Dining Service Overhaul

A complete divisional reorganization gives Michigan State Culinary Services new ways to satisfy customers with a focus on flexibility.


Trendsetters, Michigan State UniversityThe department of Housing and Food Service at 46,000-student Michigan State University in East Lansing recently reorganized and rebranded itself as Culinary Services.

Part of a larger reorganization of the Housing and Food Service department—now called Residential and Hospitality Services—the new Culinary Services department will oversee all campus dining functions including residence hall dining, retail dining, concessions, coffee shops, convenience stores, food stores and the MSU Bakers, as well as procurement. Bruce Haskell, associate director of residential dining, says the reorganization has been a huge effort beyond Culinary Services.

“In the fall of 2008, we decided to realign the departments within the division so they made more functional sense,” Haskell says. “Vennie Gore [assistant vice president of Housing and Food Service] created this vision of what he wanted every department to become and he got us back to our core values by identifying our purpose and putting it all in practice. By developing tight communication links with all members of Culinary Services and using open communication, it creates trust and respect. It helps build the foundation for our people to deliver outstanding Spartan experiences.

“To achieve that in dining, we felt it was time to pursue different directions in how we would deliver our food. Before, residential dining and housing were paired together, but auxiliary services and retail were a different department within the division. As a result, there was no crossover between our students’ meal plan and retail dining. We felt there were some efficiencies to be found by having all foodservice under one department. We are an all-you-care-to-eat operation, but we felt we could give our guests better options if we incorporated retail as part of the mix.”

Trendsetters, Michigan State UniversityThe other divisions of the restructuring of Residential and Hospitality Services include Information Services, Marketing and Communications, Human Resources, Campus Living Services (housing, facilities, maintenance, interior design), Auxiliary Resources and Spartan Hospitality Group. One thing that affected all divisions was a change in the basic makeup of the management team, says Haskell.

“Each of these new areas has a central core team that is very similar across departmental lines,” Haskell says. “We now have a business manager, an associate director of residential dining, associate director of retail dining, human resources administrator, communications manager and an associate director of Culinary Support Services, which includes procurement. We also created a new position for our department to outwardly demonstrate a clear-cut focus of culinary excellence. So we hired a corporate chef, who is part of the central staff, who basically can come in and talk to the team about corporate standards and expectations so we’re consistent across the board. He defines what our culinary excellence will be.”

The new division is currently working on rolling out a new production model that is going to focus heavily on the culinary side of things. The model includes putting in place an executive chef, a sous chef and full production line staff in all locations, all of whom will be trained by the corporate chef.

“When we opened our new marketplace in 2007, we put in place an executive chef and a sous chef who then trained all the production staff to deliver culinary excellence through display cooking,” Haskell says. “We also added a restaurant in that facility called The Gallery, which opened with remarkable success. We had expected to get 2,500 to 3,000 covers a day there and we were getting that per meal. We realized it was the production model that was in place that really made it work. We decided last fall that we were going to do this and the transition is now complete. That doesn’t mean we’re not going through growing pains, but the culture has changed—all with the intent of delivering outstanding Spartan service.”

Haskell says the new production model has to be implemented over time because the department wanted the transition to be FTE-neutral. To make the switch quicker, some employees’ responsibilities changed. Also, whenever assistant dining managers have left, they have been replaced with sous chefs. Haskell says they hope to have the full model in place in all locations within a year.

The addition of a corporate chef to the team was something that Guy Procopio, director of Culinary Services, was excited about.

“Our goals are to improve culinary excellence throughout campus both in retail and residential dining,” Procopio says. “With our corporate chef now part of the higher management team, we are implementing standardized menus in residential dining. He’s also assisted in creating a couple of restaurant concepts that fall under retail. For example, we just opened a Mexican concept at the union called Serrano’s. The whole advantage is building a value promise to add flexibility and convenience to our students. So they went from having 13 or 14 dining locations to having more than 40 locations, including our convenience locations and our coffee shops.”

Menu items for the new Serrano’s include tacos with seasoned ground beef, enchiladas, quesadillas and burritos. The concept is also making its own tortilla chips. Combos, such as two tacos with beans and rice and a drink, are $4.99. Procopio says the research for these kinds of concepts showed that students wanted something quick, authentic and made fresh in front of them with a price point of about $5. They created a pizza concept in the same location as Serrano’s that Procopio says has done very well with the $5 price point. The price point paired with the increased flexibility in dining locations makes for other advantages for the department.

“By offering our students the opportunity to go to our retail locations as well, we are hoping we can scale back some of the hours of operation in our dining hall, which will have an economic advantage,” Procopio says.

With all these changes, the retail side of Culinary Services is remaining pretty much the same, the management model notwithstanding. However, the residential side of the business has made some big changes to cater to the retail side.

Procopio says the changes to the dining plan have created a hybrid between a traditional all-you-care-to-eat plan and a declining balance plan.

“I think we’ve taken the best from a debit plan and a traditional plan and made a hybrid plan that we think is uniquely MSU,” Procopio says. “We’ve taken the positives of our traditional all-you-care-to-eat meal plans and we’ve added the retail component by merging both operations under one and giving our students the opportunity to use their meal access throughout our different locations on campus.”

The other area the department saw huge potential for growth was with off-campus business.

“Right now, we do about $2.5 million in off-campus meal plan students, which is only 2,000 meal plans,” Haskell says. “We have 30,000 non-residents who go here so that’s a huge untapped market. So we tried to make those meal plans have more flexibility. We started looking at what we had been doing that was for our convenience and not the guests. For example, we had our off-campus meal plans expire at the end of the semester. That’s no good for an off-campus meal plan. Say the meals run out in October; they’re not going to buy another plan for only a month. But if they can buy it and it rolls over, then they’re more likely to buy another. We started breaking down some of the barriers that we had established. Now students can carry meals through the summer semester and they can bring guests in on their plan. The thinking behind that was, let them go through the plan faster and maybe they’ll buy another one or encourage their guest to buy a plan. We expanded their opportunities. Now that we’re under one roof, retail and residential dining can work more effectively.”

Haskell says they also changed the department’s Totally Takeout program to allow for more flexibility. Totally Takeout was basically a sack lunch that students could take to go. Students could use Totally Takeout as a meal replacement once a day if they wanted to take food with them. The new system created a combo exchange that allows students to go to any venue and for the scan of a meal they can get a variety of different combos.

“For example, at an International venue, the combo might be an entrée, two sides and a beverage for your scan,” Haskell says. “We give them a couple of choices in each venue and they can take it with them, giving them more flexibility. Off-campus meal plan holders also can take advantage of this option. So far, the students are really excited about it.”

Haskell says now that students have the flexibility to use more dining locations with their plan, the challenge is to make sure all those locations are performing at the highest level possible. The new production model helps with this, as does a focus on display cooking.

“We trained the new production staff to deliver culinary excellence in what we call display cooking,” Haskell says. “So the students can now see the food being prepared. In residential dining, we tended to have a cook-and-wait mentality. You cook the food ahead of time and wait for students to show up as opposed to a restaurant where you wait for the customer to arrive and then you cook; what we’re looking for now is something in between those two. We call it cook to flow. If there are two people coming through, you may be cooking to order, but if there’s 50 coming through, there may be some cook to order, but you can also do a large batch that you can use to serve people quickly. All this has to be done and still be financially responsible. We currently have the production model in place—executive chef, sous chef and line production staff—in The Gallery and it’s partially in place in the remaining locations. All are focusing on the cook to flow and giving the kids a plate that looks like what they’d get in a restaurant.”