Stu Orefice: Mangia Man

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Stu Orefice believes that food is central to communication and community on a college campus and he has fostered that for 26 years.

Stu Orefice, Princetone University, Silver Plate 2009, FoodService Director, April 2009

At A Glance: Stu Orfice
•Director of Dining Services
•Princeton University
•B.S. hotel and restaurant administration, Cornell University
•Born in Eastchester, N.Y.
•Is known on the Princeton campus not only for his dining program but for his "job" as shot clock operator at Princeton men's basketball games.

•Orefice oversees a $25 million program at Princeton, one that has more than doubled since he was hired 16 years ago. Catering has grown from $400,000 a year to $1.6 million. Student dining, a retail food court, catering, C-stores, concessions and a bakery all fall under his purview, and are operated by a staff of 55 managers, 14 chefs, 300 full- and part-time employees.

•Orefice fosters Dining Services as a great place to work through programs such as Dining Fanatics, which rewards employees for outstanding service. Each quarter, one employee is chosen by his or her peers as a Dining Fanatic and receives free food and other rewards. At the end of the year, all Dining Fanatics are recognized at a special luncheon.

•Orefice was made an honorary member of the Princeton Class of 2008 for his "progressive leadership and vision with foodservices and for his support of student athletes in all their endeavors."

It may seem a cliché, but Stu Orefice is a foodie. From his upbringing in a large Italian family to the present, food has been essential to his personal and professional life-so much so that he has crafted the dining program at Princeton University to reflect a culinary, rather than a management, focus. The process was risky but ultimately has been rewarding.

"Making the shift from a management-driven program to a culinary-driven program certainly had a number of staff members questioning, ‘What does this mean for me?'  Everyone had concerns, a major one being, ‘Chefs don't know how to manage.' So there was a lot of trepidation going forward. And from the administrative side, there were the fiscal concerns. We knew certain chefs tend not to look at numbers as much as they look at the plate. One of the requirements we had as we were hiring our chef managers was they had to have been a restaurant owner or had developed a business plan for a restaurant. The chefs needed to understand the importance of changing a light bulb and changing a menu. When we met with many of the team members regarding the shift, we emphasized that we needed to do this in order to bring our food to the next level. We showed them surveys and focus group data that indicated that our customer service was great. It was the food quality that we needed to work on and a lot of it had to do with presentation and the variety of menu items.

I came from a large Italian family, and food was a central part of our daily lives. Quite often at breakfast we were talking about what we were going to have for dinner. When we went to a wedding we talked about the food, not what the bride and groom looked like. And family events tended to be immortalized in food. We would be like, ‘Remember when Chris was born?' ‘Oh yeah, we had sausage and peppers that night.' Our father always made Saturday breakfast for us and I used to watch him and eventually as I got older I got to help. And when I worked in restaurants, whether I was a busboy or a waiter, I always wanted to get behind the line where the chefs were; ‘What are you making?' They kicked me out of the kitchen all the time, but I always gravitated toward food. My brother gave me a brochure to Cornell when I was in high school. He said, ‘Look into this. This is a program that could suit you.'

When I first went to Cornell I had a vision that I would own a restaurant. Then, I worked as a pot washer in the student dining program and I learned a lot about how Cornell Dining was viewed nationally. Then I got promoted to student manager and then student coordinator. And the more I learned, the more I thought, this is a fascinating part of the industry. I'm convinced that had I not been at Cornell and not seen what Cornell Dining had accomplished I wouldn't have chosen this segment.

I was always good at numbers. Being a foodservice director means you have to be an accountant, a chef and a human resources expert, and the numbers part always came easy to me. By the time I came to Princeton I was managing $10 million worth of business at Cornell, and that was the size of the Princeton program. So during the interview process I felt confident that I could do the job.

Being at Ivy League schools, I've had a little more freedom to try different things than I might've had at a state school. We are a little more flexible versus a state system, where you might have to purchase based on price. We have the ability to make our purchasing decisions based on quality, and I think that allows us to be a little more creative. But we are high profile here. Food gets noticed at Princeton. I'm not saying that it wouldn't get noticed at other schools, but we tend to be under the microscope. We are extremely visible because Princeton cares so much about food. We believe it fosters communication and community.

My management style has to be flexible. We like to say Mother Nature determines our menus because they're seasonal. The same could be said about my management style. In the fall I'm more systematic, and there is not a lot of coaching going on because we have to open. During the middle of the semester my management approaches a more coaching style. For example, we have a weekly meeting with the senior staff that I rarely cancel. There is always something to be shared or input to be gathered.

My first couple of years here, I didn't have a lot of patience-only because I had seen what Cornell had achieved. I had that vision and there weren't a lot of folks here who had the same vision, and so I didn't have the patience I have. A lot of that change came about because of the talent pool we have today. So I do more coaching than I ever have.

At Cornell, I worked for Peg Lacey, who also has won a Silver Plate. Peg was extremely organized, and I think I picked up on many of her organizational habits. Also, Peg taught me that dining out is an educational experience and not just about the food. Look at the menu, take pictures. She's also known for handing out her business card to people she meets, saying, ‘If you ever move, we've got a job for you,' because of a great customer experience she'd had. We've adopted a variation of that, and I think some of the talent we have today was discovered through developing those personal relationships.

We are in a hospitality industry, and I don't know how you give or get any hospitality through an e-mail. We use e-mail as a helpful tool to remind folks of things, but not as a replacement for personal contact. And voicemail can be just as bad, like when you get cued on a call: ‘Press 1 for this, 2 for that.' We don't have any of that here. We have people manning phones. And I believe that's one of the reasons our catering business has gown more than 50% during the last decade, because we have someone answering that phone. They don't want to leave information about an important catering function; they want to talk to somebody.  And that follows through to our workday. We don't do takeout for lunch; we make sure we're eating in the dining halls, talking with our customers and employees.

We have 55 managers, and very few leave. Those few who left often have gone to bigger jobs in the industry; otherwise, they tend to want to stay here. That tells me we're doing something right. We have 14 chefs on staff and only one has left, so that also says a lot about the quality of their professional life and the freedom we give them to express their culinary talent."