College goes self-op on three campuses with a new commissary and an ambitious plan to grab more revenue via catering.
At A Glance: New York institute of Technology, Long Island, N.Y.
•Management: Robert Rizzuto, dining services director
•Scope: 4,000 students, nearly half of whom are on a meal plan
•Revenue: $1,500 to $2,000 a day at the Student Activity Center
•Innovation: New central commissary for all campus dining facilities; a new servery with wood-burning pizza oven and exhibition cooking; new dining room; and new vending in the campus library
In a move counter to what some observers might consider the trend to outsource foodservice, the administration of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) has brought operation of its expanding foodservice program in-house. The college’s dining services also revived a defunct dining facility and launched a new commissary kitchen on Long Island, NY.
The college has three campus locations: in Central Islip and Old Westbury on Long Island, and at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Food is served at a single café in Central Islip. At the Old Westbury campus, NYIT staff prepare meals for 90% of the college’s off-premise catering as well as operating dining outlets in its Salton Hall campus center, the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, and the School of Architecture. A fourth location, in the Student Activity Center, had been closed for two decades until it was recently renovated.
The Lincoln Center campus currently does not have any dining facilities.
The idea to switch to self-operated foodservice was born in the fall of 2005, when NYIT relocated 800 resident students to housing at the nearby campus of SUNY at Old Westbury. Meal arrangements there proved unsatisfactory, and administration became dissatisfied with the performance of its foodservice contractor.
Time for a new idea: Robert Rizzuto, director of dining service for the Old Westbury campus, brought the situation to the attention of the CFO at the time, who nixed a change. But when Len Aubrey came aboard as the new vice president of financial affairs, he agreed that a change was in order. Aubrey and Rizzuto began to work on the project.
Rizzuto researched the possibilities of self-operation by conferring with colleagues at Harvard, Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. “I knew it would be a big project,” he says, but he realized that just bringing in another contractor would pretty much be the same old thing.
“I knew that we needed to be able to make quick changes,” says Rizzuto. “It had a lot to do with gaining our control.”
NYIT administration retained veteran foodservice consultant Tom MacDermott, FCSI, president of the Clarion Group in Kingston, NH, to perform a feasibility study and create a strategic plan. Clarion vice president Angela Phelan designed the facility in the Student Activity Center in collaboration with Bob Doland, a principal at Raymond/Raymond Associates in Chester, NY. The transition to self-operation was guided by Rizzuto and director of foodservice Pilar Visconti.
To find the necessary personnel, the pair worked with a recruiter on Long Island. “Foodservice wasn’t really their forte, but they did very well for us,” Rizzuto says. The firm recruited 35 employees, including 15 full-timers.
Training also proceeded quickly. “We took the supervisors and went over each menu item with them,” Rizzuto says. “The problem was we didn’t have all the part-timers on yet, so we did all of this through the supervisors.” Training is ongoing, with ServSafe certification on the agenda.
Under the old contractor, the operating budget for foodservice was $1.5 million. The projected first-year operating budget as a self-operated facility is $300,000 less, about $1.2 million. Labor cost is now about 42%, Rizzuto says, just ahead of food cost, at 38%.
Student aid: The dilapidated dining facility at the Student Activity Center was another challenge. The commissary was 40 years old, and the equipment was so outdated that it wasn’t even workable. “The ovens and everything else were falling apart,” Rizzuto recounts.
Planning for the Student Activity Center renovation project began in May 2006, and work was completed by that December. The outlet was completely rebuilt to provide a central commissary for all the campus dining facilities. Plans called for a new servery, with a wood-burning pizza oven and exhibition cooking. A former game room was converted into a new dining room. The new facility opened this past January.
In addition, the Old Westbury campus’s Salton Hall Café dining area was refurbished with new furniture, carpet and lighting. The servery at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and the School of Architecture’s café were also upgraded. Finally, a new vending area was created in the campus library building.
At present, the new Student Activity Center servery offers breakfast and lunch but not dinner. “We are probably going to extend the hours there until 7 p.m. to include dinner,” Rizzuto says, in response to student requests.
The operation is currently doing $1,500 to $2,000 a day in sales on an average per-person check of $7 to $7.50.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 of the institute’s 4,000 students participate in meal plans, which permit them to eat at any of the dining facilities. Each student gets an $800 debit card per semester.
Rizzuto also oversees a fine-dining outlet called the DeSeversky Center, which is located in a Georgian mansion on the Old Westbury campus. The DeSeversky Center is open to the public for private catered events like weddings, bar mitzvahs, college meetings and corporate functions.
“We operate it like a restaurant or private club,” says Rizzuto. He is diving into the corporate end of the business. Nearly $500,000 of the DeSeversky Center’s $2.5 million in annual revenue comes from NYIT events.
Staffing up: Rizzuto is looking to add another $100,000 to $175,000 in new foodservice revenue during the coming year. The additional income would go toward improving staffing.
“I think I can get a better quality staff,” says Rizzuto, who wants to beef up the full-time positions. But he allows that he has to figure out a strategy for using employee downtime effectively.
With the Old Westbury campus in hand, Rizzuto and his colleagues will work on introducing foodservice for students, and eventually the public, at NYIT’s Manhattan campus, located near Lincoln Center. He’s considering a coffee bar/deli type operation, which is scheduled to go live by September 1.
The institute is also looking for ways to offset its down times—during the winter and spring recesses and in the summer. Says Rizzuto, “Now we’re looking to go outside the campuses and do some off-premise catering to the general public.” Delivery to corporate clients is also under consideration. One possible target is St. Francis Hospital, across the street from the Old Westbury campus. Currently, a local deli supplies the hospital with about $80,000 a year worth of catering. Rizzuto says he plans to go after that business.
Another revenue-building strategy is a prepared-meals-to-go program for faculty and staff. Everything will be heat-and-serve, and ready to take away at five o’clock when they leave they leave for the day.
He also wants to capture potential revenue that now goes to pizza shop down the block, popular with NYIT students. All Rizzuto needs is a good pizza. He brought in a consultant to work on the program. “We’re just about finished,” says Rizzuto.