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Celt Café Serves Up a New Dining Experience

Story was updated 10/12 to include information about a new hire.

 The University of St. Thomas has ended their contract with Aramark, the food supply and staffing service that has been responsible for supplying and serving food at the Celt Café, and has begun managing dining services internally.

Changes to the University’s dining services were made during the 2020-21 school year while there were fewer students on campus because of the pandemic. 

Before making changes, UST asked students for feedback via a survey about the quality of food and service at the Celt Café, and most students reported they were not satisfied with either. 

UST Police Chief H.E Jenkins was made head of food services in Aug. 2020. 

While this might seem a strange responsibility for most police chiefs, Jenkins has relevant experience when it comes to nutritional service.

“In a former life, I used to work in food service,” said Jenkins. “Before I started policing, I actually worked for Aramark and my dad was in campus food service for 22 years.”

Working with the UST marketing team, IT team, student Senate, and other students through various “town hall”-type meetings and surveys, Jenkins said he decided that it would be best for the University to end its contract with Aramark and move campus food services “in house.” 

Student complaints about Aramark’s cafeteria options were rife on campus in recent years, prompting continued coverage by the Independent and a blistering editorial from the 2020 staff titled “Aramark’s Green Eggs and Ham.” 

“Not everything was typically healthy,” remembers Lucy Reyes, a UST senior psychology major.  “The fruit would be left out with no covers on it.”

Spring 2021 alumnus Corey Smith, who says he is still a frequent visitor to campus, called the food served by Aramark “average,” and said his negative associations with Aramark’s food had kept him from the Celt Café since returning to campus. 

“It reminded me of food from my high school,” Corey said.

Aramark could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.

With the absence of Aramark and its prescribed recipes, Jenkins, the new head of food services, said UST is now free to work on improving food quality at the Celt Café, but cautioned that it will take time.

Sean Manbode, Aramark’s former food service director who has been working on campus for nearly six years, was hired by Jenkins as the new director of food services for the campus, and has been working on creating a new and more diverse menu.

Meanwhile, Santos, a local “Chipotle-style” vendor, occupies a newly expanded space in the former Ahern meeting room. The vendor offers a variety of homestyle foods such as oven-baked chicken, mashed potatoes and burgers, along with more healthful options including salmon and steamed vegetables.

On Sept. 20, the Celt Café opened an omelet station at the Home Cooking Station, where students can choose ingredients to create their own omelettes.  

A local coffee vendor, Katz Coffee, has replaced the Starbucks coffee brand at the beverage station at the Celt Café in a partnership Jenkins said is better suited to the University’s size. 

Jenkins said when Starbucks initially partnered with UST, the corporation was still a “small fish” but that UST has now become a “small fish” to Starbucks.  Jenkins said he hopes to work with Katz to develop a special UST blend, similar to HEB’s Texas-blend coffees.

Jenkins said he plans to bring in more local vendors, and possibly food trucks, to offer even more variety.

“We have to adapt to what students are wanting,” said Jenkins. “We can’t completely eliminate the cafeteria-style, but we can make it a smaller part of what we are doing.”

Another plan would convert the former Black Labrador restaurant on Montrose, which is UST property, into another campus restaurant equipped to cater UST events. 

Plans for an improved meal plan option and purchasing better kitchen equipment are also being considered, Jenkins said. 

Further, on Tuesday, Oct. 12, the University announced the addition of new chef and manager Felix Avila for the Celt Café.

UST Vice President for Marketing and Communications Jeff Olsen said the University wants to improve the environment of the Celt Café in addition to increasing food options. 

“We want to create an environment that is flexible,” Olson said. “Whether students want to pop in between classes for 10 minutes or sit for hours, we want to give them those options. The idea is to create a community and a space for students.”

The Café is now equipped with speakers and four big-screen TVs, which typically display UST’s social media feed and a ticker with student-relevant content along the bottom of the screen. 

The screens can be synced to display content simultaneously, Olson said. They can be utilized for meetings, student events, televised sporting events or mass overflow seating.

To improve the atmosphere, the walls have been repainted, the floors have been redone, and Jenkins says improvements for new or repurposed furniture and more murals for the walls are also on the way. 

The old Subway area will eventually be closed off, creating a private meeting space that can be reserved by campus groups, and the C-store could be moved to a new location to provide more seating.

Jenkins invited UST students to offer feedback on their dining experiences to him in person, or via upcoming email surveys and a digital comment board. 

Meanwhile, he asked students to be patient as the necessary changes are made. 

“My door is open,” said Jenkins, “Students can email or call me anytime.”Jenkins can be reached by campus police phone: (713) 525-3888,  or email: jenkinhe@stthom.edu for dining feedback.

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