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Putting the Sizzle in the Sizzler
Gino Vallante's goal is to bring students to the Night Owl Café in droves. Here's how he entices them.
Norma Bourassa photo
Norma Bourassa, dubbed the "Sizzler Queen" by many students, prepares around 150 Sizzlers a day and cranks out an order for a regular customer in about 30 seconds.
College crazes come and go, but some stick – to your ribs, literally! The hottest craze on campus these days is the "Sizzler" sandwich in the Night Owl Café (NOC). Ask any student and you'll hear raves about the best lunch on campus. It's made to order, crammed with chicken or beef, and topped with your favorite sauces. Utterly addictive.

Gino Vallante photo
Gino Vallante
In the summer of 2005, when Gino Vallante '97 was hired as the NOC manager, he wanted to have a made-to-order food item that was unique to the Café to draw students to the casual club for lunch. He collaborated with Sodexho's Doug Sudnick, manager of Lloyd's Marketplace, and head chef Paul Areias to develop an item so tasty that students would consider it a meal comparable to one they could get at the Zorn Dining Commons. After a summer-long series of taste tests, they agreed on the concept of a gyro-type sandwich made from chicken or beef wrapped in pita bread and layered with any of a wide variety of toppings and sauces. Originally, the meats were grilled to order, on the spot: hence the "sizzle" in Sizzler. Once the phenomenon caught on, however, individual cooking caused long delays, so the meats are now prepared at the Zorn and kept hot at the serving line in the NOC.

Kelly Mullane, Paul Harris, and Ericka Metevier photo

Students Kelly Mullane, Paul Harris, and Ericka Metevier take that first big, delicious bite.
Sizzler preparation begins early in the morning in the Sodexho kitchen. Three prep cooks cut up olives, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce and prepare all of the special sauces. They slice and cook more than 60 pounds of chicken and nearly 30 pounds of beef every day. Three prep stations in the NOC are ready to serve by 11 a.m. From that point on, the line starts forming. Although lines often stretch out into the hallway during peak hours between 12:30 and 1 p.m., the average wait is only five to 10 minutes. The last person in line is served around 2 p.m. Many students have a favorite cook and will actually change positions in line to make sure they get their preference.

Sizzler photo
Sizzlers by the Number
Years Sizzlers have been served (since fall 2005)
Dollars to buy a Sizzler – includes chips, pickle, soup, and soft drink
Number of toppings available
Number of sauces (Chipotle mayo is the favorite – seven gallons per week)
Largest number sold in one day
Sizzlers sold to date (and counting)
Norma Bourassa, dubbed the "Sizzler Queen" by many students, prepares around 150 Sizzlers a day and cranks out an order for a regular customer in about 30 seconds. She has been making Sizzlers for almost the entire three years they have been served. She says nearly every customer has his or her favorite ingredients and is extremely consistent in ordering the same combination every time. Norma says her most unusual regular customer asks for a pita to be warmed up very hot with only shredded cheese added to make a melt. Several students prefer half chicken-half beef Sizzlers. Norma loves working with the students and says they are always considerate. She was startled one day, however, when a student, thinking he was ordering Caribbean Jerk sauce, just said "jerk" and she thought he was referring to her! After an awkward moment they both realized what had happened and had a good laugh.

Paul Harris, a freshman, says, "Sizzlers need love – both in the preparation and in the people who eat them!" Kelly Mullane, a senior, sees the Sizzler as a dilemma. "It's a two-edged sword … they are so delicious but a constant diet of them every noon can be horrible for your weight!" Students love the cozy atmosphere of the NOC compared to the crowds and noise in the Zorn during peak lunch hours. Freshman Greg Remmey says, "The NOC has a different vibe when you eat there. There's the anticipation of getting your personalized Sizzler; the TVs playing overhead; sitting with your friends. It all adds up to a lot of fun eating your lunch."

Gino says he won't tamper with success but he does occasionally tweak offerings. A year ago, he changed the chips to a new brand that offered BBQ chips as well as the increasingly popular Sun chips. As for future offerings, he says the team is working on "… some sauces that are less mayonnaise-based and perhaps some vegetarian options like hummus." However, another experiment called the "Specialty Sizzler of the Day" was not successful, as regulars stick to their tried and true favorites.

The Sizzler has been a home run for the NOC, drawing crowds of more than 400 people a day. It's also had some other plusses. While passing through the NOC at noon, the hundreds of students and staff see posters for a variety of evening musical, comedy, and academic programs, and attendance at the entire spectrum of those programs has also increased tremendously.

Students can swipe their meal cards and faculty or staff can pay $5.50 in cash or use Keene Kash to experience the Sizzler phenomenon. The meal includes a Sizzler, a bag of chips, the soup of the day, and a beverage. Next time you are on campus around lunchtime and have a good edge on your hunger, come by the NOC and see for yourself. It's the best lunch in town!

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