Living Design

University of Arkansas Student Union Food Court:
Lunch & Learn

A primary food venue on the University of Arkansas campus, the Student Union Food Court was long overdue for upgrades. Working closely with the Student Affairs office and dining operator Chartwells, we developed a concept to help change the image of food service on campus.

The program was defined by a few governing goals. First, the renovated space needed to capitalize on campus views and connect to the UA identity. Second, it need to become a more inviting place for students to gather, with flexible social and solitary spaces. Last, the renovation needed to emphasize the ‘fast and fresh’ concept, implementing queuing and circulation strategies with clear direction.

The concept of a cabin in the woods guided the design process. The “porch” welcomes students and staff as they enter from the union, and a slat ceiling feature was inspired by compressed cabin shelters in the woods. A center core is home to the collective of food vendors, streamlining the queuing process, simplifying traffic flow, and increasing the visibility patrons have with the food ingredients and preparation. Relocating food vendors to the core introduced additional efficiencies with back-of-house operations, while simultaneously highlighting the food court’s biggest assets – daylight, and views to the surrounding campus and landscape.

Adjacent to the porch, flexible seating areas serve as additional dining, social or solitary areas, adjusting in purpose as the day progresses. Behind the center core, the “hearth” is primarily realized as solitary space. A mix of seating and flood of natural light makes the hearth a popular concentration zone for students to focus and collaborate throughout the day.

A neutral and clean palette is used throughout, speaking to the regional materiality of Northwest Arkansas. Color is introduced in fabric and furniture and, most notably, large-scale custom wall graphics. The graphics combine outdoor-inspired spaces referencing the Northwest Arkansas landscape with topographical elements to reference the visual language of maps.

Improvements in circulation and service allowed Chartwells to significantly increase the number patrons they can serve – the food court now accommodates 650 seats. The renovation also increased revenue, the visibility of ingredients and food prep, and overall enjoyment and quality of the space.

View the full project