't be cutting any of the current menu items -- instead, they plan to add popular commercial fare. Food Services staff members will also remain, and more may likely be needed, especially student workers, to help run the expanded operation.

The food court, which features Taco Bell, Sbarro's and Blimpies sub shop, will be located in the grill. Making room for the new mini-restaurants doesn't completely eliminate the grill's own operation; in fact, plans include a new salad bar and short-order area.

The food court concept on campus is a little different from a mall or other private enterprise. Tennessee Tech runs its own food service operation Ñ in fact, it is the only university in the Tennessee Board of Regents system that has not privatized. So instead of purchasing franchises, the university contracts with the restaurants, staffs the operations with its own people and pays royalties, a significantly less expensive proposition.

"Most universities have seen an increase in revenue after opening a food court," says Hall, "because there's always excitement over having new menus, and students can use their meal tickets to buy lunch from the restaurants just like they do in the cafeteria."

The groundwork for a food court has been an exhaustive process, Hall said. The committee began with random surveys of students and faculty which resulted in a clear preference for tacos, pizzas and subs. The committee then solicited bids from 15 commercial food vendors, weighing similar operations against each other in terms of food cost and quality. Each restaurant has facilities requirements that had to be considered before renovations could be planned. And because Tennessee Tech is a public university, the bid process must be followed.

Extensive renovation of the grill has begun, and is expected to end around Aug. 15. The renovation includes a complete facelift Ñ fresh paint and a redesign of the grill interior Ñ as well as the construction of three food preparation areas for the vendors and revamped short-order and salad bar areas.

To make room for construction equipment, part of the parking lot directly behind the University Center will be closed off, and workers will knock out one of the grill's picture windows for a temporary construction entrance.

After the dust clears, the food court will have a new front entrance, and the interior will boast neon signs and colorful paint. Food vendors will be situated one right after the other along a wall. The layout plans for Taco Bell on the right just inside the front entrance, followed by the salad bar, Sbarros, the short-order grill and a drink counter, then Blimpies. Cash registers will still be centrally located but closer to the windows.

Food Services is planning a grand-opening celebration to kick off fall semester.