CommonWealth Kitchen Launchpad Prepares for Takeoff in Student Center
New eateries join familiar options in W20 and house dining reopens with new culinary team members and Covid-prevention protocols.
Dining in the Stratton Student Center (W20) is undergoing a transformation with the opening of the Launchpad by non-profit food business incubator CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), a new approach to quick-service meals in Lobdell Food Court.
This innovative approach will offer more variety and healthy food options, while also advancing CWK’s and MIT’s mutual goal to support diverse, local start-up food businesses and to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable food economy. The first three vendors in the Launchpad will be Bibim Box (Korean food including gluten-free and vegan options ranging in price from $10.00–$13.00), Las Palmas (locally sourced Caribbean-American food in the $11.00–$14.00 price range), and Carolicious (Venezuelan arepas ranging from $7.50–$12.00 with gluten-free options), which were selected by students.
Launching A Whole New Approach
The road to the Launchpad started before the pandemic with the Student Center Dining Concepts Working Group, comprising students from the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, DormCon, house dining chairs, and other students interested in dining as well as staff from the Sustainability Office and the Division of Student Life (DSL). When the group started working in 2018, they focused on breathing new life into Lobdell and sought a partner or partners to help.
The team at CommonWealth Kitchen partnered with MIT Campus Dining and other local colleges on a winning proposal for the 2019 Kendall Foundation Food Vision Prize, which is focused on integrating local and diverse sauces and other items into the cafeteria menus. That project was put on hold due to Covid-related closures, but CommonWealth Kitchen subsequently inquired about opportunities on MIT’s campus. The contracts for Shinkansen Express, Cafe Spice, and Shawarma Shack expired during the pandemic, and space in Lobdell became available.
“We are so excited to introduce our incredible food businesses to the MIT community. The Launchpad is a powerful model of how a leading institution like MIT can creatively use their resources to support and promote local BIPOC-owned businesses and build equity in their backyard. We are so grateful to MIT for their partnership and their commitment to make the Launchpad a reality,” said Jen Faigel, executive director of CommonWealth Kitchen.
Throughout the pandemic, the working group continued to meet and discuss plans, including the process of selecting the first eateries to go into Lobdell. This past April, the working group surveyed students to gauge enthusiasm for the cuisines offered by potential CWK eateries. “The survey provided a wealth of information about what vendors the students wanted and why they felt those vendors should be there,” said Shaida Nishat ‘22, a working group member and former DormCon dining chair. “It was from these responses that the students in the working group put forth recommendations for the vendors.”
The partnership with CWK takes off during an important period of change at MIT. In July 2020, President Rafael Reif committed MIT to work with more minority-owned businesses, and the majority of CWK businesses are minority-owned, including the three vendors coming to the Launchpad. The MIT/CWK partnership also fits within DSL’s broader vision for the Student Center. “We are working on several initiatives that will make the Student Center a destination for student wellbeing, with environmental improvements, enhanced and expanded student spaces, and a wealth of resources for promoting wellbeing,” said Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life. “A revitalized approach to retail dining that focuses on offering fresh, tasty, and healthy food options fits well with that vision.”
Beyond the Launchpad, the partnership has the potential to provide opportunities for up to seven local, minority-owned businesses incubating at CWK as on-site vendors or as suppliers whose products are sold in the Student Center and integrated into dining menus. If all goes well in this pilot year, the plan is to continue the Launchpad project.
Reopenings & Departures
Despite the significant number of students studying remotely this past year, Dunkin’ and MIT’s at-cost grocery store, TechMart, reopened in September 2020 and stayed open during the pandemic. LaVerde’s reopened on August 2, and Cambridge Grill is expected to resume operations later in the semester. Likewise, the Asian Bistro food truck typically parked near Building 32 is planning to open later in the semester.
In addition to the departures of Shinkansen Express and Cafe Spice from the Student Center, Anna’s Taqueria will not reopen this fall. High End Food, the parent company of Shawarma Shack and operator of the Pacific Street Cafe (NW86), will manage the new Hayden Courtyard Cafe in the re-envisioned Hayden Library, which opens later this month.
House Dining & Move-In Meals
With MIT welcoming back students during the ongoing pandemic, the house dining system will reopen with some safe-serving and eating practices retained from the spring to protect community members’ health. Bon Appetit hired new culinary team members--including a new culinary director and six new chefs--and the New Vassar dining hall and community kitchen will be operating fully.
These and other enhancements emerged from concerted efforts by MIT Dining and DSL in partnership with student leaders and heads of house to strengthen and enhance the house dining system. To ensure these changes have the desired effect, Dining will continue the student satisfaction survey started in partnership with the Undergraduate Association last fall. “The results of that survey have been very helpful, and we want to keep communications open between students, dining staff, and DSL to ensure we keep improving,” Hayes said.
This past spring, the student dining survey results suggested that sustaining food quality and variety were among meal plan subscribers’ top concerns. Dining partner Bon Appetit hired the new culinary director and six new chefs to implement fresh ideas and keep up the quality. “The pandemic gave us time to solidify our feedback and quality assurance practices with Bon Appetit, and these six new chefs and the new culinary director are fully on board with the program’s future direction,” Hayes said.
In a 2019 meal plan review, students expressed concern about lunchtime crowding in Maseeh Hall’s Howard Dining Hall which, at the time, was the only location where subscribers could use their meal plan for lunch. With New Vassar’s opening as a second lunch location, the pressure on Maseeh should be alleviated and the experience of eating lunch in both dining halls will be more enjoyable.
More to Come
Students will find a mix of familiar and new food on campus this fall, and Hayes says it’s just the beginning. “Campus itself is undergoing a transformation with the Kendall Square development and new buildings going up. We are working to transform dining, too, and to offer a mix of concepts and dining plans that suit our eclectic community best.”