MAYS LANDING - A bit of serendipity has led to the Golden Corral restaurant in Egg Harbor Township handling the food service at the main campus here of Atlantic Cape Community College.

In its first six months, Golden Corral has transformed the service, giving students more choices, more food and lots of value - not surprising, since those are the operational goals of the successful buffet chain with about 500 restaurants.

Students sampled at lunch Thursday all said the food service had improved.

Bianca Lopez, 22, of Hammonton, paused from eating a chicken and fries combo to say "it's a lot better than in the past."

Anwar Hashem, 22, of Pleasantville, said the food used to be "plain, burnt and bland." Now there are appealing specials every day.

A more discriminating diner and tougher sell, Mark Barny, 25, of Galloway Township, said the new food service was merely "all right." But even he said it was a big improvement.

"The old food service was way worse," Barny said. "At least this is edible, but there's a difference between edible and enjoyable."

The restaurant in the parking lot of Harbor Square shopping center (formerly Shore Mall) is currently No. 1 among Golden Corral's 387 franchise operations, said the manager there, Daniel Lopez, also of Egg Harbor Township.

Lopez said the path to providing the college's food service began with catering a 60th birthday party for a family from the township.

"Hurricane Sandy had displaced them from the hall they had reserved. They're customers at Golden Corral, so they reached out to us and we agreed to cater the party," he said.

He said the restaurant's owners, Djenane and Dexter Bartholomew, of Holmdel, Monmouth County, and its managers had talked about expanding into catering, so the party served as the start of that addition to the business.

Lopez said the search for appropriate venues for catered events led them to Atlantic Cape and renting the cafeteria on weekends when school isn't in session. "We started doing weddings, sweet 16 parties, things like that, and the college started getting revenue for the weekends."

Golden Corral asked about the college food service and when it came up for bid, got on the vendor list and submitted a bid.

Stacey Clapp, spokeswoman for Atlantic Cape, said four food service proposals were received last May.

"Golden Corral was selected as the vendor that provided the best overall package to offer food service and catering at the Mays Landing campus and vending operations at all three campuses," Clapp said. The college awarded the restaurant a three-year contract that started in July last year.

She said some of the advantages of the bid included Golden Corral offering paid internships at its restaurant for Academy of Culinary Arts students, the best food pricing structure and variety, partnering with student clubs for fundraising activities, and providing concessions at athletic events.

Lopez said it was obvious from the start that the chain's food-buying power would offer advantages for students.

"We looked at the pricing and said, wow, this pricing for kids is really high. There's no way a student can afford to come in here three or four days a week," he said.

Golden Corral developed a menu with combination meals that daily offer a choice of grilled or cold sandwich, with either fries or a fruit salad, and a 16 ounce soft drink for $5.

"If you have $20, you can buy lunch four times a week," he said, which is a typical school week for Atlantic Cape students.

That's working for student Bianca Lopez, who is in her final year at the college. "The prices are reasonable, and I eat here a lot more often now," she said.

Golden Corral's Daniel Lopez said the food service has been "a success from day one," but a lot of hard work goes into it.

The restaurant deploys two managers and three other employees to Atlantic Cape each day, he said. It spent $80,000 on a refrigerated van to transport food there.

"Everything is made 100 percent in the commons," he said.

Student and staff input was crucial to developing a service people would want to use more frequently.

"We listen to what the students want - more grab and go, more drinks such as Red Bull," Lopez said.

Student preferences are also paying a key role in college plans, with help from the restaurant, to remodel the cafeteria.

"We're looking for a more modern look, with greater student accessibility, something easier for them to get in and out," he said.

Lopez said that at the restaurant, the staff gets to know regular customers by name and encourages them to come more often.

"That's what we want at the college too," he said.

Hashem said he appreciates the personal touch and now eats at the cafeteria four or five days a week.

"The customer service is a lot better," he said. "I know the workers by name, and they know me."

Lopez said it's just a matter of applying the principles and practices of good restaurant management to the college operation.

"Food is what we do, and if we mess that up, we really shouldn't be in the food business," he said.

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