MIT to open local, minority-owned food vendors in Student Center

Vendors are currently incubating in Commonwealth Kitchen

9596 cadence boronkay   lobdell commonwealth kitchen
MIT is partnering with Commonwealth Kitchen to fill the three restaurant spaces in Lobdell Dining Hall with women or BIPOC-owned food businesses.

MIT will provide opportunities for up to ten local, minority-owned businesses to distribute in the Stratton Student Center. The businesses, which may sell as either on-site vendors or as suppliers, are incubating at Commonwealth Kitchen (CWK).

CWK is a non-profit food business incubator focused on creating a “just, equitable, sustainable food economy,” and seeks to build a “new food economy grounded in racial, social and economic justice” by strengthening the power of “diverse entrepreneurs to start and grow successful food businesses,” according to the CWK website. While the details of MIT’s pilot are still under discussion, CWK would manage the incubating businesses directly, giving them the best chance of success.

The process of updating the offerings in the student center began in Fall 2018 with the first meeting of the W20 Dining Concepts Working Group. The group, which comprises of students from the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, DormCon, residential dining chairs, and “at-large students as well as staff” from the Sustainability Office and the Division of Student Life, initially focused on offerings in the Lobdell Food Court, but their scope “expanded to include food vendors on the first and second floors (except LaVerde’s).” The group “reached the consensus” that the student center food vendor portfolio “needed to be rethought,” according to Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes in an email to The Tech.

According to Hayes, CWK had partnered with MIT Campus Dining and other local colleges on a winning proposal for the 2019 Kendall Foundation Food Vision Prize; they later inquired about opportunities on MIT’s campus in early 2020, at which time no space was available for vendors in the Student Center. However, the vendors in Lobdell at the time “were on year-to-year leases that expired in summer 2020,” and their departure “opened space for the CWK concept.”

Following the lease expiry, MIT made a commitment to minority-owned businesses in President L. Rafael Reif’s July 2020 email to the MIT community regarding efforts to address systemic racism at MIT, stating that MIT will increase “purchasing and contracting with minority-owned businesses, including Black-led enterprises.”

“The process of identifying the first CWK vendor cohort is underway, led by a launch-pad working group comprising staff and students,” Hayes wrote. This group, the Lobdell Working Group, saw “a formal presentation by CWK on Friday, April 30,” and subsequently recommended conducting a student survey to get feedback on the vendor options CWK proposed.

The student survey was sent out on Sunday, May 2 via email, and asked students to rank the food options for each of three kiosks; these options would replace the previous vendors — Cafe Spice, Shawarma Shack, and Shinkansen Bullet Train. The email also included a powerpoint with details about each of the possible replacements, including small biographies of the owners, details of business type (BIPOC, women-owned), sample menu items, and target prices.

The options for the first kiosk are Bibim Box, Suya Joint, and Las Palmas Restaurant. Bibim Box is a Korean eatery that offers gluten-free and vegan meals, with target prices of $3.00–$10.50; Suya Joint offers Nigerian food in the $3.00–$14.00 range; and Las Palmas offers Dominican food in the $2.00–$12.00 range.

The second kiosk’s options are Carolicious, Fresh Food Generation, and Meal Mantra. Carolicious delivers Venezuelan arepas that are gluten-free-accessible in the $6.00–$10.00 range; Fresh Food Generation serves Caribbean-American food from locally-sourced farms in the $8.00–$12.00 range; and Meal Mantra is a line of authentic Indian all-natural dips, chutneys, and curry simmer sauces in the $7.00–$12.00 range.

The third kiosk’s options are Dining Car, Rhythm ’n Wraps, and Cafe Juice Up. Dining Car is an international-inspired sandwich eatery in the $4.00–$12.00 range; Rhythm ’n Wraps offers vegan specialties in the  $6.00–$12.00 range; and Cafe Juice Up serves smoothies, fresh fruit juices, and soups in the $6.00–$9.50 range.

With the feedback from the student survey in mind, CWK will approach the prospective vendors to gauge their interest in the pilot. Assuming “all goes well,” MIT will announce the three vendors in the coming weeks, Hayes said. The vendors will join LaVerde’s, Dunkin’, and Cambridge Grill in Fall 2021.

After the vendors are installed, MIT Dining and the Lobdell Working Group will “assess the pilot’s success and long-term viability,” Hayes said. The group is planning to identify a new set of vendors each year in the spring, with a changeover taking place in the summer. This approach will “keep students’ dining options in W20 fresh while allowing more CWK entrepreneurs a singular opportunity to hone their business in a real-life setting.”

Hayes emphasized that, in addition to supporting minority-owned businesses, the plan fulfills a vision from the Division of Student Life (DSL), of W20 as a place that “promotes wellbeing.” A rotating cast of retail dining options that focuses on “offering fresh, tasty, and healthful food options fits well with that vision.”

CWK will use the next four months to prepare and work with the selected vendors. MIT Campus Dining will work on the necessary facility repairs for supporting the pilot over the summer.

Speaking on the pilot, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson wrote in an email to The Tech that “this is a great partnership, furthering MIT’s entrepreneurial mission and commitment to benefitting our neighboring communities and the people who live there. It is also exciting because of the culinary diversity and variety of food options that these businesses will bring to W20.”

She further underscored DSL’s vision for the student center as a “destination for student wellbeing — which started with the Athena Cluster Study Lounge in 2019 and includes a floor-by-floor renovation that will make W20 warmer and more welcoming.”