By Kim (Lopas) Sullivan ’95
Today’s special is served with radical hospitality in a delightfully transformed Commons experience
|Entering Michels Commons from the northeast takes visitors past the remodeled Peace and Justice Center into a welcoming ambience that offers flexible space and three different dining environments.
It is said that the kitchen is the heart of the home. It is where families gather to find comfort and sustenance. The same is true on a residential campus. And now, with the completion of Michels Commons, the heart of our home is as warm and welcoming as our people – a transformation of the former Sensenbrenner Union that invites students, faculty, staff and guests to linger over fresh food and great company.
The kitchen has long played a vital role at the college – all the way back to when Abbot Bernard Pennings taught Latin to the first students in the priory kitchen.
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Though no longer doubling as a classroom, the “Caf” continues to be central to campus and its students. Knowing this well, the Michels family was intent on funding a reimagining of the almost 50 year-old building. “Our desire was to have an impact on the campus that all students would benefit from on an almost daily basis,” Tim Michels ’84 explains.
Michels Commons increases dining-room capacity by 150 seats and the upper lounge by 100. More than an expansion project, though, the renovation creates an inviting and vibrant ambience.
From the outside, the addition of limestone (from one of the Michels Corporation’s quarries) adds a natural and elegant quality. The soft, rounded lines of the main entrance and rotunda entice a person to open its doors.
Inside, warm color tones and wood accents help set a comfortable and hospitable tone. Follow the curving architectural lines and you will find other amenities also housed inside the building – a redesigned Peace and Justice Center, meeting rooms and other campus offices.
At Ruth’s Marketplace, named after Ruth Michels, five unique meal stations in a marketplace-style food court offer international fare, pizza and pasta, grilled and home-style food, fresh fruits and vegetables and a deli bar. The food is “made to service,” which means cooked in small batches in front of students, allowing for even fresher dishes.
Whatever diners fancy, they will find plenty to satisfy them at Ruth’s Marketplace. They can choose from a selection of pizzas baked before their eyes at That’s Amoré; a varied international menu at the Fusion station; today’s offering from the Grill or the Third Street Deli; or just a simple PB & J sandwich with a glass of Sun Drop.
Dale’s Sports Lounge, named for the late Dale Michels, is cozy with carpet, wood chairs, booths and TVs. It serves as extra seating during meal plan hours and as a relaxing hangout with baskets of appetizers available for purchase after hours.
The dining area boasts a large windowed rotunda, giving the space an open and airy feel. Gone are the heavy curtains, mauve chairs and standard round tables. Now a variety of seating options exist: deuces, four-tops, rounds for six or eight, or a spot at one of two large gathering tables.
According to Mary Jo Morris (Dining and Conference Services), the gathering tables look like boats – wider in the middle and then tapered at each end – seating 18. The concept works well on other campuses, particularly in welcoming students who walk into the dining room alone. Stacy Nehring ’14 agrees. “The big tables give you a sense, you could almost say, like a family dinner, where everybody feels welcome.”
Morris says the gathering tables echo the Norbertine tradition of eating together and give the students a new way to experience communio. She says: “When the idea of the large gathering tables came up from the consultant, we were thinking how that would tie in with what the Norbertines talk about and preach. And the more we can do that, the more we feel like a family.”
The people who work in Dining Services are a large part of that family feel. Mary Zelzer, who has worked in the kitchen since 2006, is devoted to the students. You can hear it in her voice and see it in her smile when she says, “I do know quite a few students, so I always pop my head out and see how they’re doing.”
Ruth Johnson (Auxiliary Services) wants students to feel like they are at home, grabbing a bowl of cereal from their own kitchen. And having conversations with dining staff, whom some students view as pseudo parents, is all part of that family feeling. “It brings in that whole radical hospitality, which the serving staff here really bring to life.”