Marcus Van Vleet

Dining Services sets the table for recovery

Eateries are expanding while the Barn hosts more shows

June 13, 2023
Author: Imran Ghori
June 13, 2023

Over the last few months, UC Riverside’s Dining Services reopened Emerbee’s café, held its first paid concert at the Barn, and continued to expand dining options at the Barn.

The spring quarter developments are a sign of how the department is getting back to full operations after a difficult couple of years, said Marcus Van Vleet, executive director of Dining and Hospitality Services.

“We’re in a better spot than we were in the pandemic,” he said. “I think there’s an excitement in where we’re going.”

It’s been a gradual process, rebuilding step by step, but the experience has provided some important lessons and changes in how the department operates, said Van Vleet, who stepped into the department’s top role in December.

Marcus Van Vleet, xxecutive director, Dining and Hospitality Services, at The Barn, on June 13, 2023, at UC Riverside. (UCR/Stan Lim)

Like the restaurant industry in general, Dining Services faced staffing shortages through much of the pandemic and has had to rebuild its staff over the last few years. 

Emerbee’s was the last of the three campus coffee shops to reopen. The 600-square-foot café near the Multidisciplinary Research Building had only launched in September of 2019 before it was forced to close in March 2020 when pandemic-related shutdowns began.

That timing also affected the rollout of the Barn, which completed a two-year renovation and expansion in spring 2020 and was only weeks away from reopening.

Van Vleet compared the feeling to air being let out of a balloon with Dining Services having to change its playbook on the fly.

Eventually, the Barn opened in stages, opening its outdoor patio first with indoor dining at the main restaurant available to customers in fall 2022.

The original concept for the redesigned Barn included four food stations where customers could choose from different menu items. The grill station was the first to open followed by the hot table, featuring barbecue, rotisserie, smoked meats, and plant-based entrees.

Son Rompe Pera at the Barn on June 1. (Victor Duran)

In January, a third station opened, a salads counter offering made-to-order entrée-sized servings. The fourth and final station, a deli counter, offering a variety of specialty sandwiches, is expected to open by fall, Van Vleet said.

Once the deli opens, customers will get a chance to fully experience the Barn as it was planned, he said.

The Barn began hosting regular free concerts at its outdoor patio stage last year and in April hosted its first paid concert featuring Los Angeles-based ska band the Aggrolites, who had performed at the old Barn before.

Rock band Inner Wave perform at the Barn on June 8, 2023. (Shannon Li)

Van Vleet said the Barn will continue to host an eclectic mix of music genres and feature both local and student talent with free shows as well as more paid events with name artists.

“We definitely want to be music for all,” he said. “Affordability is important for us. We want to make sure everyone gets a chance to go to the Barn and see the atmosphere.”

The venue is now getting a regular crowd of students, faculty, and staff members for meals, drinks, and shows, Van Vleet said. Its staff take pride in working there given its history on campus, he said.

Other new dining expansions include the opening of The Halal Shack at the HUB and additional coffee and hot food options at The Market at North District. Looking ahead, Dining Services hopes to reopen the Sizzle eater at the food court at The Market at Glen Mor in the fall, and is planning for dining venues for the next phase of the North District housing complex, Van Vleet said.

An important part of the department’s rebuilding has been restoring morale through flexibility and transparency, Van Vleet said. They’ve made question-and-answer sessions a regular part of their meetings and encourage staff to approach supervisors, he said.

With the department short-handed coming out the pandemic and having to rebuild its force, Van Vleet said managers have taken care not to overextend their staff. For instance, the department reopened Lothian Residential Restaurant last year allowing managers to spread out customers there and at Glasgow Residential Restaurant. The restaurants now operate on a six-day-a-week schedule with one restaurant open Saturday and the other Sunday.

“We’ve been really flexible in trying to continue to grow and do more things but live in the strengths of our staff,” he said.

Dining has also encouraged its staff to be more involved and present ideas. It held its second annual spring culinary showcase at Glasgow, where each week a team member showcased a recipe of their own that was highlighted on the menu.

“I love to see that our leadership team has stepped up and everyone has taken a piece of how we improve our department,” Van Vleet said.