5 Years in Review: A Brief History of dining out at UWaterloo

The only thing more enjoyable than studying in DP with friends, is studying in DP with friends with a full pizza.

Entering Waterloo so many years ago, my intention was to cook all my meals at school. Eight months later, ruefully eating two full shawarma wraps with my friend eating two, I realized that something went wrong.

One quintessential part of the student experience is dining out – while not true for everyone, it’s the first time where the food isn’t free at home, where you have to cook for yourself, and where you have the means and motive to eat beyond a rare night out. 

These days, with classes online, there’s three things missing from the student experience that I’d like to reminiscence about for the times to come; the history and future of restaurants, the overall guide to finding restaurants to your taste, and the classical student dining experience (sometimes known as information sessions). 

First things first: many of the historic restaurants as you know them are either on their way out, or are fairly new. The only long-standing restaurants near campus are either unique – Kismet, Mel’s, Pita Factory, Kabob Hut, and so on,  or cockroaches – Burger King, Campus Pizza, Subway. Neither title is intended to be commentary on their quality, being unique isn’t necessarily great, and being a cockroach simply means they are resilient. That said, a lot of the unique restaurants will have something to offer that’s special for the location – Kismet has some spicy food, Mel’s is the only diner (historically open indefinitely late on weekends for your 4am after-party needs), and Pita Factory, for some unknown reason, offers healthy options. 

“Cockroaches” simply are restaurants that have fair offers at great prices and typically long hours. Burger King and Campus Pizza are famous for, again, late-night eating, but also having great prices. Even this term, for about $12, you get three meals out of a large pepperoni pizza from campus pizza. 

Unfortunately, many other beloved restaurants have shut down, either due to the current economic climate (it turns out a sports bar doesn’t have many takeout options), or perhaps the owners are just ready to retire. This has been the fate of many student favorites, such as  Mr Panino’s (a panini store converted seamlessly into a Chinese/Chevops restaraunt), Shawarma Royale (with their ~$7 shawarma special), and Kick-offs. One strong indicator of a resilient local restaurant is a small venue – two of the biggest expenses for them are rent and staffing, and having a smaller operation generally indicates a degree of tenacity.

More common, however, are restaurants that lease a venue perhaps too big for their boots. Venues such as Mongolian Grill (which was popular in its heyday), East Side Mario’s (which despite getting the plurality of orders from the plaza, according to an Uber Eats driver, couldn’t make rent), and the Dö-shack (affectionately called the “Do”-shack by the hard working, enthusiastic student populace) took venues too big for their audiences, and were doomed to fail. While I wish the best for their replacements (notably, Rooster’s Chicken and Lobster Burger Bar), I have a hard time seeing how they’ll make profit on such expensive lots. (A local restaurant owner estimated rent for such a location could be over $10,000 a month – and you thought student housing was out of control!)

Finally, there’s the typical arc – a new restaurant has fantastic prices getting into the business, and makes adjustments as they mature to be sustainable. For example, unbeknown to many of the current student populous, Lazeez and Shawerma (sic) Plus opened in our plaza in 2017 – and they were super trendy! Shawerma Plus used to have a $10-two-wrap special, which at the time was a cornerstone of student dining – for about $6 each, you and your friend could get dinner. Their profitability may have been unclear, but their value wasn’t! Evidently though, economic circumstances have driven the price up, and it’s now a $18-for-two special, an 80% increase over five years, almost a 10% increase year-over-year. While still popular, it has left the student repertoire of cheap eats. More recently, one can see similar changes with iPotato (allegedly renamed to prevent other shawarma restaurant owners in the plaza from complaining), with their prices rising since origin. 

Restaurant hunting is always part of the general student experience – frustratingly, I am allergic to peanuts, so I often can’t eat at popular restaurants, but above and beyond that, I’ve spent a lot of time trying restaurants beyond just the local area. 

Often, quality restaurants are passed via word-of-mouth, such as Bhima’s Warung, Burrito Boyz (RIP), Pho Ben Thanh, Fratburger (RIP), and Beertown. One could likely try an internet search, but it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chuff online. Even more challenging, the quality of new restaurants may be hard to establish. My personal advice is to go on walks, and keep an eye on up-and-coming restaurants (such as Kinton Ramen), to try yourself and recommend to friends. Obviously, a lot of the places might not be what you’re looking for, but this failure is the cost of experimentation. Often, when opening, restaurants will have a  special (Roosters chicken had $2 for a 2-piece fried chicken this past Canada day), which can make it doubly rewarding. Otherwise, you can search around, but I personally think this experience is some part of the fun. 

Finally, while covid-19 (20, 21, 22 … ) has put a damper on it, previously for frugal students, you could subsist predominantly on free food, for those particularly ambitious.  These strategies are seldom written, so it’s important to read these next instructions carefully. The strategy is to “farm” information sessions – depending on the company, they’d likely have some sort of free food for those who attend, but it’s critical to attend relatively early so the food doesn’t get swarmed like a plague of locusts.

For example, IBM often has free self-serve poutine, where you can go chat with an executive at Waterloo (who frankly put up with me far more than I deserve), while Bloomberg has free burritos, alongside a talk (often relating juggling to math, by a Waterloo grad). For “prestigious” companies like Google and Facebook, there’s more likely to be a run on the food, since so many people attend. The upside of this is that you aren’t expected to stick around, because they already are confident in their ability to attract talent. 

For some less-prestigious companies with sufficient budgets, they may have a substantial surplus of food at the end, perhaps several pepperoni pizzas, so you can take one to go at the end of the session. This is the “golden area” for scavenged information session food, they often don’t feel the need to take hostages in exchange for sandwiches, but still have bounties of food. For particularly poor companies, they may make you stay for a greater part of the information session. This is dubious because it typically means they think they won’t get any attention if they don’t coerce you to stay. While these can be fun to attend – exceptionally bad information sessions are indistinguishable from satire – they are not a great source of food.

The only thing more enjoyable than studying in DP with friends, is studying in DP with friends with a full pizza.

One year, after Hack the North, one of my better “scores” from a corporate info session was roughly 45 cans of red bull that they didn’t want to fly back with them. While it took some effort to bring home, it was an incredibly generous amount of loot to receive.  Unfortunately, I don’t drink red bull, so I instead sold all of them (for legal reasons this is a joke). 

A second source of free food is leftover events in Waterloo, typically from the “‘OFFICIAL Free Food UWATERLOO” group. Social events often will have some leftover snacks of varying quality, e.g. catered sandwiches or cookies. One painful lesson to be learned is that sandwiches with a substantial amount of sauce do not last for a long time. If you plan on getting a haul for more than a day or two, you may find yourself disappointed. However, this is good, and convenient because there’s practically no social expectations.

Finally, a third, more rare (but particularly delicious) situation to acquire free food is through co-op connections. This is much more pronounced in upper years, but the gist is that large corporations may invite you out to dinner if you go far enough in their interview process. For example, one startup bought all interviewees unlimited Williams for two-three days straight, before giving a blank cheque to the Bauer kitchen, where you could order and eat anything you want. Ultimate Software used to take everyone to East Side Mario’s. Bloomberg to the Proof Kitchen, and Facebook to Abe & Erb. These are particularly delightful, but rare and hard to find.

With some careful planning, one can substantially sustain themselves for free, which is a fun experience until you find better things to do with your time. 

As I eat an English-style chicken shawarma wrap, reviewing this article one last time, I can’t help but look back and smile. The freshman fifteen was real, and it was delicious. Even with substantial effort, it’s hard to keep the weight off as long as I’m in Waterloo, and have easy access to shawarma, pizza and kebabs. While the hiatus on food scavenging is disappointing, I wish all those reading this the best for their future food scavenging. 

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