Iowa's Urge to Burge

No amount of planning can eliminate all surprises in renovations. In Iowa City, they sure gave it the college try.

FoodService Director - University of Iowa - Renovations continued without foodservice interruptionHindsight may be 20/20, but a good dose of foresight can prevent the need to utter that cliché with regret. The dining services team at the University of Iowa in Iowa City recently puts its powers of prediction to the test in a major renovation of its Burge dining hall. It was a two-and-a-half year undertaking that, with a price tag of $14.8 million, took considerable teamwork and loads of planning, according to director of campus food services Greg Black. He trumpets the fact that hindsight gained from a previous project made for strong foresight in the planning of this subsequent one. 

The new Burge Market Place features 15 service stations including a salad bar and a deli, as well as Southwest, home cooking, Asian, pizza/pasta and grill stations. They are arranged in a horseshoe, a layout Black says makes for good traffic flow in the 2,800 square-foot facility.

The foodservices team didn’t shut down the dining hall during the renovation, though work was scheduled to accommodate student needs (for example, a work stoppage during finals week). Black reports that the total cost of the project also included a $2 million investment in foodservice equipment and $545,000 in furnishings. The team completed the finishing touches in January, and has been reaping the rewards ever since.

He projects Burge’s year-end sales to be up by 22%, with revenue totaling $6.7 million, compared to last year’s $5.5 million. Cash sales alone are up 50%, driven by more faculty and staff participation and students who are freely spending more of their Hawkeye declining-balance dollars at Burge.

Forward thinking: But the operation’s success is not evident only in sales performance, according to Black, who takes pride in the efficiencies that resulted largely from lessons learned from the renovation of UI’s Hillcrest Market Place five years ago.

“A big advantage in planning this project was that it was on the heels of our earlier project, so we had our own guinea pig, or test kitchen, right here on campus,” he says. “We were able to correct the shortcomings and copy what worked well.”

One lesson learned: Ask for input from your staff. Staff was not fully involved in the design and renovation of Hillcrest, and the team later felt the consequences as unanticipated issues cropped up. “I don’t think there was adequate planning on the support details of the dish room and service platforms,” Black explains. “We’ve had to add refrigeration space and work tables to accommodate our needs.”

The Burge renovation process was much different, and so was the outcome. Blacks says the team—which included foodservice officials, university facilities officials, the architect, and design and foodservice consultants—involved the staff in every phase of planning and construction.

He gathered input during inter-departmental meetings and focus groups with all the core staff groups including hot food, cold food, bakery and dish-room employees. Staff also reviewed sketches as they were developed and signed off on the finals. “We are anxious to hear from you now, and not after the fact,” Black says he told employees in an attempt to avoid any Monday morning quarterbacking.

FoodService Director - University of Iowa - Renovations continued without foodservice interruptionAccurate forecasting: Another lesson Black and his team learned from the Hillcrest renovation was to plan for volume as accurately as possible and anticipate how the facility will support that volume. Black says this includes thinking about how much storage and production space is needed at each service platform.

“Know how many pieces of flatware, china and glassware will be required,” he continues. “We calculated the number of carts and racks we would need for dishes and glassware so that we could provide adequate space for service and storage. So often that gets lost and you end up with carts being left out in the servery because there is no place else for them to go.”

The payoff for all this planning, which Black attributes largely to the design consultants, is a smoothly run operation, where traffic flows easily and service is not disputed by the need to replenish food, trays, dishes and utensils during peak meal periods. “How many times do you see your dish crew pushing carts of dishes and silverware through the servery during a meal period? That was something we really wanted to avoid.”

Blacks says the projection was nearly on target. But every new facility is destined to surprise its planners and designers in some way. One of the surprises in this case has been the popularity of the home cooking station.

"Maybe it’s an Iowa phenomenon, but meat and potatoes are still the most popular,” he exclaims. “For anything rotisserie—turkey, chicken, whole hams or pork loins—kids will wait 10, 15 minutes to get that fresh carved meat with the potatoes that go with it. They love it.”

The menu was largely inspired by the top performers at Hillcrest. For example, the International station was hardest hit on days when it featured Asian stir-fries and Southwest (or Mexican) cuisine, so dining services decided to give each concept its own station in the new facility.

Staff also played a big role in menu development. Supervisors and staff were tasked with coming up with menu ideas as well as operational procedures for each service platform.  A menu committee digested all recommendations to create a master menu.

Asking for staff input, Black says, helps achieve staff buy-in, which is particularly crucial for a project of this magnitude where there is so much change both in the physical plant as well as in terms of operations. “They’re really part of the process and have a stake in it,” he asserts.

Black extends his praise to the architects, designers and consultants, as well, saying that together with his internal team, formed an effective consortium. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he concludes. “We had a team that really worked well together. Egos were left at the door, and we were able to concentrate on what was necessary for the project.”