Dining Services Manager, Hampshire Dining Commons
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Educational background: Bachelor’s degree in Hotel, Restaurant & Travel Administration (now Hospitality & Tourism Management), University of Massachusetts Amherst
Years in foodservice: 20+
FE&S: Tell us about your industry experience.
SF: I worked in independent restaurants in high school and through college. Then I began managing a high-volume fine-dining restaurant in West Hartford, Conn. That’s where my career took off. It was a restaurant group that grew to three units, and I was a part of that growth. I then relocated and came to the university’s residential dining program in 2011 as an assistant manager.
FE&S: What drew you to the foodservice industry?
SF: I loved being involved with the customers and accommodating different needs every day. The high demand and expectations in all of the restaurants that I worked in really intrigued me, and I enjoyed working to keep customer satisfaction high and provide the best guest service possible. I’m also very much a people person, and I like building relationships with customers.
FE&S: Was it tough to adjust from independent restaurants to campus dining?
SF: It was definitely something different. In independent restaurants, you’re always striving to keep your customers. Here, every year you’re handed a set amount of residents and new freshmen come in as part of your dining program and meal plan. Our focus is on what we can do to keep them on the meal plan for the four years or so that they’re here, even if they move off campus.
It’s a different customer dynamic. You’re educating them more, introducing them to different foods than they’re used to and accommodating a lot of people from other countries and cultures.
FE&S: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen since joining the UMass staff?
SF: Shortly after I started, the dining hall I worked in went trayless, and we transitioned to serving the food on china and glassware, providing a more upscale dining experience. We also began doing more made-to-order cooking at stations in front of customers instead of cooking big batches back in the kitchen.
The students loved it — they’d rather wait a few minutes for freshly made, customizable food — but it also helped us to reduce food waste.
When I advanced into managing, I moved to a newly remodeled building. We decided with the remodel that we were no longer going to serve any dispensed, sugary beverages or sodas. Our vendors weren’t happy, but we decided to take a stand and go strong with that at my location.
Instead, we put in a juice bar, more brewing options, smoothies, infused teas, infused waters, and we got really creative. It was a challenge to make that switch, but our customers are very in tune to their health and wellness, and it’s been a positive change.
FE&S: How difficult was the transition to station-based, made-to-order cooking?
SF: It required a lot of training, and our culinary team has definitely grown due to the demand. We’ve brought on new people and trained them for the concepts that we’ve created here, and we’ve done a lot of training for people who have been here for a long time to teach them new skill sets and new ways of doing things.
Everyone has to be on board with the product that we’re trying to put out. It’s my job to make sure that they understand not just what we’re doing but why. I found much more success once I learned that lesson — that the why is what really gets the staff on board and engaged.
FE&S: What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
SF: To come and work at UMass, but also to realize that the university is a different world and that when you first come to this environment it’s best to keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut until you understand the systems in place that have worked and been fine-tuned over many years.
You can’t recreate the wheel every year. We’re serving 8,000 meals a day in my building and nearly 65,000 per day through all residential dining on campus. I have around 200 employees. As you start implementing new concepts or new ideas, you definitely want to have your systems in place and make sure everyone knows the procedures so that it works like a well-oiled machine.
FE&S: What trends and future directions in campus dining are most exciting to you?
SF: World cuisines are huge for us and growing, and we’re putting more and more plant-based proteins in front of the students. We’re also offering a wider variety of sustainable seafood and cooking it differently so that the students may try something that they typically don’t.
We’re showcasing how different herbs and spices can influence food, supporting health and wellness, smaller portions and paring different ingredients and dishes together for future health benefits.
FE&S: Where do you see the biggest opportunity for change or improvement going forward?
SF: We see ourselves as being a living laboratory, and we’re now taking it a step further and are working to assess how healthy eating can impact students educationally, emotionally, or maybe for student athletes how it helps them enhance performance and build success.
We see an opportunity to really take into account student’s goals and needs while they’re on campus and for dining to play a stronger role in helping them to achieve their goals. Another ongoing challenge or need is to continue building strong management teams and showing our staff that there are lots of opportunities to grow here.
FE&S: What are you most proud of?
SF: Seeing students who I’ve gotten to know, especially those who have worked with us, graduate and come back and tell me about their success is a very proud moment for me. To know that I have possibly made an impact in their life is gratifying to me personally. And this year, a very proud accomplishment for our program as a whole was scoring No. 1 on the Princeton Review of campus dining nationally. That’s one of the proudest moments of being a manger here and being part of this team.
FE&S: Complete this sentence as it relates to your campus dining program: “I really wish we could …”
SF: . . . share our programs beyond the students. We’re somewhat doing it with faculty and staff now buying into our meal plan program. We’ve increased our numbers and have more than 21,000 people on the meal plan, but my wish is to keep that growing.
FE&S: What keeps you in this industry?
SF: One of the things that drives me in residential dining is the power that we have, whether it’s by virtue of what we purchase or who we purchase from, to impact the nation’s food system.
A couple of years ago we transitioned to buying only antibiotic-free chicken. You can imagine what that meant for our suppliers. Now they have to do the right thing as to how they raise their poultry. And with the way we support our local farmers, I can say we’ve potentially kept many alive. That’s very important to us and to our students.
They’re very concerned about and interested in sustainability, health and wellness, about why we purchase certain things or how they’re grown or processed. That energizes me. We’re not just feeding the students, we’re educating them, we’re making them comfortable and we’re reducing their stress levels while they’re here on campus. There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing what we do.