College dining hall food is notoriously subpar, and for many Georgetown students, Leo’s is no exception. But it is an unavoidable part of campus life, as all freshmen and sophomores living in on-campus dorms are required to purchase a meal plan if they live on campus.
A stranger observing Leo’s for the first time would see the steady stream of students who dutifully file in and out of its doors each day, briefly grabbing a bite to eat in between classes or gathering with friends at the end of a long day to reflect, chat, and laugh. It is clear that Leo’s is more than a place to share a meal; it is an undeniably central part of the culture of student life, particularly for underclassmen.
Nevertheless, students have frequently complained about the food quality and range of options offered in on-campus dining.
“Last fall was my first semester owning a kitchen in an apartment, so I thought that I would be cooking up meals every day instead of going to Leo’s, which I really didn’t enjoy doing my freshman year. Frankly, Leo’s costs way too much money for pretty mediocre food and long lines,” Georg Stolt-Neilsen (COL ‘19) wrote in an e-mail to the Voice.
In January 2015, GUSA hosted a Dining Town Hall that brought students and administrators together to discuss the state of on-campus dining and listen to students’ biggest concerns.
“It was kind of no-holds-barred, everyone really said how they felt about the current state of dining. People were like why aren’t we getting meal exchanges at Hoya Court? Why aren’t there more guest swipes? Why can’t we have to go boxes?” said Mark Camilli (COL ‘19), GUSA’s Dining and Auxiliary Services chair.
Many of those changes were made this school year, such as adding meal exchanges and Tapingo pre-ordering across various locations on campus, as well as to-go containers at Leo’s. In addition, all guest meal swipes will increase from two to five next year.
However, for those still unimpressed with on-campus dining, there is another option in sight.
Seth Kramer and Josh Cohen, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2015 and 2013, respectively, said they were unhappy with their on-campus dining options as students. “We were wasting a lot of money. We wanted to come up with a much better experience for students,” Cohen said. The result was Elevate Meal Plan: an alternative to traditional on-campus meal plans, which they piloted at UVA in December 2015 and launched at Georgetown on Feb. 1 this year.
Elevate partners with local restaurants that create abridged menus specifically for Elevate customers. Students select one of a variety of plan options and download an app with which they can order their meal in advance and then pick it up from the restaurant when it is ready. Elevate also allows customers to use their meal exchange to dine in person.
After almost doubling the number of restaurants Elevate offered at UVA in their second semester of starting the app, Kramer and Cohen began to look for other campuses that could benefit from an alternative meal plan system.
“We thought Georgetown had a lot of similarities to UVA. It had a lot of really amazing restaurants right nearby and also from talking to students, we learned that like UVA, students tended to be really dissatisfied with the current meal plan options–just poor quality of food and really expensive,” Cohen said.
Stolt-Neilsen, who purchased an Elevate Meal Plan, was disappointed with Leo’s, but did not have enough time to make his own food. “A lot of days I just wouldn’t eat enough, so I needed something that wasn’t that expensive, higher quality of food, and convenient. Elevate seemed to fill that gap.”
Elevate offers 45, 75, and 105 meal plans per semester, each averaging between $11-12 per meal. In addition, they offer a 15 Meal Supplement plan that is $13.74 per meal. In contrast, Leo’s 75 meal block plan calculates to $14.61 per meal. However, a comparison to Georgetown’s weekly meal plans reveals a less drastic difference. On-campus meal plans include 18, 14, and 10 meals-a-week and are comparably $11-12 per meal, calculated based on a 15 week semester.
By partnering with local restaurants, Elevate hopes to provide higher quality food compared to on-campus options. The restaurants are each within walking distance, and can be ready for pick up in approximately 15 minutes via the app, Kramer and Cohen said.
Elevate also allows for unused meals to roll over in future semesters, “So you don’t lose hundreds of dollars at the end of the year as you would if you don’t use up all your swipes,” Kramer said. Campus meal plans do not allow unused meal swipes to roll over.
Juan Andino is the Food and Alcohol Manager at Mr Smith’s, one of Elevate’s restaurant partners. He said that Elevate initially contacted him to form a partnership. “I was actually thinking about possibly reaching out to Georgetown University to make a deal and then all of a sudden they reached out to us,” he said. According to its website, some of Elevate’s other Georgetown restaurant partners include Wingos, Via Umbria, Flavio, and Simply Bahn Mi.
“We’ve been around for over 53 years, so we get a lot of business from Georgetown. But we’re also hoping that the new generation, the new people that come to Georgetown, get to know us so I think this would be a great way to introduce ourselves to the freshmen,” Andino said.
While Elevate provides one alternative, Georgetown Dining has sought to address the problem itself. Beginning next school year, the renewed Aramark contract intends to drastically change on campus dining, starting with a complete renovation of Leo’s. “It’s important to note it’s a brand new contract. Although it’s the same provider, they’re being held to a whole new set of standards,” said Camilli, who represents students’ dining concerns in GUSA.
The upper level of Leo’s will be converted into six different quick service restaurants, much like the structure of Hoya Court. Daniel Heyward, Aramark’s Marketing Manager, wrote in an e-mail to the Voice that these will include Whisk, an espresso and pastry store featuring a partnership with District Doughnuts, Bodega Market, a sandwich and salad store, and Launch Test Kitchen, which will continually include new food concepts. Each of the stations will accept meal swipes and cash, credit, and debit cards.
The lower level will be used exclusively for meal swipes as it is now, but it will also undergo major renovations. The 11 total planned stations will include many of the current stations, as well as a new BBQ station and vegan, vegetarian, and allergen free options.
As part of the renewed contract and an effort to satisfy student feedback, Cosi, Elevation Burger, Subway, and Salad Creations will be replaced by Chik-Fil-A, Crop Chop, and Royal Jacket Delicatessen in Hoya Court.
“I feel like this year has seen a lot of improvements in terms of convenience. Initiatives like the Leo’s to-go program have really changed the way that I think people view our campus’s dining system. That along with the new meal exchange in Hoya Court and Cosi have really answered a lot of student demands and have been really helpful in incorporating diversity into my diet,” Cameron Bell (COL ‘19), who is currently on the 75 block on-campus meal plan, wrote in an email to the Voice.
Although it’s unclear how the new dining contract will impact the quality of food and student life in the long term, it has potential to open up new possibilities for the culture of Leo’s. “By keeping that top level open, it allows anyone, meal plan holder or non meal plan holder, to come into that top level so professors could actually meet you there. The goal is that it will foster an even greater sense of community, and I think it’s really exciting,” Camilli said.
Off campus, Elevate will continue to seek new ways to respond to student dining needs. While Kramer acknowledged the cliché that dining hall food is not good, “I think short term our goal is really just to create the best possible dining experience for students.”