SPRINGDALE, Ark.—The foodservice industry thrives because of relationships, and customers are always looking for value-added propositions. Those are two reasons why Tyson University, now entering its 11th year, has been such a hit with non-commercial foodservice operators.
More than 4,000 operators, sales representatives and brokers have made the trip, at Tyson’s expense, to Tyson’s corporate headquarters in Springdale, Ark., for the two-and-a-half-day Tyson U. Held several times each year, each Tyson U. is tailored to the specific market segment attending. “Students” attend classes on topics relevant to their jobs, take “field trips” through the Tyson Discovery Center and Tyson’s chicken processing plant and engage in discussions with each other about the challenges and opportunities they face in their jobs. The event culminates in a graduation dinner, and attendees even receive a class photo.
Recently, FSD was invited to attend Tyson U. with 28 school foodservice directors from across the country.
The presentations at this Tyson U. dealt with such issues as how federal funding is determined for school meal programs, understanding the bid process and how directors can improve their bids for food products and dealing with school wellness policies. Guest presenters included John Purcell, managing partner for K-12 Services Inc., a Washington, D.C.-area research and consulting firm for the school foodservice industry, and Stacy Sagowitz, president of California-based School Nutrition Services and a former school foodservice director.
Johnny Hughes, senior director of government sales for Tyson and one of the organizers of Tyson U., said the event reaffirms the value of relationships between suppliers and customers.
“This is all about helping operators do their jobs better,” said Hughes. “When we can help people make their program better, it is a win-win. And believe me, through the interaction we have with the attendees, we get as much out of this as they do. What people share with us is invaluable.”
Many attendees said they found the session about federal funding and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s involvement in school meal programs, given by Purcell, to be the most enlightening.
“I thought that John Purcell had some interesting and innovative ideas and ways to take advantage of our USDA foods,” said Greg Elliott, foodservice supervisor at Hornell High School, Hornell, N.Y., who called Tyson U. “one of the best experiences I have had in my 30 years in the foodservice industry.
“The procurement part of school foodservice is unlike most of the other fields in the industry,” he noted. “With USDA foods being approximately 25% of our food cost it always helps to get the best value possible with your entitlement dollars.”
Maryann Lazzaro, foodservice director for the Plum Borough School District in suburban Pittsburgh, also said she found Purcell’s information about the budget and reauthorization process to be “very pertinent.”
Gay Anderson, foodservice director for the Brandon Valley School District in South Dakota, and Sandi Kramer, foodservice director for the Yankton (S.D.) School District, appealed to Purcell after his session to come to South Dakota to work with them and other directors in the state to improve their foodservice programs. According to Anderson and Kramer, Purcell flew to South Dakota to meet with them the very next week.
“The other speaker who hit a home run was Stacy Sagowitz,” added Anderson. Sagowitz, speaks frequently at Tyson U. on such topics as the bid process and product cuttings.
“She understands school food after being a director herself,” Anderson said. “She knows how to procure food, prepare bids and do whatever one can to be financially responsible.”
Anderson also noted that Sagowitz agreed to speak at South Dakota’s School Nutrition Association conference later this year. “We have a goal in our state to find ways for us to work together in a win-win situation, and what Stacy presents should help schools work better with their suppliers.”
Another highlight of the event was “Coffee Talk,” which was conducted in the Tyson corporate boardroom. For more than an hour, operators got to exchange ideas with each other on what they are doing to build participation and how they handle two major challenges of the day: providing breakfast and meeting requirements of mandated wellness policies.
“The Tyson experience provided me with a very timely opportunity since the district I oversee is currently in the early stages of a multimillion dollar renovation,” said Tim Swisher, foodservice manager in the Hornell City (N.Y.) School District. “The information that was provided at TU and shared by my fellow foodservice colleagues solidifies my belief that our focus needs to continue to be on healthy, fresh, quality products.”
Other attendees came away with similar sentiments. Gerry Galat, foodservice director for the Seneca Valley School District in Harmony, Pa., said, “I was very impressed with the hospitality, the amount of information and the resources that were offered to everyone in attendance. The information was beneficial to everyone in the food business, not just schools.”
Margan Holloway, director of student nutrition services in the Tamalpais Union High School District, Larkspur, Calif., added, “Everyone was very knowledgeable, well versed and easily shared their information with us, from production to table and everything in between. They were concerned with quality and food safety, which made me feel good about the products we serve to our students.”
Despite the overall positive experience, attendees also could offer some suggestions for improving the classes.
“I expected to get more technical information to use; i.e., more on menu planning with nutritional guidelines,” said Lazzaro. “I enjoyed the menu planning session we were in, but it could have been much more. Seeing the test kitchens was great, but seeing an actual test with the rationale behind it would have been interesting.”