Channeling the College Environment

Navy takes cues from college and university campus foodservice retail operations.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

SAN DIEGO—To the U.S. Navy and the federal government, a military installation such as Naval Base San Diego is a major cog in the defense of our country. But to a man like Steve Hammel, dining services program manager for the Southwest region of the U.S. Navy, NBSD is just like a college campus, and that is how he approaches his job.

“Our enlisted personnel and officers are our ‘students,’ and the civilian department of Defense employees are our faculty and staff,” said Hammel, who is a member of the National Association of College & University Food Services. “So we have to look at what’s new and innovative in that market sector and how it can fit into our market.”

To achieve that, he explained, the foodservice team examines three elements.

“First, what are we trying to do overall in terms of value, quality and quick service, and how do you package that to a crowd that is in many ways like that on a college campus,” said Hammel.

“Second, how do you take and individualize that? Every base has its own personality, and you need to understand who your customers are and what they are really looking for. For example, here you have a lot of sailors coming and going from ships who come from different areas of the country and have been all over the world. At our base in Ventura County, however, the population is much more static.”

In either case, however, what customers see and eat when they are off base “does affect how they feel the food tastes” in an on-base dining facility.

Discerning customer desires and limits even comes down to price points, he noted.

“In one facility, there might be a buffet that costs $8; on another base a similar buffet would be offered at $7.50 because that’s the marketplace for that location.

“The third element is how the plan fits in the scope of what we’re doing throughout the entire region.”

It is perhaps at NBSD’s Pierside Café that the foodservice philosophy is best embodied. The 50-seat café, which was constructed around a kitchen trailer, is home of the $5 Lunch. Every day, one complete meal is offered at this set price.

“Comfort foods are what this menu is all about,” said Hammel. “It came about in part because of the limited kitchen facility, but the real driver was the desire to offer something affordable every day that’s different. We wanted to send a message that an inexpensive meal doesn’t have to sacrifice quality or variety. We didn’t want to say, just have a burger because it’s inexpensive.”

Although a foot-long hot dog or a hamburger might occupy the center of the plate one day, the main component of the $5 meal is more likely to be something more substantial, such as New England pot roast, lasagna or teriyaki chicken.

“The menu was built from conversations we had with different food manufacturers, asking them how we could get high-quality products as convenience foods,” Hammel explained. “To their credit, they were very responsive.”

With its video game component, the Pierside Café has almost a mini Dave & Buster’s feel to it, added Hammel, and has actually become an internal franchise that Hammel’s team can offer to other bases. So the model has been carried over to the Flight Line Café at the Naval Air Base in Fallon, Nev., and another is on the drawing board for Ventura County, Calif.

“Do we get the same [sales] percentages? No,” admitted Hammel. “But we get more customers, and that’s the key. More customers in the door means more exposure, and that ultimately means higher sales.

“Plus, there is a conference center attached [to Pierside],” he added. “People come in and learn that, and they might decide to use the conference center for functions. So it’s not just that business, but all the other ancillary businesses, that benefit.”

A retail-like ambiance also can help the on-base galleys where enlisted personnel eat most of their meals. At NBSD, one half of the main galley, the side where foodservice features the “speed line,” has the décor of a ‘50s diner—similar to a Johnny Rockets.

“Customers look at that and they say, “A diner. I know what that is.’ And it creates a favorable impression,” Hammel said.