The renovated Michigan Union will feature a Panera Bread and a Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, among other options, when it reopens in January.
Several restaurants previously housed in the Union, including Starbucks and Au Bon Pain, will not be returning. But Panda Express and Subway will keep their spots in the Union with the addition of Mama Deluca’s, a station offering made-to-order pizza, pasta and chicken wings. The other six restaurants will include MI Burger and the convenience store Blue Market. All of the restaurants will accept Blue Bucks and Dining Dollars.
The renovated Union will also house five retail partners: Barnes & Noble, the U-M Credit Union, the U-M Tech Shop, PNC ATM and the Michigan Union Ticket Office.
In an interview with The Daily, Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services, said there was a multipronged approach to considering restaurants’ bids for space in the Union.
“I think the criteria has been, what is going to be of interest to students, the price point, the menu selection, customer service, who’s going to operate a good business that’s going to meet the needs of all those folks that visit the Union,” Pile said. “So I think that those are the key drivers.”
The Union has been closed since April 2018, when work began on the two-year, $85.2 million renovation project.
Students played a role in the decision-making process through the Michigan Union Board of Representatives, a student organization that consulted with Union administrators on the renovation.
Rackham student Timothy Williams, a member of the MUBR and one of the students who served on the food review committee, said sustainability was a primary concern in considering which restaurants to put in the Union.
“I know for a lot of us sustainability was at the forefront,” Williams said. “We wanted to avoid anything that wasn’t either recyclable or compostable, keep up with sustainability trends, not only in front of house but also back of house and make sure they’re using sustainable equipment and composting, et cetera. That was a pretty big part of it as well as menu diversity, which obviously played a huge role.”
Amy White, director of the Michigan Union and associate director of University Unions, said she was looking forward to introducing new restaurants into the space.
“I think you’ll see that there are some familiar favorites, as well as some new faces and I think that’s good,” White said. “I think that if we opened the renovated Union and the same folks that we’ve seen for the last 30 years are still doing business that says something. In some ways that says some really good things, and it may also say some things that are not so good, so I think having some fresh businesses alongside long-standing favorites is something that I’m excited about.”
LSA senior Nick Schmidt, chair of the Michigan Union Board of Representatives, said customer service was another consideration.
“I think that that’s a huge part of any operation that we have in the Union is making sure that the business interacts well with the students because we want students to feel comfortable in the Union,” Schmidt said. “That is their space.”
The current contracts vary from five to 10 years in length.
Some restaurants, including Wendy’s, opted not to renew their contracts for space in the Union. Last January, activists from Washtenaw Solidarity with Farmworkers called on the University and Central Student Government to block Wendy’s from coming back to campus after the chain refused to sign the Fair Food Program, an initiative seeking to promote adequate working conditions and fair wages for agricultural laborers.
The Wendy’s location in the Union was independently franchised and the owner subsequently decided not to renew the lease.
White said the controversy did not impact the selection process in a significant way.
“I think we didn’t see a huge amount of controversy from individual vendors,” White said.
Williams agreed with White, adding “at the end of the day, we picked them because we thought they were all the best.”
“It was definitely in the back of my mind, just because it was so prevalent on campus, but by and large, we just didn’t run into that with businesses that we looked at in my opinion,” Williams said. “We asked about food sourcing for a sustainability perspective, more so than that particular concern. As far as I’m aware, it just never really came up.”
Apart from food, Schmidt said he was looking forward to seeing students return to the Union after its renovation.
“I mean, in my opinion, the open inviting space and the vibrancy of collaboration is something I’m excited for,” Schmidt said. “I’m excited to go into the Union and hear people talking and see people laughing and things like that.”
Williams noted the renovation will also enclose the courtyard on the main level, creating more space for students.
“I’m really excited about the new courtyard,” Williams said. “I think it’s going to be beautiful. It’ll be actually usable for most of the year, instead of freezing out there.”
The enclosed courtyard will be near the IdeaHub, a co-working space for student collaboration that will be built where the 97-year-old billiards hall previously stood.
Pile said she was excited to see the Union come alive again and watch students use the IdeaHub.
“It’s going to be this amazing new space for student organizations on campus, really unlike any other space that we’ve ever seen on campus just for student organizations,” Pile said. “So it’s exciting to think about moving into that space and what it’s going to mean for student orgs on this campus.”