The idea for an allergen-free dining hall came to Registered Dietitian Gina Keilen from parents who had expressed a desire for their Spartans to thrive and not just survive while dining on campus.
Michigan State University’s Culinary Services (CS) responded by opening a tenth all-you-care-to eat dining hall — Thrive at Riverwalk Market at Owen Hall. The previously established Riverwalk Market will now thrive and feature three venues beginning July 2019. Thrive is committed to being sesame-conscious and free of the Big 8 allergens (milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish) plus gluten.
“Since, I’ve been on campus, it’s been an almost 175% increase every year of people who contact me with some sort of allergen,” Keilen says. “Allergens continue to increase, and it’s becoming more forward facing and severe as time goes on.”
Currently, Holden and Holmes dining halls are deemed nutconscious but not entirely nut free as CS does not do allergen testing in these locations. Thrive will be the first venue where the allergens simply aren’t there. Owen is a prime hall for the venue due to the large amount of foot traffic and its location in the center of campus.
“When we say allergen free, it means everything from the serving counter on back through the kitchen won’t have any of those allergens in it,” Keilen says. “We have test strips that we will do to make sure the allergens aren’t there and everything is in compliance.”
CS will be partnering with a third-party company, Kitchens with Confidence, to run audits and track the progress of Thrive. Everyone will be welcome to eat at Thrive, and the team is encouraging family, friends and MSU team members to try the mainstream food creations. Chef Jordan Durkin will be in charge at Thrive. Durkin previously interned with Keilen and applied for the job looking forward to the creativity involved.
“We want to take everyday food and make it something someone who has those allergens can still eat,” Durkin says. “One of the big things we’re doing is a chicken tender. Most chicken strips have egg, wheat and gluten in them, and we figured out a way to get rid of those by using a gluten-free panko crust.”
Three tastings have been held at McDonel Hall’s corporate kitchen and MSU team members and students were invited to try new menu items, including smoked and rotisserie meats, chipotle lime pork tostados, grain bowls, noodle bowls, vegan “crab” cakes, risotto bowls, and mac and “cheese.”
“That’s part of the fun, making people unaware of the food being allergen free,” Durkin says. “We’ve created a gumbo, taking the flour, butter and shellfish out of the gumbo, and people couldn’t tell the difference.”
Since Sparty’s is currently a part of Riverwalk Market, the CS team is also considering unique allergen-free product options for the location in order to accommodate those dining at Thrive. With safety as top priority, planning is necessary to avoid cross contact.
“When you bring in donuts and bagels from Sparty’s, people won’t be able to come into the kitchen with that,” Durkin says. “With summer, we’re shut down and a company is cleaning the place floor to ceiling to ensure we start with a fresh slate.”
Thrive will offer the campus community a unique dining experience they can share with anyone they choose.
“We want the person who has these allergies to eat there but bring their friends, their family – bring whoever they’d like – and have a meal like they would anywhere else,” Durkin says.
Thrive will be open Monday through Friday for both lunch and dinner with operation hours of 11 a.m.–7 p.m. throughout the academic year.