Next-Gen Leaders: Dustin Cutler

Director of Dining
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Educational background: Bachelor's degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from Niagara University
Years in foodservice: 13
Age: 35

Dustin-Cutler-CornellDustin CutlerFE&S: Tell us about your industry experience.

DC: I began my career with Aramark by managing operations for the Olympic Village in Athens, Greece, in 2004 and built on that role as senior operations manager for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. I've also managed various aspects of food and beverage operations at Major League Baseball's Turner Field, New Orleans Convention Center and Emerald Coast Convention Center, GlaxoSmithKline and Palm Beach County Convention Center. Just before coming to Cornell earlier this year, I was Aramark's resident district manager for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, overseeing a dining operation that serves a student population of 29,000.

FE&S: What drew you to the foodservice industry?

DC: Feeding people in a large setting is an ever-evolving balancing act between the need to meet people's high expectations and our desire to offer great experiences and challenges like sustainability, always-rising costs, and competition. It's a strategic planning challenge that excites me.

FE&S: What led you to the campus dining segment?

DC: In a sense, a university dining environment is a captive audience, but it's also a revolving door of new faces year after year, as well as visitors to campus. That's true across the board, in our residential dining rooms and retail cafes, as well as in our commissary, catering and convenience store operations.

We have an opportunity to delight our guests and our regulars, and we have a responsibility to fulfill their needs and help build a culture that embraces sustainability and a healthy lifestyle. Campus dining can be a huge part of the college experience for our students, and we have a chance to provide a student-centric environment that blends nourishment, comfort, energy, relaxation and community. Our collaboration with student leaders is a great way to let them help us shape the campus dining experience.

FE&S: What's an important lesson you've learned about working in this segment?

DC: I'm grateful to the early managers who made it clear that they valued the people under them and wanted us to succeed and grow. Rewarding and recognizing frontline employees and managers for what they do is such a big part not only of having a great staff, but also of ensuring an excellent guest or customer experience.

Another key thing I've learned is how to find a solid work/life balance in the dining business. I want to make sure I have plenty of time for my family as well as take care of myself, and I've made great headway on that. It's a lesson that I endeavor to teach my team, as well, encouraging them to find the same kind of balance for themselves.

FE&S: What's one big way campus dining is different from other segments you've worked in?

DC: One of the big differences compared to the Olympic Villages or the convention centers is that we're seeing guests for more than a few days or a few weeks. We need to listen to our customers and really hear and respond to what they're looking for, what they're hoping to see from us.

We need to look at the data and what it tells us, even when the customers aren't speaking up directly. That's all part of a student-centric experience that's welcoming to our students and comforting to their parents, as well as attractive to the rest of our campus community.

FE&S: What trends and future directions do you feel will have the biggest impact on campus dining programs?

DC: We've been seeing a real emphasis on starting with clean ingredients, not just in higher education but across the foodservice industry. Even at the ballparks and convention center concession stands, we were starting to see that we needed to do better than hot dogs and nachos and that trend has only been accelerating.
We're also seeing that we need to pay closer attention to food allergens and how we deal with them. We're proud that Cornell's food safety program just won a Sani award for its successes in this area.

FE&S: Where do you see the biggest need for change or improvement?

DC: My team has made a lot of progress over the past year or so in reducing the use of salt as a crutch in bringing out flavor, and we have a lot more we can do there. We can build flavor from fresh ingredients and from herbs and spices that are less problematic for so many reasons. This is just one of the most visible facets of our focus on clean ingredients, which is our big project for the coming months and years, and a big part of our commitment to the Menus of Change principles.

FE&S: What's one of the biggest professional challenges you have overcome?

DC: Going to the Olympics to run foodservice operations meant moving to China for nearly a year. As tremendous an opportunity as that was, it was hard for me to adapt to the culture there and to communicate effectively. I had to learn on the fly what rules and regulations and restrictions we had to operate within. I had to learn to live and work in what's really a wonderful environment but was an enormous change for me.

FE&S: Complete this sentence as it relates to your campus dining program: "I really wish we could ..."

DC: We have edged toward the top ranks in the Princeton Review each year, but No. 3 is as high as we've gotten so far in the ranking. "I really wish we could ..." sounds like you're asking about something I don't think we can achieve, but I do think we can. We will strive to be No. 1 in the Princeton Review. I'm very competitive, and we have the team here to make that happen.

FE&S: What keeps you in this industry?

DC: Higher ed lets us enjoy some of the best of both worlds — an audience that stays with us for a few years, but also an ever-changing customer base with new faces each year. I can't think of a better way to keep challenging us to reinvent ourselves and do better month to month and year to year, even after we're No. 1.

 

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