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Food diversity on campus increases with opening of new UC food court

University of Houston Dining Services hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house Jan. 29 to celebrate the new dining options in the newly renovated University Center.

The construction work started in May 2012 and 18 months later the first phase of the New UC came to life bringing great additions, including Student Government Association chambers, a 450-seat theater, Woodforest National Bank, a two-level Barnes & Noble bookstore, and five new dining options. A Chick-fil-A Express, McDonald's and Panda Express make up the main level food court, while a Cougar Xpress Market convenience store sits around the corner and a full-service Starbucks serves students on the lower level.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony included speeches from key members of the university community.

Geoff Herbert, UH Dining Services resident district manager, started the ceremony by thanking the various departments involved in the project and explained how it started, how the food court brands were selected, and how it developed into the end product.

He later introduced Student Government President Cedric Bandoh, who focused on the student perspective, saying, "the new and beautiful food court provides a place for students to kick back after a long day of hard work, have lunch with a group of friends, or make new connections here at the University Center food court."

Amber Arguijo, UH Dining Services marketing manager, agrees with Bandoh.

"The new food court and satellite dining options in the UC provide ample seating, group study space and extended hours at several locations to give students a safe place to meet, collaborate and learn," said Arguijo. "The new brands are also a direct result of student requests and feedback, which gives them a certain amount of ownership over this piece of the campus. It has been completely customized to maximize their campus experience."

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the event was divided into three main events: a grand prize drawing, Starbucks "Make Your Own Drink" Showdown, and a Cougar Xpress Mini Market Sweep.

During the grand prize drawing, UH Dining Services awarded more than 30 prizes, including iPad Minis, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, bicycles, a skateboard, free meals for a semester, and Panda Express, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A gift baskets. Students, faculty and staff had two weeks to enter the raffle by inserting their name into the grand prize drawing baskets placed throughout the University Center.

The Starbucks "Make Your Own Drink" Showdown turned out to be a close competition. Student Celeste Ross and staff member Tammy Hauser were chosen to participate in a drink faceoff. Each described their drink creation to Starbucks baristas who then created the drinks and presented them to the judges' table.

The judges were Assistant Director of Auxiliary Services Deborah Davis and Auxiliary Services Manager Rosie Ashley, as well as students Mario Burboa, Princess Villalta and Destiny Mayfield. Ross created the winning drink, named "Shasta's Mudslide," a caramel Frappuccino with caramel and mocha drizzle inside the cup that was topped with whipped cream, caramel and mocha drizzle and salt. She received a $50 Starbucks gift card and will have her drink featured for a week at all campus Starbucks locations.

The festivities concluded with a Cougar Xpress Mini Market Sweep. Five students were chosen to participate in a 30-second shopping spree inside the new convenience store. The students walked away with candy, chips, ice cream, power bars and other items.

In between events, students were able to enjoy samples served by Catering on Cullen that included curry fish and rice, stuffed mushrooms and crab cakes.

Dining Services Dietitian Sarah Feye also hosted an information table about eating healthy in the new food court. UH Dining's marketing team complimented her table by giving attendees more information about UH Dining's offering along with hosting a prize wheel.

The festivities also incorporated other entertainment, including a caricature artist, a balloon artist, the McDonald's shoe car, and photos with Ronald McDonald and a Chick-fil-A cow.

Students said they are pleased with the new additions to the campus dining program.

"I feel that there is more diversity on campus when it comes to food," said Kimberly Cooper, a University of Houston Public Relations senior. "I am very excited that the New UC is open and students can enjoy more variety like Panda Express."

Maria Honey, assistant director of Marketing and Communications for Auxiliary Services, knows the hard work it took to make the new UC a reality.

"The new UC food court is the result a lot of hard work and determination by the university to provide access to food options that the community wanted," said Honey. "It was collaboration between our administrators, our food service partner, the students and many others. Their input and support throughout the entire process was key to this outcome."

UH Dining Services has opened seven new dining options within the past two years and is committed to continue growing.

"We are always innovating to keep up with the changing needs and tastes of campus," said Amber Arguijo."We're currently building a new food truck pad near Entrance 14 that will allow us to keep all of our partner trucks serving campus and offer a new dining option to students, faculty and staff in that area. Additionally, our dietitian and executive chef are currently researching suppliers, cooking methods and recipes to determine the feasibility of offering halal proteins in our residential facilities. Beyond that, we are always keeping a pulse on hours of operation and traffic patterns so that we can adjust these to meet the campus need as students begin to spend more time on campus and less time commuting."