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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Fog/Mist
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UW-Madison Memorial Union ends breakfast service
An opinionated report about the decline on campus of the most important meal of the day
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What about the rest of us -- the alumni, faculty, emeritus faculty, game day fans, Union members and tourists -- who don't want a McBreakfast?
Credit:Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison

A longtime campus tradition is ending. After Labor Day, no traditional breakfast will be served at the UW Memorial Union. No eggs, no toast, no hash browns, no pancakes, toast or bacon, at either Lakefront on Langdon or Der Rathskeller.

Aside from oatmeal at Peet's Coffee & Tea, the Union's only hot fare will be a new line of "breakfast sandwiches" at the Daily Scoop, the ice cream and deli counter.

The news came Friday in an email from Carl Korz, the Union's director of dining services.

"This decision was not reached lightly," he wrote. "We know that there are some people that have been eating their breakfast there for some time and we looked forward to taking care of these customers on a regular basis."

The Memorial Union's Lakefront on Langdon stopped serving breakfast long before, leaving only the Rathskeller. Korz pointed out that breakfast service hasn't been profitable for a few years, despite remodeling of the Rathskeller's serving area a little more than a year ago. Its menu was also revamped at the time, with German offerings such as kartoffel latkes (potato pancakes) as well as paninis. Eggs, toast and bacon disappeared but were later added back.

The new approach "failed to win us any more breakfast customers," Korz conceded.

I wasn't too surprised, having written a pretty lukewarm review in February, but still, breakfast at the Union is as much a UW tradition as Bucky, "Varsity," and losing your breath walking up Bascom Hill. Surely it could never die?

No, just reimagined. The change to breakfast sandwiches is being peddled as a good thing, "to better serve our student markets which, through their purchasing habits and surveys, have let us know that their perspective on breakfast is changing, and portability and speed of service are two critical factors in their breakfast choices," wrote Korz.

But portability and speed were the prime features of the pre-remodeled Rathskeller. Its style was known as "grab and go" in the industry. It had been judged anathema, thus the remodeling and menu change in the first place.

It all raises a chicken-or-egg question. It seems likely that perceived trends were amplified or even created by change itself. There's no question that after every "improvement" to Memorial Union breakfasts over many years, there were clearly-apparent drops in business.

And students aside, what about the rest of us -- the alumni, faculty, emeritus faculty, game day fans, Union members and tourists -- who don't want a McBreakfast?

"Dining room of the campus"

In truth, the long slide began in 1999, when the Memorial Union's Lakefront Café was closed and extensively remodeled. That was always the breakfast hot spot, never the Rathskeller.

In 1947, 10 years before the Lakefront Cafe opened, the Memorial Union was already serving 1,100 meals daily in what today are secondary dining rooms or meeting rooms. When Lakefront was added in 1957, it cost $1.3 million and won awards for its ultra-modern cafeteria design. It was built to accommodate 3,600 diners a day. By 1963, The Daily Cardinal student newspaper called it "the favorite dining room of the campus."

Through the 1980s, greasy breakfasts on real china with metal flatware, featuring waffles and raisin-cinnamon bread freighted with butter, drew so many patrons that Sunday customers had to stand in long lines at Lakefront, often out the door. Inside the dining area they were treated to live instrumental quintets and quartets from the UW School of Music. It was so packed that you had to sit with strangers. Those were the glory years.

By the late 1990s, though, Lakefront sales had dropped to around 430 meals a day. Then arrived the first of several experts who thought that cafeterias were passé. The first was Julie Vincent, who as food service director oversaw Lakefront's transformation into a facility that offered preparation at various stations, in front of patrons.

There was little question that the basement kitchen had to be replaced (rumors of horrendous infestation were easy to come by), but there were other changes to the renamed Lakefront on Langdon, particularly to serving style: No more metal cream containers and real salt and pepper shakers. No real plates or china coffee cups. No more hot tea flasks with narrow brown necks and round glass bottoms. Not even thick red plastic water tumblers, to be rewashed and reused. All disposable plastic and paper since.

Changes to the menu were even more startling, but they proved popular -- with the exception of morning fare. The new breakfast stations were slow and service declined; it wasn't unusual for the revamped Lakefront to run out of milk or bread during breakfast. The design offered no place to butter your toast or even park your tray while an omelet was made; you had to stand there, waiting, holding everything. (If students really want fast meals, there's nothing quicker than cafeteria service.) Hours changed with the seasons. Sometimes it closed altogether.

Lakefront breakfast was eventually dropped, and the Rathskeller took over. During winter break a year ago it, too, underwent a redesign of facilities and menu. The Rathskeller similarly lost any vestige of cafeteria-style preparation. Gone also -- ironically -- were breakfast sandwiches.

To be honest, the Rathskeller's breakfasts were never that great, but it's all we had left. The true heyday of Memorial Union breakfasts, at Lakefront, are almost a lifetime ago to today's students -- but possibly they can reclaim it if they want.

Notes Korz, "We'll continue to consider any decisions about breakfast meal periods through our business lens, as well as our 'mission-base' lens."

Last call -- but call ahead. Or not.

Meanwhile, you may want to have a last Rathskeller breakfast. Or you can try.

On Friday I called Memorial's general number, (608) 265-3000, to check summer weekend breakfast hours. Staff told me that the Rathskeller opens at 7 a.m. on Saturday and 7 a.m. Sunday. This seemed odd, since the building's summer 2013 schedule (PDF) states that it doesn't even open until an hour later on both days.

I was then relayed to the Rathskeller, where a worker told me instead that the kitchen opens at 7 a.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m. on Sunday; another oddity.

The online schedule says the Rathskeller opens at 8 a.m. on Saturday, and that on Sunday there is no breakfast at all; that it opens at 11 a.m. (The printed schedule posted outside the building agrees.)

On the other hand, the posted schedules state that Lakefront is open for breakfast at 8 a.m. on Sunday. A phone call on Saturday confirmed it. I hurried down the next morning.

It was closed. It didn't open until 11 a.m., for lunch. "I'll have to do some digging to find out why the discrepancy," promises Korz.

Late on Monday, Memorial Union staff emailed the hours for both Lakefront on Langdon and the Rathskeller. Through Labor Day, Sept. 2, Lakefront will be open from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Also through Sep. 2, the Rathskeller will be open for breakfast from 7 a.m.-11 a.m. on Mondays through Fridays, and from 8 a.m.-11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Once the new semester starts, the Rathskeller will be serving food generally from 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. throughout the week.

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