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Chains drag student union into mediocrity

Kendrick Wilson
contributing writer
By Kendrick Wilson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday September 23, 2003

The Student Union Memorial Center is a beautiful new building that has made a permanent mark on our campus and will be an important landmark in our community for years to come. Sadly, inside this unique landmark lies a food court that typifies "Any College, USA." Efforts were made ๗ or so the university claims ๗ to provide a variety of food options at the union. The problem is that this one-of-a-kind building only offers the choice between a few different low-end national chains and several places owned by the university.

The union itself operates 3 Cheeses & a Noodle, Cactus Grill, Cafe Sonora, Canyon Cafe & Bistro, The Cellar Restaurant and Lounge, Java Jive, On Deck Deli, Reddington Restaurant and the U-Mart Convenience Store. The remaining options are some of the country's largest chains.

On the ground-floor food court, one finds Panda Express, owned by Panda Restaurant Group, a Southern California-based company that owns 520 restaurants nationwide ๗ 500 of which are under the name of Panda Express ๗and grossed nearly $300 million in revenues last year. Nearby is Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's, one of the world's largest food retailers, which advertises having more than 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries and grossing $4.2 billion in sales for August alone. Next to McDonald's is Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza, with 7,291 locations worldwide in 50 countries. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A just opened, and their Web site proudly announces that the chain has 1000 locations "and counting." On the outside chance that anyone would venture outside the food court, Orville and Wilbur's, a franchise of Springville, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, Inc., operates a food cart.

The apparent popularity of the concessions at the union might lead some to believe it's what the students want. However, that quick assumption ignores the fact that students at the union are a captive audience. Many meal plans can only be used at union-sponsored concessionaires and many students simply cannot resist the convenience of the union, even as they complain about the food.

Still others would argue that it's not possible for a large retail center to offer customers independent, locally owned options. I would refer them to the Tucson Mall, one of Tucson's largest retail centers, where the popular "Arizona Avenue" features only Arizona-specific shops.

Many locally-owned restaurants in Tucson have joined Tucson Originals, an organization designed to expand the buying power of independent restaurants and increase public awareness of their distinctiveness and community importance. The list of members includes several popular off-campus spots for UA students: Baggin's Gourmet Sandwiches, Beyond Bread, Magpie's Pizza and El Charro are just a few.

On its Web site, Tucson Originals claims that independent, locally owned restaurants provide the "soul and distinctive flavors of food that help define a sense of place." Their menu items are unique and "original to Tucson and Southern Arizona." Is that a necessity? Clearly, it is not, but anyone who thinks it is not important could have no appreciation for the other things that make our university and larger community unique either.

Without a defined sense of place, the university and Tucson as a whole are mere machines, processing people like cattle, offering them no soul and nothing unique. Our local melting pot goes without culinary recognition and is never seen by many who attend the UA when all we have at the union is nationally syndicated Chinese food and cheap cafeteria-style Mexican food.

It is ironic that a building tied so closely to Arizona, even memorializing the battleship named after our state that was sunk in Pearl Harbor, offers no sense of place inside. What's the use in having a student union so special to Arizona when the people deciding what food will be served inside don't even live here?

The Park Student Union is now under construction, and is likely to have a

result similar to the Student Union Memorial Center. Would it be too much to ask for an Eegee's, Baggin's, Beyond Bread, Lucky Chinese Restaurant and El Charro instead of the gargantuan, tired and mediocre chains that have insidiously taken over the Student Union Memorial Center? It could be, but if that is what happens, make the longer walk down East University Boulevard or North Fourth Avenue to enjoy the few independent, locally owned choices that remain, like No Anchovies, Cafe Paraiso, Epic Cafe, Bison Witches, Maya Quetzal Guatemalan Restaurant and Lucky Chinese Restaurant.

The sense of place they provide is well worth the walk.

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Chains drag student union into mediocrity


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