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Cal State Students Say They Hunger for Food for Thought

Amenities: The CSUN extension in Camarillo lacks places to eat because it has so little enrollment. More restaurants are expected if Channel Islands University becomes a reality.


CAMARILLO — It's lunchtime at Cal State Northridge's extension campus, and student Charles Papke is brown-bagging it: leftover mashed potatoes, a chicken sandwich and cookies.

That is better than the meager options the 1,800 students have for buying lunch here--a coffee cart, sandwiches from the bookstore, sack lunches or a 10-minute drive to the nearest fast-food row.

The campus is too small to attract fast-food franchises. If it evolves into the independent Cal State University Channel Islands, which is expected by fall 2002, eateries will abound, promises George Dutra, head of facilities and operations.

The campus is expected to build a restaurant soon, but stomachs are rumbling now.

"They could really use a restaurant or something out here," said Jessica Dikeman, 24, drinking a double mocha from the campus coffee cart.

Don't tell the satellite students how good the eats are on the 28,000-student main campus in Northridge, which just opened a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts/Cyber Cafe, with pastries, chilled coffee drinks, six Macintosh stations and bar stools shaped like giant coils. And that is just one of many places to eat on the sprawling campus.

Larry Johnson, president of Associated Students, the extension campus' student government organization, worries that all other things being equal, potential students might choose other colleges if the school doesn't overcome its spartan feel.

"Only so many students will bring sack lunches," he said.

Students have come to expect many food options, said some experts on "quick service" restaurants. Tuna casserole on a metal cafeteria tray won't cut it any more, as palates have become more sophisticated and consumers, even fast-food eaters on a college campus, expect variety and want it with a little panache.

"It's a buyer's market," said John Dunlap, president and chief executive of the Sacramento-based California Restaurant Assn. "Smart colleges and universities are looking to offer amenities that include unusual and nice food service packages."

Marti Gray, who oversees food service at Cal State San Marcos in San Diego County, said the biggest complaint on surveys at San Diego State, the former parent campus for Cal State San Marcos, is food. Students never think they have enough variety, she said, and they want brand names.

Attracting franchises is difficult, however, for small schools, because expensive franchise fees don't become cost-effective until a school has about 10,000 students.

That is something Cal State Channel Islands leaders will have to take into account, and San Marcos' experience provides a view of the future. It opened in 1990, at a temporary campus with 2,000 students, and then moved to a permanent facility in 1992.

Vending machines and a small deli were adequate for the 2,000 students at the temporary campus, Gray said, although students didn't agree. When the school moved to its own campus, the staff created its own theme restaurant, "Casa del Sol," with specially designed labels and packaging, at a considerably lower cost than paying a franchise fee.

Even so, Gray said, that hasn't satisfied the now-6,000 students at San Marcos. "We still cannot meet their needs for variety."

At the Cal State Northridge extension, the small size works just fine for Camarillo-based Messiah's Cookies, which runs the coffee cart, said owner Linda McKenzie. A former accountant at the school when classes were held in an office building in Ventura, she said she likes the chance to have her business grow with the school.

She and employee Mike Ornelas, who runs the cart, have worked out how many wrapped sandwiches, cookies, salads and smoothies they will sell on average each day and rarely are wrong, so she said she knows that no matter what a student's perception is, the campus offers enough food for those who want to buy.

In two months, the campus is expected to open an indoor cafe that will house Messiah's and offer students a sandwich bar, food hot off the grill and a small dining area.

That would suit brown-bagger Papke just fine.

"I'm a food guy," he said. "If they had some Mexican food there, some entrees, I could eat beans and rice all day."

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