New eateries in renovated bookstore complex

Students exploring the campus today may be surprised to discover several changes to the Matador Bookstore Complex, the biggest change being the three new restaurants occupying what was once known as the Stations Food Court. Replacing the pizza, Chinese, Mexican and sushi vendors that previously occupied the space, along with smoothie chain Jamba Juice, are three well-known chains: Panda Express, with Chinese food; El Pollo Loco, with Mexican-style dishes; and Juice It Up!, a juice and smoothie company that originated on the beaches of Southern California.

“When I was in college, I was looking for low-priced places to eat lunch,” said Urbano Acevedo, El Pollo Loco’s Director of Operations for Pollo West. He said El Pollo Loco offers that, especially with its dollar menu. CSUN used to have an El Pollo Loco restaurant almost ten years ago, but the restaurant failed to meet sales expectations, possibly because of a dramatic difference in the number of students attending the university between now and then, Acevedo said.

Acevedo also added that El Pollo Loco isn’t fast food. He said their menu is healthy, offering a variety of chicken dishes and also many vegetarian dishes, such as their “BRC” burrito, which features Pinto beans, rice and cheese. They also offer chicken on the bone, unlike similar chicken or Mexican-themed restaurants.

Many students familiar with the region surrounding the campus may wonder why there is a Panda Express on campus when there has been one located in the University Plaza on Reseda Boulevard and Nordhoff Street for many years.

“We serve different demographics,” Ana Villon, manager of the CSUN location, said. The CSUN location is especially geared toward students, while the other location may appeal to people shopping in the University Plaza, driving through the area, or living nearby.

As for the menu, it’s the same across locations, though Villon noted that the drinks at the university are marginally cheaper. Villon pointed out that Panda Express, like El Pollo Loco, provides healthy food choices for students. Villon said Panda’s selection includes lots of vegetables, such as the restaurant’s Kung Pao Chicken with Mushrooms dish. Furthermore, all the restaurant’s dishes are cooked in soybean oil, rather than more fatty options elsewhere, making Panda’s hot dishes trans fat-free. Besides pastries sold in the convenience stores, at Freudian Sip and the selection at Burger King, all foods offered on campus are trans fat-free. And even Burger King has healthy options, such as its salads, so students seeking healthy alternatives to vending machine fare should be happy to have the brand name options so readily available.

El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and Juice It Up! were all chosen after careful consideration by the University Corporation. The University Corporation is a non-profit organization that operates solely on behalf of the university, with no funding from students or from the state. In addition to having the sole responsibility of providing food options on campus, the University Corporation also provides for a variety of awards, scholarships and events held on campus.

The new vendors follow a similar style cuisine established by their predecessors, Burrito Norte in the case of the Mexican-style food, Rice Garden for an Asian selection, and Jamba Juice for juices and smoothies.

“Burrito Norte was an in-house brand,” said Dave Nirenberg, the University Corporation’s Director of Commercial Services. Students come to expect brand names, and the University Corporation wanted to give that to them, he said. Nirenberg said Panda Express was considered a wide and popular choice for Asian cuisine on college campuses, while El Pollo Loco was chosen for the Mexican food option because the campus hadn’t previously offered any real Mexican-style food beyond Burrito Norte. The removal of Jamba Juice was made due to economic reasons, Nirenberg said, but Juice It Up! had favorable feedback from students at other college campuses. All three vendors are meant to offer a variety of food choices for students on a limited budget.

Why the change in the first place?

“The old facility was tired,” Nirenberg said, adding that the change was part of a five-year plan to remodel the food court facilities and expand the food choices available to students, rather than direct them to particular areas on campus. The northern part of campus will have its own newly remodeled complex, the new Arbor Court, which had its grand opening on August 20. The Arbor Court, similar to the Matador Bookstore Complex, is a renovation of what had once been the Mercantile Exchange convenience store, formerly located in temporary bungalows. The new complex, about 400 square feet larger than its predecessor, features a convenience store along with the university’s fourth Freudian Sip location, and “Grill and Greens,” a new restaurant featuring grilled foods such as burgers, baked potatoes, and fresh salmon fillet.

Regarding the change to the campus’s newest eatery, the University Corporation’s Associate Executive Director Rick Evans said, “It’s more about the ambiance, creating a place where kids like to hang out.”

Though the University Corporation supervised the remodeling of the two complexes, both Panda Express and El Pollo Loco at the Matador Bookstore Complex are not operated by the University Corporation, but instead are franchised to them. As a result, when it came time to choose the vendors for the remodeled complex, the University Corporation didn’t have to establish any rules regarding the menu offerings or preparation of the food.

“We knew what the offerings were,” Nirenberg said. “We are not in a position to dictate menu [items] to Panda Express or El Pollo Loco.” However, Nirenberg did say that the University Corporation tries to keep prices as low as possible, typically below the “street price” found at the chain restaurants off-campus. Sometimes price increases are inevitable, but in the case of the new complexes, there will be no increase in prices to any of the food items as a result of the remodeling.

Some students are already enjoying the new offerings. “It seems more organized,” said senior English literature major Virginia Isaad at the complex on August 20, after completing some textbook shopping at the renovated bookstore. “Since people know these places [Panda Express and El Pollo Loco], they’re more likely to know [about] the quality of the food.”

But the food selection isn’t that much different, Isaad said. “I think the only thing they’re lacking is diversity.”

The three vendors occupy a recently renovated part of the bookstore complex that was closed in May, and just recently completed construction. Panda Express officially opened for business the week of August 16, while El Pollo Loco and Juice It Up! opened the Monday thereafter. Unlike the previous Stations Food Court, the existing setup will allow students to walk up to their restaurant of choice, order and pay at the same location, rather than going to a single pay station, similar to how the Sierra Center currently operates. The three vendors are located far enough back so that there will be room to accommodate for lunch-rush period lines, without interfering with the tables and chairs located outside the vendor area.