Celebrating Self-op

According to Technomic Inc., the vast majority of companies (80%) outsource their foodservice to contract management companies. But there are still a sizable number of firms that still believe in the “do-it-yourself” model. This month, FSD highlights three corporations where on-site remains synonymous with in-house.

Self-op B&I G TechG Tech Corp.,
West Greenwich, R.I.
Location population: 1,000
Foodservice employees: 11
Meals per day: 600

Basics: At G Tech Corp. Rich Irving, director of hospitality and corporate events, says the company has two main cafeterias and one smaller one. One of the main cafés, is at the company’s technology center and features hot entrées, a salad bar, a grill, a deli and desserts. The second cafeteria is at the company’s 120-employee manufacturing building, where the department serves mostly sandwiches and grill items. In the corporate office, which is in downtown Providence, there is a small café that serves only soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza.

“At the larger café the grill includes everything from burgers and hot dogs to a complete hot breakfast,” Irving says. “The deli is a made-to-order station. We have two different entrée stations—one is a complete meal and the other is a self-service station where items are sold by the ounce. We call that one Lotto Food since we’re in the lottery industry. It offers comfort food items such as macaroni and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs. We also have a full salad bar that typically has about 50 different items. The company also provides free fountain beverages to its employees.”

Self-op B&I G TechWhat’s new?: Irving says the department has been focusing on increasing the café’s healthy options. All stations offer healthy alternatives such as veggie burgers, low-fat mayo and dressings, and fruit or veggie sticks instead of chips or fries. The department recently introduced enhanced waters such as Vitamin Water as an alternative to soda, and Irving says they’ve been very popular.

“We work very closely with our health center to come up with different programs,” Irving says. “Right now we’re offering a program called ‘Try This, Not That,’ which is a play off of the ‘Eat This, Not That’ book. For example, we will display the nutritional information for a McDonalds Big Mac and compare it to the nutritional information for our veggie burger. It could also be an Egg McMuffin compared to an egg white on an English muffin. It gives people the option to see what would be the best option. We do two or three different items a week.”

Another program Irving’s team recently implemented was a fruit month. Every week during the month, the department ran a special on a different fruit.

“We provided information about that fruit like the vitamins, etc.,” Irving says. “We might do one week and sell apples for 25 cents and another week bananas or oranges. We just were trying to get people to make healthier choices.”

What’s hot?: Irving says despite his healthy eating efforts, comfort foods are still the top sellers in his cafés. Items such as lasagna and meatloaf do very well. At the corporate office they offer a grilled salmon wrap and a vegetable wrap that are both popular.

Another new initiative for the department is a payroll deduction program.

“Right now we do have a cashless debit program, where it’s set up like a declining balance,” Irving says. “We are working on setting up a payroll deduction plan that we hope will speed up transactions and cut down on credit card fees. We just want to make it easier for people to use the cafeteria. We hope to have that in place by the beginning of 2011.

“We are also working on consistency between the three cafeterias, which is very important. We’re working on getting consistent menus and products because people move between the three different buildings. We just installed a new cash register system so now all of the pricing is consistent. We’re working to make sure that the managers are buying the same products and the items are being prepared the same way so people moving between cafeterias know they are going to get the same thing and pay the same price for it.”

Sustainability efforts: Irving says the biggest program his department is working on is its efforts to go “green.”

“We’re working on ISO 14001 certification, which is a green certification for companies,” Irving says. “Our building as a whole was certified as a green company by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and Department of Environmental Management. We’ve also started a composting program. In about three months we have already diverted two tons of trash away from the landfill that will be turned into garden compost. All of our paper products, cutlery, really anything from the straws to cups to the napkins are all compostable. We did an education program to teach our folks how to separate their trash. We have a hauler that takes the compostable materials away to be composted, and then in the spring we hope to have him come back with some nice garden compost that we can give back to our folks so they can see how it goes full circle.”

Irving says these efforts started about two years ago. The department has gotten rid of all polystyrene and also gave all employees a reusable cup that they can use for all coffee and beverages—no cups are provided any more. The department is able to compost both pre- and post-consumer waste.

“The biggest challenge was education and getting folks to realize what they needed to do with the trash,” Irving says. “It’s fairly simple. The first day that we did it we had a green fair in the lobby of all our buildings. So when folks came in that morning we had the new bins set up. There are four bins at every trash station—regular trash, paper, bottles and cans and compostable materials. We worked with our marketing department to come up with some great posters that show what goes in each bin. I also had some of our ‘green’ vendors come in and set up display tables where they were able to talk to people about why this plate is compostable, how long does it take to compost, what is it actually made of, that kind of thing. It was really interesting to have the customers see how this was going to work and they also got the chance to ask questions about what goes where, etc. It’s been very successful. If the compost trash is too contaminated with things that are not compostable the hauler will refuse the load and we haven’t been refused yet.”

Why we do it: Irving says the economy has presented a big challenge for his department.

“We’ve had to find ways to remain profitable as a department without raising prices,” Irving says. “We’re going through some vendor changes right now to make sure that we’re aggressive with our pricing. We’ve also been working with the staff to make sure there is no waste. We want to do anything we can to make sure we stay in a profitable state. In our particular company the value of being self-op is that reactive ability of our department. We can literally turn around and do anything on a moment’s notice. I have a great staff. Most of them have been here for years. They understand the company and the executives. If you have the right staff in place, the company doesn’t have to worry about foodservice, and for us there are a lot more advantages financially than disadvantages.”

Self-op B&I UniGroupUniGroup
Fenton, Mo.
Location population: 950
Foodservice employees: 5
Meals per day: 600

Basics: The 300-seat UniGrille has a large hot serving area, a large salad bar, a sandwich station and several small beverage stations, says Corporate Chef Dave Porter.

“We offer breakfast and lunch service,” Porter says. “We do a full breakfast every day on the hot bar, offering everything from whole-grain pancakes to breakfast sandwiches to bacon, sausage and turkey links, made-to-order omelets, lots of fresh fruit, oatmeal, grits and healthy cereals. For lunch, we always have a full salad bar and a featured salad of the day. At the hot bar we do mid-American fare such as lasagna, grilled chicken Caesar salads, pasta dishes—mostly comfort food-type items.”

Porter says the café is trying to get away from fried foods, and is instead offering more grilled chicken breast sandwiches, veggie and turkey burgers. The UniGrille is also trying to offer more fresh vegetables every day.

What’s new?: Porter says his department recently launched a produce punch card program to encourage customers to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“Any time someone purchases a piece of fruit or an order of vegetables, they get their card punched,” Porter says. “When the customer’s card collects 10 punches they are rewarded with a free order of fruit or vegetables. It’s too early to tell how it will affect veggie consumption overall, but we are continually moving toward providing more nutritious options for our customers.”

Implementing healthier options is a big concern for Porter and his team.

“Anything we can do to help the customers make a better selection when they are making their choices we will do it,” Porter says. “We are currently working on a new signage program. It will display nutritional information with the use of colors to give the customers more information about the choices they’re making. We’re going to focus on several key nutritional factors for each item such as calorie count, fiber, sodium, carbs and fat content. We have developed symbols to guide people in how much of a certain factor each product contains. Rather than going and seeing a bunch of numbers they can see colors that let them know. Green lets them know those items are all positive attributes. Yellow gives them pause to think about that choice and red indicates they should give the item even more thought.”

What’s hot?: Porter says the café’s most popular menu item is the chicken Caesar salad. During the summer, Porter says, the department has been focusing on salads and they recently introduced a Southwestern chicken salad that has been a great success.

“We find that people are really gravitating toward our new salads,” Porter says. “We have been focusing on salads over the summer and we’re going to continue that focus. As for the hot items, our turkey burgers and grilled-to-order chicken breast sandwiches are very popular. There’s just something about cooked to order that people love. We are also doing some research and hope to add a smoothie station in the near future.”

Sustainability efforts: Porter says the café uses all paper disposables, which can be recycled as part of their on-site recycling program. He is also working on getting more local produce.

“We try to work with our prime vendor to request local produce,” Porter says. “I just got a list of what is available and I will purchase what we can for the salad bar.”

Why we do it: Porter’s biggest challenge has been keeping up with the changing attitudes of what customers are looking for.

“It’s not just ‘give me something good’ anymore,” Porter says. “It’s ‘give me something good that’s good for me too.’ We are trying to find the products in the marketplace that our vendors can actually get to us. For example, trans-fat free products are pretty common now, but it was very difficult to find those products before. Sodium is the big deal now so we are looking for low-sodium products, which is very difficult. As more attention is brought to the negative health effects of sodium, the more we want to make a change.”

Porter says the value of being self-operated lies in flexibility.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing to be self-op,” Porter says. “We can look at market trends and respond to them very quickly. You have to gather all the information for yourself if you do want to make changes. You can make decisions and change your program to address the changing needs of your customers.”

Self-op B&I LincolnLincoln Electric
Euclid, Ohio
Location population: 2,100
Foodservice employees: 10
Meals per day: 820

Basics: Jeff Potocnik, foodservice manager, admits his café’s design is a little antiquated, but he does the best with what he has. The café has two traditional serving lines that serve hot and cold items.

“Years ago, when the facility was built, the café had the two serving lines set up and one was for a sack lunch, which was a soup and a sandwich,” Potocnik says. “Now we have two lines serving the same thing. You go down the line and you have your soups and then we usually have three entrées— usually poultry, beef and seafood or poultry, beef and vegetarian. Then we’ll have a hot sandwich, a hamburger or a hot dog and then a cold sandwich. As you go down the line we’ll have side dishes such as small pastas, fruits and yogurt as well as add-ons for burgers or sandwiches like lettuce, onions or pickles.”

In addition to the two main lines there is also a salad bar and a beverage station. Potocnik says the café serves a continental breakfast four times a week with full-service breakfast on Wednesdays.

Self-op B&I LincolnWhat’s new?: Recently Potocnik’s big project has been his work implementing a wellness program.

“We’re trying to steer people toward the healthy food and we are trying to make that food taste enticing,” Potocnik says. “We have the healthy items on the menu and they are highlighted in red and with a red heart. We offer about two to three healthy items per day such as a Southwest turkey sub that uses low-fat shredded Monterey Jack cheese, sliced turkey and cole slaw, a wild caught salmon burger and our Health Crazy Wrap, which is peanut butter, strawberry preserves, granola, fresh strawberries and fresh bananas in a honey wheat wrap.”

In his quest to make the café healthier, Potocnik turned to Hollywood to help deliver the message.

“I really enjoyed the film ‘Food Inc.,’” Potocnik says. “I purchased five copies of the movie and offered free movie rentals because I wanted the customers to see it. I think that education piece is the key. You can throw a lot of different ideas out there about food, but you really have to educate people because they just don’t understand the message that is being sent by dietitians. People don’t want to change. I think that movie sends a strong message.”

Another tactic Potocnik has tried is educating customers through a weekly farmers’ market. Every Wednesday he invites an Amish farmer to come and set up a market in the parking lot.

“Not only is buying from a farmers’ market healthier for you, but it’s also a very green thing to do,” Potocnik says. “I highlight it on the menu with the saying ‘Healthy options for home from the Amish farmers’ market in Lincoln’s parking lot every Wednesday: Eat green, live well.’  That’s been very successful. To make sure it’s not a wasted effort for the farmer, if there is anything left over, I will buy it from him and put it on the salad bar.”

What’s hot?: Some of the most popular items at Lincoln are the sandwiches, says Potocnik.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve seen that the younger generation is moving away from the old generation wants of liver with gravy and mashed potatoes, etc.,” Potocnik says. “The younger generation was raised on fast food so they love sandwiches. Our most popular items are the burgers with fries, but that’s what I’m trying to change. We want them to go for the buffalo chicken wrap instead, which is chicken strips hit with some hot sauce with lettuce and celery and a light coating of blue cheese. In terms of a healthy menu choice, that’s far better than a burger. We also have a turkey Mediterranean burger that is catching on that is spiced with garlic and black pepper. Our biggest challenge is trying to change old eating habits. If I put something like tofu on the menu everyone says, ‘that’s too healthy.’”

For the future Potocnik says he’d like to increase the amount of vegetarian and organic options.

“I want to try to open up eyes as far as offering a teriyaki/stir-fry area,” Potocnik says. “I want to venture out and try something different for a healthy food selection. We can also do a lot of pastas that we can put vegetables on. I would also like to go organic. I think that is so important. I’m trying to bring in organic apples that I’m just going to sell at cost.”

Sustainability efforts: Potocnik is trying to move toward using biodegradable/compostable disposables, but the products are still cost-prohibitive for him.

“They are about triple in cost right now,” Potocnik says. “We do recycle all cardboard and cans that we use in production.

Why we do it: “[Being self-op] is a real rarity,” Potocnik says. “We’re a family-oriented company. Our CEO wanted to provide the highest quality food at the lowest possible price, and that’s what we’ve been able to do. It’s a benefit for the employees. When I was in culinary school, I learned that the word ‘restaurant’ is derived from the word ‘to restore.’ That’s what we do. We restore the spirits of these employees. If they’re having a bad day, they come in and we’re giving them healthy, tasty foods and we’re doing it with a smile and friendly conversation.”