Sitting on the floor of the North Quad dining hall during lunch one day last week, Engineering freshman Matt DeFore dipped his spoon into a bowl of soup by his feet.
DeFore, who sat on the floor after an unsuccessful search for a seat at a table, bemoaned the challenge of eating off the ground without spilling his soup. The dining hall staff told him the area was over capacity and that he would have to sit on the floor — a recent problem at the bustling dining area in North Quad, which debuted last fall.
DeFore said he is disappointed with North Quad’s handling of the occupancy of the dining room, which has a maximum capacity of 197 patrons.
“I think it’s very poor, especially because how new this place is,” DeFore said. “I feel like they should expand it.”
In a statement released to The Michigan Daily yesterday, University Housing spokesman Peter Logan responded to concerns that the dining hall is often overcrowded. Logan wrote that throughout most of the week, about 700 to 800 people eat lunch in North Quad between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. During dinner service each day and on Fridays all day, the dining hall does not see as many patrons, according to Logan.
Sitting next to DeFore on the ground was Engineering sophomore Andy Pekala, who expressed safety concerns about people eating on the floor.
“They’re blocking the exit door, and they’re blocking the tray return,” Pekala said. “That’s got to be against fire code.”
Logan wrote that even though the students eating on the floor aren’t actually violating a health code, it’s “not the kind of experience we want for diners.” He added that University Housing doesn’t believe the dining area reaches full capacity on a regular basis or presents any fire hazards.
“There are ample exits from the dining hall for those seated plus additional patrons,” Logan wrote.
However, in an interview after the statement was released, Logan said students occupying floor spaces could constitute a tripping hazard whether in an emergency or not. If students seated on the floor are blocking emergency exits, dining hall managers are supposed to ask them to move to a different area, according to Logan.
“From the standpoint of the health code and the standpoint of the fire code, we don’t see a violation,” Logan said. “But no, we aren’t happy with the fact that students are sitting on the floor.”
Mike Lee, director of Residential Dining Services, said North Quad’s dining hall managers try to alleviate the capacity problem by asking students who are no longer eating to vacate tables.
When asked whether North Quad dining hall staff have a protocol that requires them to limit the number of people entering the dining hall, Lee said there is currently no such procedure.
“They’re trying to work around that by the managers going out and moving people out of seats and moving students off the floor,” Lee said.
Only 23 percent of lunchtime diners and 43 percent of evening diners are North Quad residents, according to card swiping data provided by Logan. There are only about 450 students living in North Quad.
Logan said this might be a factor in the dining hall’s occupancy problem since North Quad’s dining hall was intended to primarily serve the complex’s residents rather than students from other halls or non-residents with meal plans.
“I think when North Quad was planned and designed, the sense was that this would be essentially a dining facility for the residential community in North Quad, and that its success probably wasn’t debated to this point,” Logan said. “I think it has been a little eye-opening for us to see how successful and popular North Quad has been.”
He added that officials determined the size of North Quad’s dining hall based on the space available for the building and the need for academic and residential areas in addition to the dining hall.
“We made due with the space available to us for a dining facility as best as we could,” Logan said.
Looking toward solutions to the problem, Logan said University Housing does not want to turn students away from the dining hall.
“Right now, what we’re trying to do is manage the amount of students in the dining hall at the time we’ve got them,” Logan said. “I don’t think we would want to get into a situation where we are restricting some students from using the dining hall at certain times.”
Lee noted that every academic year, Residential Dining Services monitors the use of the dining halls and determines each cafeteria’s peak times. He said they are carefully watching the North Quad situation.
“We have to be very cautious not to have a knee-jerk reaction to something that may work its way as students settle into their patterns,” Lee said. “We’re always trying to monitor it, find ways to address it, which is why the mangers spend time in the dining room at those times when we typically get a large number.”
Lee added that the Hill Dining Center located in Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall experienced similar problems to North Quad when it initially opened in 2008, but numbers have since settled to a more desirable level.
However, Residential Dining Services will examine the problem at North Quad more thoroughly and brainstorm more solutions if the overcrowding does not subside soon.
“The staff has really been working hard, managers have been working hard, to tackle this situation,” Logan said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out over the next few weeks.”