Shawn LaPean: Listen Up
When Berkeley’s dining program was at its lowest, Shawn LaPean used hard work, flexibility and an eager-to-please ear to save it.
At A Glance: Shawn LaPean
•Director, Cal Dining
•University of California, Berkeley
•Born in Bloomington, Minn.
•BS in political science, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire
•Married to Kim; has two children Lauren, 17, and Kevin, 14
•Enjoys biking, hiking and traveling
•Directs Cal Dining, which serves more than 28,000 customers per day and about 4 million customers annually. Cal Dining has four residential dining commons, eight retail locations, Cal Club (an online grocery store), full-service catering and an express catering program.
•Oversees B&I foodservice for 5,000-employee, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The facility includes a café, coffee shop, vending and catering business, which bring in about $5,000 a day.
•LaPean has increased revenue to $47 million from $24 million by increasing board plans sold from 399 to 2,360, which generated an extra $3 million in revenue.
•LaPean’s strength is in his “listen and respond” approach. Because of this philosophy, LaPean has responded with initiatives such as a certified organic salad bar—one of the first in the country.
During a career in foodservice that has lasted for more than 30 years, Shawn LaPean has learned how to serve a meal. But he wants to make it clear that he doesn’t feed people, he serves them. It is this mentality, along with his “listen and respond” approach that has found him great success at the University of California, Berkeley.
“In high school I had a few different jobs, pumping gas, managing an outdoor ice rink and working for the Bloomington (Minn.) Parks Department. My first encounter with foodservice came when I got a job as a grill cook at a golf course. I liked it because I was shy and it forced me to interact with people, so I learned that I really enjoyed that interaction. Then in college, I worked as a milkman for a vending company before I finally found my way to a restaurant. I walked in to apply for a cook job but somehow wound up getting a job as a bartender. A year or two later, I became the weekend bar manager and my foodservice management career began. After graduation, I worked in several restaurants, first in Arizona and then in San Diego, which eventually led me to my first job in the noncommercial market at San Diego State University.
When I was interviewing for my job here, The Wall Street Journal had just rated Berkeley’s foodservice program as one of the worst in the country. When I took the job, a retired director e-mailed me and congratulated me on taking the one job that was guaranteed to ruin my career. It didn’t really take me aback because I wanted to come to Cal. These students know that they’re at a special university. They are more respectful than any student customers I’ve ever worked with. When I first started, it was all “sir” and “Mr. LaPean,” which I didn’t like. I just wanted to be Shawn to them, but it took a while, because it was a different environment. I thought it would be much more casual. You hear a lot about Berkeley, but I think we get a lot of our reputation from the city of Berkeley. The campus is a lot more conservative than people think, what I would call “old school.” In the past, at other colleges I worked at, the job could make you feel like a servant, particularly when dealing with parents. But at Berkeley, I think they are much more willing to listen. I just think this is a highly rewarding and satisfying job, particularly when you’re in a food business that has a higher purpose, which college dining does. You are trying to empower learning outside the classroom and encourage socializing with people. I learned that from one my mentors, Frank Gladu, who is now an assistant vice chancellor at Vanderbilt. He taught me that foodservice is part of a bigger purpose to create a living and learning environment.
When I started at Berkeley, my wife had just started a job in the marketing department. When I first got here, we did focus groups and we found out that people thought we were serving prison meat. That was the rumor going around. So my wife and I got to work together to reimagine and rebrand dining services and start fresh. The students would say, “Let me see your budget. Why can’t you serve better food?” I wanted to make sure we could have a nice program with good sincerity and integrity. Plus, I wanted to be in a position where if I had to say “no” to somebody, I wanted to say it for the right reasons. That is where the idea of a “listen and respond” philosophy came in. It was really Kim’s philosophy and she required it of the dining program. I learned this philosophy was the way to go early on when I thought we should call the program Berkeley Dining. But once I talked to the students, we became Cal Dining because people don’t realize that to those who work and study here, this campus is Cal, not Berkeley. That one experience showed me to always listen and never assume.
I have a big problem with the word “feed.” To me, it’s part of the nomenclature of what you do daily affects how you perform, and I think if you feed people, that is exactly what you do. If you serve them, you’re providing service to them. I think the only time you can say “feed” is if you do athletic dining; those athletes don’t want service, you are feeding them. I will correct staff, my boss and anybody that says Cal Dining is feeding people. I think that you have to set certain philosophical boundaries in an operation. The good nature of the foodservice business is it’s still up to individual foodservice directors to set the pace for the organization. You have to have a little of your own personality so, for me, serve vs. feed works in a big way.
I also believe in the theater of foodservice, particularly at dining halls. My retail locations do not have high design. I have one place that does $600,000 in sales, and it’s basically a wood shack. But in our dining halls, I think it’s important that you merchandise, that you’re inviting, clean and the food looks good. There is a little bit of theater to what we do. Food isn’t just the food on the plate; it’s about the atmosphere you’ve created, about the way the food is merchandised, the location, how much of a hassle it is to organize, etc. I think it’s about the total experience and not just offering one display cooking station. There are two kinds of students, either “I have a lot of time to hang out” or “I want it quick so I can get out of here.” Our retail sites are “blow and go” but in our dining halls, the students have the time to enjoy the spectacle of service.
I think a lot of public universities might have maturity in the size of the market they can capture. If we couldn’t have captured more of the market—we went from about 12,000 meals a day to 28,000—then I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things, especially the environmental initiatives, I’ve done. That’s the thing about the restaurant business; you always have to seek to improve. I have that need to improve and that drive has helped me build a program that works.
Looking back, I’m really proud of being able to do a lot of our sustainable and green initiatives at a public university, without a private school budget. I see myself as a pop culture aficionado, in that I try to keep a pulse on what an 18 to 21 year-old thinks and does. Not just the students on my campus but young people everywhere. The environmental initiatives were important to people here, but not if they had to pay for it. It grew out of my “listen and respond” philosophy. The marketplace was asking for these things, and it was my job to figure out how to do them, at a pace we could afford. I couldn’t just go green and let the food suffer. We had to work on multiple things at a time but the green thing made people feel good. We had just built a new building that had a lot of Energy Star equipment and efficiencies built into it. Then we realized that a green business model would be fairly easy to implement, at least in that one building, and things just grew from there. There were no long-term plans and no grant money; I had to maintain my budgets. What happened was, as we increased our green practices, more people would come to us with ideas. When you have required meal plans, you already have their money, so your job is to make sure they feel good and feel they are getting value from the meal plan.
I wish I could say that five years ago I saw it clearly, but I look at the dining business from the standpoint of always changing and always evolving. My forte is my flexibility to improvise as I move forward, without losing the basics. A lot of people say that the things we do are innovative. I think we’ve just done what restaurant businesses should do: look at the marketplace, take sound business practices of managing food and labor costs and apply it. I’ve set three parameters for my staff: we’re going to be responsible and be good stewards of the students and parents’ money, we’re going to manage our finances and resources and we’re going to uphold the value to the UC/Berkeley community. Those three in tandem are what I consider big ideas, and if the staff focuses on them, they’ll most likely be making good decisions. But honestly, what I’m most proud of is the guy upstairs that is enjoying his food. The fact that I’ve done a good job is enough for me.”