Top Achievers

Top Achievers are award-worthy personalities with a single common trait: an unflinching ability to provide value on the customer’s terms.


2024 Top Achiever— Operator

Campus dining at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) has long been known as a foodservice leader in the college and university segment. That makes Jill Horst’s elevation of the program that much more impressive as she continues to move the needle even further at UCSB while also influencing campus dining across the country.

Top Achiever Operator Jill HorstThe standard was already set high when Horst arrived at UCSB in 1995, where she started in the bakery. Even as a young professional moving through different kitchen roles, and eventually into management, she had her own standards and was never afraid to create her own path. “I’ve always wanted to push the envelope of food and service,” she says.

Horst has achieved many of her goals in the nearly 30 years she has been at UCSB. Among her accomplishments: drawing local farmers in as food sources, integrating the college community with the local community, advancing campus sustainability efforts and attracting top-notch foodservice talent to join the UCSB team and make a difference. She continues to springboard off her own accomplishments in her role overseeing all campus dining, which includes residential, retail, catering, concessions and any other food-related campus effort.

One of her early campus influences was a shift in format to “cuisine du marche,” which roughly translates as “coming from the market” and is largely a reflection of Horst’s culinary flair. “When we opened the first marche-style dining on campus, with different platforms, action stations and food being plated in front of students — that was a big change,” she says.

More recently, Horst led the effort to transition one all-you-care-to-eat dining hall into a mobile pickup locker concept. Students use their dining plan to place orders and a meal plan swipe to pay. Since launching, participation numbers have grown to total roughly 2,500 per day. “Students love it,” she says. “The program started small — around 1,000 per day. We bought more food lockers to expand it, and it has grown. It’s restaurant-quality food and portion sizes; we knew matching that value would be important.”

Perhaps the strongest testament to students’ love of what they are getting from campus dining is the massive increase in participation in UCSB’s non-mandatory meal plan (students living off-campus who purchase a meal plan). Each year, participation increases. “The program has evolved,” Horst says. “Students recognize the high-quality, nutritious food we serve and come back. We continue to outdo our numbers on that.” Off-campus meal plan sales were $750,000 in 2008. In 2023, they were more than $5.5 million.

Student Propulsion

UCSB students push Horst and her team when it comes to raising expectations around food on campus as much as the UCSB team propels students on food and food-related issues. “Students push us to be better but also we want to be cutting edge and not stagnant.” Students’ palettes are much more advanced today, she adds, and there is also a sense of desire to stay on trend food-wise among students. “They arrive on campus with the expectation of restaurant-quality food. It’s almost an internal competition,” she says, largely influenced by social media.

Regardless of what students want to see in the dining hall, one thing they will not find is chicken nuggets or chicken strips. Horst feels strongly about not serving those items, and she avoids mega-processed food in general. “I don’t want that to be the go-to for students,” she explains. “We simply do not serve them.” Indeed, she views college dining as an opportunity to teach students life skills with the goal of steering them toward better-for-you options both inside and out of the university’s dining hall. She views her role as educating students about food, not merely serving them meals. “We are a college campus,” she says. “It’s all about education, and we continue to build on what students can participate in. We know, as a dining program, we are doing the right thing.”

Sustainability is a huge part of UCSB’s DNA and is mission critical for Horst. For that reason, broader sustainability-focused education is ongoing with students. One example is sustainable seafood week. “We are looking through the lens of how our program impacts the environment. We source fish locally and constantly work to reduce our carbon footprint,” she says.

Influencing Others

A constant cheerleader and champion of her team, Horst naturally assumes the role of mentor with authenticity. Having served in a vast array of UCSB foodservice roles on her way to overseeing it all means she relates to most campus foodservice jobs. Above all, she strives to remain approachable, visible and supportive of others’ career growth. “I look for diamonds in the rough and polish them up; I have several that I’m mentoring now as they move up the ladder,” she says.

Horst recalls when she was the mentee, she learned a lot by simply watching and observing. That, she says, is how she learned how to handle different situations: when to step in, when to step back and when to say nothing at all. “I want to make sure I’m giving back because people gave so much to me,” she says. “I want to share my knowledge and wisdom to the new trailblazers who have the opportunity to create their own path.”

Sharing knowledge became ever more important during the pandemic, which was a time of unprecedented supply chain issues. That induced a much more collaborative relationship with the university’s grocery distributor to understand what was coming so the staff could prepare and produce meals and switch gears as needed. The same held true for the foodservice equipment supply chain, specifically when a piece of equipment went down and the search for a part to make it operational again began. “Everyone started to lean in on each other without finger pointing, and that spirit 100% continues today,” she adds. “We have become tighter and more transparent than we have ever been before. The pandemic set a new tone for that, and the industry is moving together as one. I don’t think that would be the case if we didn’t go through that time — there’s always some small silver lining.”

Horst has also found a collaborative community among fellow higher education foodservice operators. “It’s about not keeping the secret sauce all to yourself,” she says of working with her fellow campus foodservice leaders across the U.S.

Horst serves on the board of trustees for the National Association of College & University Food Services and has served on numerous committees for that association over the years. She currently also serves on the college and university foodservice leadership council executive committee for the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s (IFMA). She has also previously served on the non-commercial advisory board for the National Restaurant Association.

In 2023, Horst was named an IFMA Silver Plate winner in recognition of her contributions to the foodservice industry. She considers being named an FE&S Top Achiever this year the icing on the cake. “Being recognized for my work and being noticed for the thumbprint I am leaving is something I cannot even put into words,” she says. “Professionally, to be in the role I am in now, I have reached my goal.”

Undoubtably, new goals will emerge for Horst. When she sees something interesting while dining out, she gets excited to figure out how to bring that to campus. The freedom of being a self-op campus enables her to try more things, she notes. “I love being able to take risks and push boundaries. That’s the fun part.”

Something Fun, Something Done and Some Next-Gen Advice

Something you are looking forward to in 2024:

Continuing to elevate the food program on campus. How can technology help us? How can AI make our lives easier? My motto is work smarter, not harder. How can tech do that? What’s the next best thing?

Something you have crossed off your bucket list:

My golf handicap is much lower than it’s ever been.

Something you would tell young people entering this industry:

Love what you do. Operate with passion and grace. This industry is not easy, but it’s very rewarding.