Demand, family recipes fuel success of East Campus grill outs

Demand, family recipes fuel success of East Campus grill outs

.Ron White cooks catfish during an East Union Café and Grill summer grill out on June 16. Housing has offered the lunch hour specials for five years.
Troy Fedderson | University Communication
Ron White cooks catfish during an East Union Café and Grill summer grill out on June 16. Housing has offered the lunch hour specials for five years.

Stacks of excess frozen hamburger patties have fired up a tasty summer tradition at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

For the last five summers, housing employees at the East Union Café and Grill have held summer “grill out” events on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Held outside the north entrance to the union, the grill outs feature traditional burgers and hot dogs (both served with flavorful twists) alongside family recipes hailing from New Orleans and the Caribbean, vegetarian options and made-to-order vegetable and hummus wraps.

Ron White, an assistant food service manager on East Campus, helped start the grill outs and has worked to expand the barbecue offerings each season.

“We started out pretty basic, with the intent to use up frozen hamburger patties we had on hand,” White said. “I expected the grill outs to be popular for a few weeks and then just die out. Well, I was wrong.”

Housing employees (from left) Clayton Boden and Dan Bell work the grill line outside the East Union.

An overwhelming customer response devoured the excess patties within the first week. That’s when housing leaders decided to up their grill out game.

“We wanted to do it right and make the grill outs something different, something special,” White said. “We changed from frozen to fresh, seasoned, hand-pressed burgers — which have different flavors and toppings each grill out.”

The menu also expanded to include rotating items, including a Chicago-style foot long hot dog, grilled portabella mushrooms, fresh roasted potatoes and shrimp kabobs.

Student employees sit down to eat at a table outside the East Union.

Customer demand continued to grow, so planners added a second line that features smoked foods, primarily made from White’s family recipes with flavors from New Orleans and the Caribbean.

“These are recipes I grew up making alongside my mom and in kitchens throughout New Orleans,” White said. “It’s amazing being able to share the flavors of my youth with everyone.”

The rotating menu — which has included hand-battered catfish, Caribbean smoked brisket, and the ever-popular traditional New Orleans shrimp boil (complete with corn, Cajun sausage and potatoes) — draws more than 150 customers to each event. Customers range from students, faculty and students to firefighters, construction workers and members of the public.

“The food is amazing every time,” said Bria Bullard, a first-year graduate student who has attended the grill outs in the past two summers. “And, it’s a great way to get out, socialize with friends who are also on campus.

“This is one of those events that reinforces the fact that East Campus is a special place.”

A housing employee builds a bacon ranch burger for a customer. Burger recipes change with each summer barbecue event.

Including a main dish, side items and drink, each meals costs about $6.

“Ron does it right in terms of the food and you aren’t going to find a better deal anywhere,” said Warren Werner, a help center associate with information technology services who has attended grill outs each of the last five summers. “I absolutely recommend everyone come try this food once. It makes for a great lunch experience.”

Kathryn Sildmets, manager of the East Union Café and Grill, said the dedication of White and fellow housing employees are the reason the annual grill out events have become such a success.

“Our staff is wonderful, working in 90-plus degree weather to deliver delicious meal options to our customers,” Sildmets said.

Kathryn Sildmets and Ron White dish up smoked mac and cheese (left) and New Orleans shrimp boil during a June 16 grill out.

White, frying catfish over a roiling pot of oil as the sun beat down from above, said the grill outs are a labor of love.

“At the end of the day, I love planning and working these grill outs,” White said. “People look forward to these events every summer and we love being able to offer them. I think these grill outs represent just how unique East Campus is and just how much it has to offer.”

The East Campus grill outs continue every Wednesday and Friday through July 26. There will be no grill outs the week of July 3-7 due to the Fourth of July holiday.

For more information on the East Campus grill outs, go the university events calendar.

Nick Garst, a graduate student in agronomy and horticulture, searches for a drink during an East Union Café and Grill summer grill out. Meals, which include a main dish, side and drink, are about $6.