An interview with C. Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining at the University of Connecticut.
FE&S: What are key challenges you face today in college and university dining services?
DP: Since I became involved in college foodservice 42 years ago we have evolved as a business. We are paying close attention to the P&Ls [profit and loss statements], FTEs [full-time employees], all expenses and making business decisions on multiple operational levels. We must pay attention to four bottom lines — food, service, finance and sustainability. Our consumers make decisions about these factors when deciding which college to attend.
From a financial perspective, we are a state institution and the state of Connecticut is giving less and less toward operating contributions. This is the first year in 29 years that our meal plan cost to students did not go up. Yet all of my expenses are going up. I am in the process of negotiating with the non-state union and expect requests for general wage increases and increases in other benefits.
It’s no longer about just managing operations; we have to be able to work within a business climate and be sensitive to a political environment. I’m very fortunate because I work for an extremely supportive boss and on a campus in which the teams support each other.
FE&S: How are you addressing these challenges?
DP: We are in the process of cutting positions. We’re being very creative, so instead of filling certain positions we’re looking to rearrange staffing and cut hours in retail operations.
The expectation in all colleges and universities is to open and operate cafés in multiple locations all over campus. Running operations is analogous to dividing a pie, which you cut into pieces and every time you add another café or other revenue generator you cut the pie thinner and thinner. Today decisions are made based on whether operations will be profitable. UConn bought a hotel and I was asked to run the restaurant and bar, but we ran the P&Ls and discovered we can’t do this profitably because the expenses would be higher because they have part-time staff. We realized that it is okay to say no when we can back up our decision with facts.
FE&S: You’ve opened other retail locations that are profitable.
BP: Yes. We’ve turned around the business significantly at the UConn Dairy Bar. We’ve also done a renovation of the museum café, which has become highly successful and is probably the most popular retail dining spot on campus. It’s hard to get a table there during the day. We always have to pay attention to finance. Even though we are working under constraints of rising food costs and no additional revenue, we must look to buy food in larger quantities and negotiate savings. Can we change a recipe to include less protein so it costs less and can we cut back the chicken filet by an ounce?
The other facet is service. When my team and I talk to a classroom of parents, which we do often during freshman orientation, we say we have an open refrigerator approach. It’s like your sons and daughters are at home and they are standing in front of the refrigerator. With our meal plan of all-you-care-to-eat operations, food is available all the time from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. and retail operations are also available many hours a day. This ability to serve high-quality food for many hours comes at a high labor cost. They feel entitled to a high level of service and food quality, which isn’t a bad thing — it’s the way it is for this generation — but it’s very difficult for us to pull back services.
One change made wasn’t for cost savings but rather a necessity. We closed down a residence hall and placed them in a new 700-bed residential building in our Hilltop area for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This is a learning community and we had to provide foodservice to this population. On the good side, the kitchen in the dining facility here was big enough because it was built to handle another tower, which was never built. But the servery wasn’t right. However, the first floor was under-utilized and had potential.
We put a staircase in the middle of the dining room and expanded seating capacity from 350 to 700 in order to make an August opening date. We closed down the Monday after spring break. Dining at UConn is a slipper campus (meaning students might wear pajamas to dine), so to make the closing palatable we set up an allowance for a continental breakfast every morning with pick-up items.
We also brought in a food truck from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Once a week we offered an outside barbecue weather permitting. And we did something that people told us was wacky — each level of our three meal plans has a certain number of points. The top one has 500 points. We gave each resident (all must have meal plans) 600 points — several hundred dollars — when they came back from spring break to use in our retail locations and our sit-down restaurant. Probably there would be a significant missed-meal factor. But this offer was so palatable that the little push-back we got from parents was about the inconvenience. Students thought it was great. I’ve seen schools spend thousands of dollars on mobile kitchens and other changes because they have to accommodate dining for seven weeks.
FE&S: Serving customers with allergies and special food needs is also a challenge. How are you responding?
DP: More students than ever are coming to UConn with allergies or food issues. Team members Rob Landolphi and Michael White are very good at meeting with students one on one. Students also meet with a dietitian in the health center, but the need is increasing to a point that this is a position I will have to fill in the next few years.
On the financial side, we’re reviewing our current budgetary processes. We had a global approach to dining services and we’re bringing it down to a micro approach so each operation is a cost center and with tight P&Ls.
This year, though, we’re not increasing the cost of meal plans so we’ve had to look to make more cuts with low-hanging fruit — such as placing napkins that were in baskets on tables and placing them in dispensers to save $19,000 a year. We’re not buying certain products, we’ve put off doing three mini renovations and we’re not buying a vehicle. And we’re looking at staffing levels.
FE&S: What keeps you awake at night?
DP: When you’re riding the wave — and we are — and you’re competing with the Yales and the UMasses and Michigans and Stanfords, we’re always looking over our shoulder asking, what we should be doing next to change offerings and systems to make us unique and meet students’ needs. We’re always raising the bar and the challenge that keeps me up at night is how to continue to do that successfully. I don’t want to make a change just because it is the flavor of the month. I want to make permanent changes within our system that will not only bring recognition but will add value to our program. To generate ideas, we look at restaurants; we talk to students regularly and go to meetings with RHA residents and student government leaders. People on our staff are great generators of ideas. For example, Rob Landolphi suggested that we put in a gluten-free bakery in Towers residence hall. We did and we are the only gluten-free bakery in the U.S. inside a college campus.
In addition to developing the gluten-free bakery, we developed the UConn Dairy Bar Too retail unit in the student union and, when we took over the retail UConn Dairy Bar from the agriculture school who produces UConn’s ice cream, we put in our own systems on the retail side, re-did the flow and did a renovation. Out of these changes came very profitable businesses. UConn Dining also created an introductory culinary class for first-year students entitled “UCan Cook” and designed an annual culinary competition for UConn chefs that has been featured on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”
FE&S: Applying sustainable practices is very important to your dining operations. What have you accomplished?
DP: During the last seven years, our department has established a highly respected sustainability program. “Local Routes” features locally grown products and provides extensive outreach programs to the community as well as the state. We purchase marine-certified fish, meat and dairy that have no growth hormones, and produce is Good Agriculture Procedures (GAP)-certified. We are settling a prime bid for produce that includes language for the importance of buying local. Approximately 35 percent of our purchases are local or regional. We procured 10 bee hives and produce honey for use in catering, residential areas and retail sales. We were one of the first campuses to transition to a trayless environment, significantly reducing water usage and cutting plate waste. During the past three years, five residence hall dining operations have become Green Restaurant Association certified and three more will be certified soon. In 2013, Sierra Club magazine named us the “#1 Coolest School.”
Reducing and handling waste are huge initiatives for us. We measure and track waste collection. We are shifting our waste to digesters and using a system whereby solid waste goes into a machine and it turns to gray water. In addition, we installed tanks in all of our residential hall facilities that hold grease from our fryolators and is later processed into biodiesel fuel. We also implemented a system to capture grease from our drains so we may be in compliance with the removal of fat, oil and grease (FOG) so grease doesn’t go through our drains.
Working with a state representative, we changed a State of Connecticut purchasing statute to raise the ceiling for purchase orders from $10,000 to $50,000 when procuring Connecticut agricultural products. We spearheaded a $9 million renovation of a dining facility that achieved a LEED Gold certification. We’re working on a $23 million renovation of an existing dining facility, which will feature concepts that include local options, healthy selections, ethnic street food and made-to-order blender smoothies. FE&S