The layout and the partitions separating the different cuisines may look familiar, but Tiffin Man Global Kitchen at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) is not a cafeteria. It’s a new concept, trying to reimagine what eating on campus can mean.
Owner and operator Jag Arora has done away with the pre-made freezer fare that his predecessors were serving, offering a new menu that offers familiar foods like burgers, fries and pizza, but also gyros, tacos and hummus made from scratch.
For Arora to reach this point it’s been a long journey, one that took him from India to Minnesota in 1998 at 16 years old. Young Arora’s path eventually led to degrees from MCTC and Metro State before he went into business for himself.
He helped start Groceries & Deli on Harmon in 2009 and last year, he returned to MCTC with plans to open a kitchen selling Mexican and Mediterranean food in the school’s former culinary center. He signed the papers in June, but in late July fortune took his “Mexiterranean” concept to a new level when the school’s contracted cafeteria provider, Sodexho, pulled out just before classes were scheduled to start.
It was short notice, but Arora and executive chef Adam Doom took the leap. “The original plan was to make tacos for the people,” says Doom, who has previously worked at Pizza Luce. “When we got a hold of this we set a much higher goal,” he adds. An ambitious goal that serves different ethnic foods for MCTC’s diverse student body while providing scratch cooking as true sustenance instead of filling hunger with empty calories. It was the start of Tiffin Man Global Kitchen.
A tiffin is an Indian term for a lunchbox, a to-go container that carries a variety of foods, proportioned in a healthy arrangement of vegetables, rice, and protein.
“Back home in India, my mother would not let me out of the house without my lunchbox in my hand. That’s the case with every household,” Arora says, and now he wants to provide that same service for MCTC.
When Arora attended MCTC, he remembers disliking the cafeteria to the point where he would eat daily at neighboring fast food joints, often feeling malnourished by the week’s end. Meanwhile, he was cooking meals at home for his parents worked multiple jobs, while working in restaurants himself—which ultimately led him on his path to Harmon and Tiffin Man.
“I can connect with these students because I’ve seen what they have to do,” he says. “After working that hard, working night jobs, coming back to school and not getting nutrition is bad. It doesn’t help you in any form or shape.” As a first generation student, he’s also walked in their shoes to get to his position of leadership today.
On his first MCTC visit, he walked over 4 miles with his mother to save the bus fare. He remembers entering to the vision of a vending machine, where he asked his mother for $1 to buy something to drink. “We walked so many miles to save that money and you’re going to spend it on water?” she admonished him. Something clicked inside. His path wasn’t set toward food service yet but, he says, “I promised myself that I wanted to have days where we don’t have worry where that next dollar is going to come from.” He wanted a better life for himself and for his parents who moved here for his future.
Arora uses his experience to motivate his new kitchen where a team of determined employees strive to redefine what a cafeteria can be. On the front end the format is similar to its previous tenants, with checkout lines and serving stations, finalized at the line’s end by a cashier.
With short notice coming into the semester, Arora had his hands full just to hire staff and plan a menu, leaving the set-up as is, which is proving to be his largest barrier. Most students, he’s observed, are not aware of the change of providers. It’s his mission to spread the word that Tiffin Man is something new. There are old standbys, but made with a new care. Doom makes the pizza dough and sauce himself, and the menu has expanded to include Mexican street-styled tacos and Mediterranean foods including braised lamb and chicken gyros, hummus, and spinach artichoke dip. He estimates that 80 percent of Tiffin Man’s food is made from scratch daily.
“We want to change the game for cafeterias altogether,” Doom says, “erasing the awful legacy that Sodexho left behind.” The hard part isn’t arranging and prepping the daily menus, it’s getting past the stigma of cafeteria food in general.
“If the food is good enough, it speaks for itself. People will come back,” he says. The hardest part is getting them to try the food in the first place.
Redefining expectations starts small. “I understand people love burgers and fries and pizza,” Arora says as he continually develops his menu. Those items are his best sellers, but he would like to provide a more balanced diet as well. That’s where the tiffin comes into play, as he aims to feature his own take-out container, “A complete meal in a box that people would take to class.” The Tiffin Man will provide delicious and nutritious food, perfect for busy students and neighboring commuters.
He hopes to change not only how students and faculty eat at MCTC, but ideally into other colleges as well.
“I’m working on differentiating our way of doing things,” he says, adding that he’s happy to have the opportunity at all. After entering the country with $50 to his name, he’s always looking forward while staying connected to his past. “The reason [MCTC] trusted me first of all,” he says, is because “I live in this community, I went to this college, and I know the struggles of the students.” With Tiffin Man serving up better food, at least one of those struggles has gotten a little easier.