AUBURN — Auburn’s newest recruiting tool is on the precipice of opening.
The Auburn Wellness Kitchen will open its doors when the football team convenes for fall camp next week. On Friday, media members were given a chance to tour and sample the fare at the facility, which cost $6.6 million to build.
The launch coincides with a recent NCAA rule change allowing unlimited meals to student-athletes.
“To fuel our student-athletes is expensive,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “We’re going to provide for our student-athletes. This is going to be the place. Auburn is going to be the best place a student can come for the student-athlete experience. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Auburn has more than 500 student-athletes, and Jacobs expects the annual costs to provide them with unlimited meals to reach $750,000. Even before the NCAA passed the legislation, Jacobs said these plans had been in the offing for some time. Two years ago, he said, the athletic department began to budget money for unlimited meals for athletes.
And the day-to-day consumption will be monitored closely. Scott Sehnert, Auburn athletes’ dietician, said items will be marked so athletes will know whether the food will help them gain or lose weight.
“It will be a lot more tailored down with what they’ll see here,” Sehnert said. “My staff and I will be in here three meals a day, every day to really help people build those plates, whether it’s the gymnast, the cross country runner or the wide receiver.”
There are seven different stations, five of them referred to as “action stations” where you have the ability to build your own plate. As many choices as the kitchen offers, there are a few things that won’t be on the menu, Sehnert said. Namely, fried foods. Ribs, too.
Athletes won’t be allowed to get soft drinks during dinner, either, and Sehnert said these limitations are all by design.
“They’re treats,” he said. “They should be treated like that. ... We’ll have some food that are nice, enjoyable treats but those bigger sort of things are going to be occasional, not every day.”
The transparency of the food arrangements was another aspect Sehnert couldn’t tout enough.
“Ninety percent of the food that people eat in here is going to be seen in front of you, and that’s something I think that’s important — that you know how things are being prepared,” he said.
The kitchen isn’t reserved for student-athletes alone, though.
It will also serve the general university population, as students, faculty and staff can purchase meal plans to dine at the facility. It comes in both 15- and 30-meal plans for breakfast and lunch, both at $9.16 per meal (tax included), which will be added to the customer’s Tiger Card.
Those without meal plans can pay at the door, eating breakfast at a cost of $9.80 and lunch at $10.89 (price denotes total including tax).
“The primary thing is to feed our students,” Jacobs said. “ ... We’ve opened it up to students and already sold out of student meal cards.”
At peak capacity, the facility can seat up to 320 people — 170 inside, 50 in a smaller “board room” attached to the main dining area and 100 more outside.
Even in its infancy, Jacobs said the wellness kitchen reminded him of his time at Sewell Hall in the 1980s. At the time, Sewell served as a residence hall and cafeteria, and Jacobs hoped the wellness kitchen would be able to “recreate that environment.”
Consider it a success.
“We’ve certainly outdone ourselves on that,” Jacobs said. “As much as I enjoyed the affection of Sewell Hall, this sort of leaves it in the dust.”
When it comes to taking care of student-athletes, Jacobs said Auburn will spare no expense.
“We’re going to put everything in place we possibly can, whether it’s the place they live, the play they eat, academic support, mentors, their social skills. Whatever it may be, we’re going to put in front of them the best opportunities.”