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There will be something new on the menu at the student restaurant on the VUB campus in Etterbeek: dinner. For the new academic year beginning on 23 September, everyone who studies, works or is attending an event on or near the campus will have three hot dishes and a cafeteria range to choose from for their evening meal. This will be part of a trial project run during the first semester. We asked the head of the restaurant service, Philippe Merckx, and Isabelle Selleslag, who is supporting the start and follow-up of the dinner opening times, for a little explanation. Where did the interview take place? The restaurant (of course).
Naturally, our first question is: why?
Isabelle: ‘That’s easy to answer. We have been seeing signs, from all sides, of the need to open in the evening. There’s a big appetite for this initiative, especially among students. The demand came prominently to the forefront in the most recent student council survey. It’s going to offer a lot of added value for students living in kots, and students attending evening classes. Researchers and teachers, who sometimes work late to meet deadlines, will also be well served by our dinner opening times.’
Philippe: ‘We hope to reduce the pressure on the availability of seating during the afternoons. The restaurants are very busy in the afternoons. And a lot of students and staff members arrange to meet here for group work or meetings outside opening hours. Thanks to the dinner opening times, they’ll no longer have to pack all their stuff up to go and continue their work somewhere else later. We are offering a remedy to the shortage of work spaces across the entire campus.’
Isabelle: ‘It’s not just students or staff members who will benefit from the longer opening hours. Our university is growing and there are more and more events taking place on our campus here. We also plan to offer those groups an extra service with the dinner hours. Groups will be able to reserve a place in the afternoons and in the evenings. They can order coupons via the restaurant catering service.’
Philippe: ‘And let’s not forget the parties. They start very late and I imagine a lot of students want to have a bite to eat before heading off to the main event. That’s the sort of thing they’ll be able to do here from now on.’ (Laughs)
What will happen with the kitchen staff? You’ll have to put more people on, right?
Phillippe: ‘That’s okay by me. Five of our seven permanent employees have voluntarily taken up the dinner shift and will follow a rotating roster to see who works in the evening instead of during the afternoon. And of course, we have a pool of job students to choose from. We have also picked up an extra cook and a dietician. The extra cook is already working in the afternoons by the way, just to get used to everything. I also think it’s interesting that we will be able to set up for the evening in the afternoon, and for the afternoons in the evening. So it’s a win-win situation.’
How do you think you’ll announce the dinner hours? Is there a communication action planned?
Isabelle: ‘We have been thinking about how best to announce the new opening hours. An article in VUB today looked like a good start to us, so that’s covered … But we are also a planning a campaign with a few nice cartoons and we are playing with ideas like organising romantic dinners for couples. Or maybe, as we occasionally do in the afternoons, a themed menu in the framework of ‘TD’ student parties or other events. You see? There are plenty of possibilities.’
Philippe: ‘We are relying a lot on word-of-mouth advertising. I think that the news will do the rounds quite quickly. A special opening event isn’t really on the agenda. But enticing festive desserts in the opening week are a big possibility …’
Isabelle: ‘At the kick-off, we will put the dinner opening hours in the spotlight with an original resto-stand and an action where there are some really good prizes to win. What prizes? Surprise! Maybe the readers of VUBtoday would like to make a few suggestions?’
What if you don’t achieve the results you’re hoping for?
Philippe: ‘At this stage, we are looking at the dinner hours as an experiment. That’s why we have one semester as a test period; in other words, from Monday 23 September up to and including Friday 7 February. After that period, we will evaluate the turnout, and see whether and how we will continue. It will depend on the financial results to at least some extent. We hope that everyone who has been asking for dinner openings will drop by for a meal.’
Isabelle: ‘The break-even point is 408 meals per night, or 38,400 during the evening opening hours across the entire semester. We think that this is within reach, especially as we sell an average of about 1500 meals in the afternoon, and even more during the busy months at the beginning of the semester. During the study and exam periods, the restaurant will continue to be open in the evenings, but it’s a bit more difficult for us to estimate how successful this will be. We hope to do our industrious students a favour with a nice restaurant break between all the studying. The doors will only close on the normal public holidays and university holidays, and between Christmas and New Year. There are also a few evenings where the restaurant may be reserved for special events like graduation ceremonies.’
Will the range be the same in the evenings as during the afternoons?
Philippe: ‘To start off, we will offer three warm meals: a dish of the day, one veggie meal and then either a pasta or wok meal. It’s also possible that we will offer cold meals using anything that hasn’t sold during the afternoon service. On top of this, the guests will also be able to enjoy a cafeteria range, with pre-packed sandwiches and pastries.
EVENING SERVICE TRIAL PERIOD AT THE VUB STUDENT RESTAURANT IN ETTERBEEK
From 23 September 2019 to 7 February 2020 – Open from 4 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. – Hot dishes are served between 5.30 p.m. and 8.00 p.m.
Daily menu: 1 dish of the day, 1 veggie dish, 1 pasta or wok dish (rotating from day to day), possible cold dishes and a cafeteria range (drinks, sandwiches, pastries and coffee).
After the trial period, there will be an evaluation to decide whether the restaurant will be permanently opened in the evenings.