Finding Common Ground

Commons celebrates 100th

For a full century, the Sutton Commons has served the Roanoke College community with distinction, offering food for thought to generations of students on a mission of learning. Today, Executive Chef Bob Prophet and Director of Dining Services Virginia Dooley seek to further this proud history by combining the caring spirit of home cooking with a commitment to culinary innovation and efficiency. With a host of tasty initiatives - from the new brick-lined pizza oven, to the popular "Bakeshop Live" in which students can watch professionally trained bakers prepare made-to-order desserts - Prophet, Dooley, and their staff of 47 never flag in pursuit of a food program that will draw together a well-nourished, energized campus community.

The Commons - conceived in 1909 and opened in 1910 - has lived up to its name by helping to bring together the campus, much like the dinner table at home, and providing common ground for generations of learners at Roanoke College.

Such common ground, however, wasn't always so easily found. As late as 1909, the student body was being fed in much the same fashion it had since the school's founding in the mid-1800s. Throughout those early years, students who could afford the steep price of $12 to $14 per month would board with professors or local families. Those on the "economy plan" would pay $6 per month to take part in a Mess Club, forming a small group to contract with a local resident for meals. Meanwhile, everyone else ate at the Grub House, a white, two-story frame building near the middle of today's Back Quad. There, the College's steward oversaw a small female cooking staff which, according to the Collegian, "[fed students] well whilst in health and bestow[ed] upon them no little care and anxiety when sick."

Nonetheless, local boarding and the old club system fell out of favor with value-conscious students by the early 1900s. In 1909, the Commons was conceived, and by 1910 students were taking their meals in the newly erected dining hall.        

The Commons was plain but "attractively furnished" with chairs, cloth-covered tables, a silver setting and RC monogrammed china. The steward was charged with "efficient and profitable" management, and the facility soon turned a modest profit. With seating for 160, all students could receive their meals together for the first time. Uniformed classmates served students at their tables, and if not previously, by at least April of 1915 the Commons had been christened (albeit informally) by its first food fight. While no specific description of the fight is available, likely menu items of the 1910s included chicken, top round beef, eggs, oysters, pork and beans, black-eyed peas, hominy, apples, canned pineapple, string beans, corn, and peas.

Roanoke's food service program had become a uniting element of students' lives-but eventually also a focus for students' shared frustrations. The lack of opportunity for casual eating and socializing led in 1947 to the opening of the first Cavern snack bar in the Commons lower level. Soon students were enjoying the soda fountain and jitterbugging to jukebox tunes.

Meanwhile, growth in the school led predictably to overcrowding in the dining hall, and ended in, as reported by the <I>Collegian<I>, "wails of agony from everyone...." In response, the College introduced cafeteria-style operations in 1957, and by 1961 the Commons was expanded to connect with the old Gym/Lab Theater ­- doubling capacity to 358.       

Still, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, students' desire for change led to an intense focus on the food program, and even a nationally reported campus protest over milk restrictions. Change indeed came, under new Director Dick Phelan and Assistant Carol Beamer. A reviewer from Duke University soon noted marked improvement in food quality and student relations, and an increasing ratio of diners/student body (about 90 percent vs. 75 percent nationally).

C.J. Caldwell '77, who served as a student manager in Commons from 1977 to 1978, credits the staff. "Kudos to Dick Phelan, Carol, and [head chef] Bill Nutter and his wife," Caldwell said when interviewed in October. "The food was good. Honest to goodness, we had a blast... a good time."

Caldwell recalled that one innovation brought fraternity diners into the Commons, which helped bring the campus closer together - sometimes for some spontaneous fun. More than a few times the Commons served as the battlefield for a new-potato food fight between "the Sections guys and Sigs or some other group," he said.

Notable alumni, including John Mulheren '71 and Bob Rotanz '78, earned their stripes during these years cleaning up after the students' fun, working the floor and performing tasks like "pulling the belt" (manning the conveyor for dishes). Rotanz went on in the 1980s to co-found Mac and Bob's, now a Salem dining favorite. Mulheren, who died in 2003, would become a generous donor to the College whose gifts enabled the school to renovate the Commons and open a new student center in honor of former Dean Sutton in 1982.

Andrew Jowdy '82, said it was during his years as a co-student manager of the Commons that he developed long-lasting friendships. One of his closest friends was co-student manager Al Pollard '82, who went on to create popular Roanoke restaurants such as Corned Beef & Co., Frankie Rowland's Steakhouse and 419 West before his death in 2006.

Pollard "turned into my closest friend in life and the manager of the Commons job we shared played a major role in that," Jowdy said. The Commons is "where I forged my earliest solid adult relationships outside of my parents...[The adult staff] taught me how to be responsible to a job everyday [and] to appreciate the challenges adults faced in their [careers]."

Fast-forward to 1995. In that year, without fanfare, a modern tradition was born when new Director Virginia Dooley was paired with Executive Chef Bob Prophet. Times had changed again, and students were demanding more variety, flexibility, and sophistication. Both professionals brought strong experience in the field of food service and nutrition, with Prophet coming directly from the kitchen at Hilton Head Resort. Experimentation in those early years often required quick thinking on their parts. "We were making changes by the seat of our pants," Dooley recalled.

Combining student surveys with outreach to the National Association of College and University Food Service, as well as lots of brainstorming energy and elbow grease, the Commons was on its way to being remade for the new century. In 2000, the kitchen, dining hall, and Cavern were all redesigned within the new Colket Center. Key to this renaissance was the recruitment of top talent, including now "12 cooks with fantastic training from programs like the New England Culinary Institute and the American Culinary Federation Chef School," said Chef Bob.

The magic of today's Commons is that all of this able talent is allowed to try new things, experiment, and dream - with an emphasis on interactive connection with diners. Thus, bakers, omelet makers, pizza chefs, and the sandwich specialists of Chef Bob's Grill are on the floor preparing custom fare at up to eight stations per meal. Evolving student tastes are currently leading to new offerings such as ethnic, organic, and locally grown foods. Meanwhile, students have fun decorating their own cookies and desserts. And now, updates have gone 24/7 with a menu text alert system.

With pride, Dooley explains a simple formula of combining "good product" with "good talent and friendly service" in a clean, visually appealing atmosphere. By keeping the tastes and needs of students foremost, while remaining engaged with national trends and developments, the Commons continues to unite the campus of Roanoke College while keeping an eye (or perhaps one should say stomach?) on the future.

About the author: Stewart Hill majored in Biology with a concentration in History while at Roanoke. As a kid he logged many hours around the Miller Hall office of his dad, Prof. Bill Hill in Political Science. He lives with his wife Mary Crockett Hill '91 and three children in Elliston, Virginia. Special thanks to Professor Mark Miller, author of "Dear Old Roanoke" A Sesquicentennial Portrait, 1842-1992," and to Professor Linda Miller, Roanoke College archivist.

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