The line streams out into the hallway and students wait expectantly amidst noisy chatter and nervous watch-checking. Eschewing trays and silverware at lunchtime, several hundred students are choosing the rustle of paper bags and the crackle of plastic. Grab & Go, which opened in early October, shares the space formerly referred to as the “Doghouse.” This new lunch option in the basement of Baxter has many students brown-bagging it once again.
The concept for the Underground Express began in the spring of 1998. According to Director of Dining Services Jim Hodgkins, Associate Director of Dining Services Alex da Silva has been the primary force leading the project through to its current state of immense popularity. According to da Silva, the goals of the Underground Express included offering students a quick and nutritious lunch, encouraging more student use of an often empty space and adding value to the meal plan.
The Underground Express comprises both the hot dog option (formerly the only option of the “Doghouse”) and the Grab & Go. For those who choose to avoid such cardiovascular nightmares as all-you-can-eat hot dogs and chili, the Grab & Go offers a wide range of relatively nutritious choices. The fare includes a pre-made sandwich, salad, fruit, chips or pretzels, a drink, and dessert. At least one vegetarian option is always included.
Many students will vouch for the quality of the food, but more than that, people appreciate the relative simplicity of the food. Caleb Fassett ’02 appreciates the more ordinary food over the dining hall’s “elaborately cooked foods that don’t always taste very good.” Suzanne Wall ’01 agreed, “In the dining hall, you get a weird mix of elements.”
The service, which regularly serves about 300 students per day (15 percent of the Williams student body), became so popular that renovations became necessary to improve its efficiency. These changes took place over Winter Study Period when students were less likely to be so rushed during lunch and the Underground Express was closed. Now the process of collecting food is much more streamlined, with large refrigerated display cases and more space for items to be spread out. The hot dogs are kept to one side of the short corridor, so that two lines are able to form. Da Silva said even at peak hours, he expects that students will be able to get their lunches in five minutes or less.
In addition to the convenience of speed, da Silva has also placed an emphasis on the appearance of both the space and the food. “Our objective was to create a softer aesthetic feel as well as increased efficiency for our customers and staff alike,” da Silva said.
The backbone of the program and food haven’t changed, though. According to da Silva, the Baxter Dining Services staff runs the program and has done such a commendable job that change to that aspect of the project has not been necessary since the opening. “All this is due to a master effort put forth by the staff of Baxter Dining Hall which operates this program. They have made this concept come to its fruition and they are deserving of many praises,” he said.
Students seem to agree that the food is a pleasant change of pace from the dining hall. “I don’t have to worry about the hectic rush to get into the dining hall,” said Wall. Healthy and high quality, the options appeal to many customers who would otherwise never go to the Doghouse, which serves only hot dogs and chili. Displayed invitingly in clear plastic containers, the sandwiches defy the abuse that bagged lunches typically suffer. According to da Silva, about a third of the customers still get hot dogs, but the other choices bring much greater diversity to the clientele, especially those looking for a quick and healthy option. “It’s not that I don’t like the variety in the dining hall, but sometimes I just get all desserts. . .This is pretty balanced and I like it that way,” said Darah Schofield ’01.
Jeff McMahon ’99 enjoys the wider range of students that take part in the Underground Express. “It used to be almost all guys, especially big meaty guys. Now there are more women and non-jocks, including people who actually eat healthy food for lunch.” McMahon also acknowledged that not all of the “Doghousers” were as pleased to share their space with Grab & Go, with the chief complaint being overcrowding. “But anything that’ll liven the place up is a good thing, even if it does go crazy two days a week,” McMahon said.
Da Silva said that though he has not received any complaints, he would expect the main concern to be unavailability of seating, in a space that used to be rather sparsely populated during lunch. Most students who choose Grab & Go literally do go away to eat their lunches elsewhere, though, and enjoy the ability to do so. “It gives you freedom of movement,” said Wall.
Overall, the new program has met unmitigated success. A few grumbles about long lines do not seem to be enough to keep students from coming back for the classic lunch they crave.