Campus Boosts Culinary Spirit

UC-Davis creates front-of-the-house smiles with back-of-the-house support.

University of California-Davis foodservice The University of California-Davis unveiled a couple of major changes in dining services recently: one that was glaringly obvious and welcomed by hundreds of students as the university's school year kicked off last month and one that will be noticed by very few. But both changes, together, should equate to better service for all on campus.

Residential dining services, managed by Sodexho, opened a 43,000-square-foot dining center this June in its Segundo community. The facility is equipped with a student dining room and a culinary support center that has centralized much of the back-of-the-house food prep for all Sodexho-run units under one roof.

(Sharon Coulson, current president of the National Association of College and University Food Services, is director of Associated Students Dining Services at UC-Davis, overseeing student union operations.)

College-age faves: The Segundo Dining Room is an 825-seat all-you-care-to-eat operation featuring platform-style display cooking that follows the trend toward made-to-order, customized meals and away from self-serve steam tables. The eight platforms feature college-student favorites, such as the live sautee station; a grill; soup; a vegan station; a salad and deli program; and the bistro, which serves center-of-the-plate items, like carved, roasted meats, along with sides of starches and vegetables.

Everyone's happy: Offering up evidence of display cooking done right, general manager of resident dining Brenan Connolly reports that both students and staff are happy with the new facility, which replaced an older one that is now being used for non-food-related purposes.

The interpersonal contact with customers, particularly those students who are enjoying the new, more customized fare, has boosted spirits behind the line. "We're seeing our staff take great pride in what they do," he explains. "Some of these people have worked for years in the back of the house. Now, they are in the front of the house, interacting with students, and you can just feel the excitement."

The spillover effect, of course, is happier customers. "The students compare this new dining room to the old dining room and are blown away by the style of service, the quality of the food and the design of the place," Connolly says.

The facility, he adds, which was designed by Webb Food Service Design Consultants of Tustin, CA, has a distinctly culinary focus. The team designed it to highlight the food and the action at the platforms and steered clear of design elements that might distract from that.

FoodService Director - University of California-Davis dining servicesBehind the scenes: Not so visible to the customer, but having a far-reaching impact on foodservice across campus, is a new cook-chill culinary support center (CSC) also designed by Webb, housed in Segundo. Connolly says dining services started small, back in April when the culinary support center first came on-line, with staff gradually taking on more and more of the back-of-the-house prep for Sodexho-run operations.

Workers slice veggies and meats for various recipes. They make salsas, salads, salad dressings, puddings, gelatin desserts and all of the grab-and-go items. They cook all the soups, sauces, pastas and many of the meats.

"Say I'm doing a pasta primavera at a sautee station that day," he explains. "I've got my olive oil, but my vegetables, the noodles and the Alfredo sauce that I might use come from our culinary support center. At the stations, we try to use these components to build the dish up at that point. We don't have [dining room] staff coming in early in the morning to cook their sauces or chop their vegetables, that's all being controlled at the CSC."

Flavor focus: Control is a key word for Connolly. Centralizing production and prep under one roof allows his team to apply consistent quality control throughout the entire program."We are focusing on the flavor profile of the product coming out the CSC," he says. "When four units cook soup, even though they are all following the same recipe, every cook tweaks it a little different, and some may do a real good job with it and some may not. What we're discovering is that we have much better control over the flavor profile of our dishes now."

The executive chef and the chef at the CSC may have the final word, but Connolly says he also gets input from other employees, including hourly workers who serve the products.

The dishes don't, in reality, differ much from those the staff prepared before the Segundo dining room renovation and the opening of the culinary support center. However, customer perception still seems to be that the food is indeed better."A lot of that has to do with the CSC, and a lot of it has to with the food being prepared fresh in front of the customer, who can see the ingredients and smell them [cooking]," Connolly adds.

Payback: Meanwhile, centralization is already paying off way in advance of the predicted population explosion that prompted the construction of the CSC, but that has been slow in coming. (The university had been expecting an additional 7,000 to 8,000 students by 2010.) There is less waste, fewer leftovers and, in some units, a reduction in labor units.

All of this is good news not just for the university but for students as well. Connolly says cost savings help the university keep board rates as low as possible without sacrificing quality of service, which has been particularly challenging in the midst of a tough economic climate in California.