College Food That’s Good: USF’s Market Cafe


President Obama, recently speaking to students of his undergraduate alma mater, Columbia University, noted that, “Food at the cafeteria was notoriously bad. I didn’t have a lot of options. We used to joke about what was for lunch that day, and there would be a bunch of nondescript stuff that wasn’t particularly edible.” The next time POTUS is in town, I hope he stops by The Market Café at the University of San Francisco (USF) since cafeteria food has changed a whole lot since back in the day. And it’s not just for students: The Market Café is open to the public.

The  café, according to Resident District Manager Holly Winslow, underwent “an extreme makeover” over the summer break and has been transformed into a light- and wood-filled space (recycled wood from cypress trees in the Presidio), showcasing the bounty of Bay Area farm fresh produce. Known for their well-deserved leadership and vision in promoting socially responsible practices, the café is run by The Bon Appétit Management Company (Bamco), an onsite restaurant company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities, and specialty venues. Bamco serves over 400 locations in 29 states (corporate clients include eBay, Oracle, Target, and Yahoo!); USF is one of two dozen universities they work with nationwide.

Serving 8,000 meals a day to hungry college students and faculty, Executive Chef Jon Hall (who cooked previously at Gordon Biersch, Boudin, and MacArthur Park) leads a team of 250 people and overseas a café packed with fresh local, organic food that would make any parent happy to send their kid off to college (if for the good food alone). “Many of these kids grew up eating sustainable food and they have an educated palate,” Winslow said. “They eat with their eyes so we prepare the freshest, most delicious food imaginable.”

The Market Café boasts 12 “stations” with prepared food made from scratch and the weekly menu offers up many healthy, fresh choices, some as lean as 500 calories per meal. The students line up at the classic grill and order dim sum from “Global,” sit at the full-blown “sustainable” sushi bar (which follows Seafood Watch’s principles) and order crepes from the much-loved crepe master, Tito Painsay.

But it might be the 15-foot vegan vegetarian salad bar—featuring organic greens, local produce and fruits, chef-prepared salads and house-baked breads—that takes the cake. Freshmen Taylor Cruz “attacks the salad bar” even though she’s not vegan and loves the healthy alternatives. (Although she admitted to sharing an occasional cookie with fellow freshman Kharina Castillo, who happens to be a big fan of the crepes.) Between hiking the hills in San Francisco near campus and eating well, they’re both mindful of avoiding the freshman fifteen.

“This is their living room and kitchen,” said Winslow, gesturing to the dozens of students eating together. “This is where they break bread, listen to music, relax. And where they get their nourishment to keep studying.” The students are also getting an education in the importance of supporting local farmers and where their food comes from an on-site farmers’ market and events such as the day-long Eat Local Challenge and Low Carbon Diet day.

Students eat well and local farmers benefit from Bamco’s Farm to Fork program, a company-wide initiative to purchase seasonal and regional produce from local farmers within a 150-mile radius. The company now spends tens of millions of dollars each year supporting small local farms. Chef Hall appreciates the freedom to be creative and the access to incredibly flavorful food. He never worries about ordering too much food; the students fly through 10 cases of fresh fruit a day. If the kids want fries or a candy bar, there are some of those, too. Winslow recently brought in The Taco Guys food truck to campus, which was a big hit, and is thinking of bringing in a top-notch frozen yogurt vendor.

Bamco spent a little more than $2.5 million to renovate the café, which brings in roughly $10 million in top line sales per year. To those who might grumble that only private school kids have access to such good food, company Vice President Maisie Greenawalt said, “Everyone should have access to great tasting, nutritious food. Making that a reality requires a food system based on ethics, not simply economics. If the primary goal of food service is to pay as little as possible to feed as many students as possible, we will continue to be stuck in this place where students are fed processed foods that are low priced because they are based on subsidized crops like corn. Institutional leaders need to recognize that food plays a larger role on campus than simply sustenance. Dining halls are gathering places where community is built. And, our society needs to be willing to pay a little more for that.”

The Market Café is located at 2130 Fulton Street at University Center; San Francisco, California 94118

Originally Published on the InsideScoopSF.

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  1. Friday, December 10th, 2010
    Schools (of all levels!) should implement these kind of establishments! It's good to encourage these kind of eating habits, especially in a setting that implements good design and sustainability. Whenever I finally make it to San Fran... I'm stopping by this place!