Dennis Pierce: His Own Man

For two decades, Dennis Pierce has been a big part of the success of the University of Connecticut’s Dining Services program. But until two years ago, Pierce always worked in the shadow of other directors—first, Len Hodgson and then Gerald Weller.

Since 2006, however, he has had the opportunity to leave his own stamp on UConn Dining, and he is making the most of it. He has begun reorganizing the department to give it a greater culinary focus and to better provide for the needs of Dining Services employees. Renovations have brought more retail units onto campus and menus are being tweaked to respond to student demand for more ethnicity, more health and more convenience.

A state university in the heart of Connecticut serving 20,000 undergraduate students, UConn has a massive dining program. A $34-million budget covers nine residential dining units, five retail outlets and a $4-million catering department. A team of 300 full-time employees and 700 student workers operates this machine, which includes, among other things, a full kosher kitchen in one of the residence facilities.

Pierce became the director in 2006 with the retirement of Gerald Weller, and he has been reimaging the program ever since. A major piece of Dining Services’s rebirth has been the hiring of Rob Landolphi as culinary operations manager.

“Rob’s job is to bring us to higher standards,” says Pierce. “We want to upgrade our menus to improve quality and make ethnic selections more authentic. We also want to build our culinary training. Rob has the enthusiasm and knowledge to make those things happen.”

The department is taking a similar tack with catering, Pierce adds, and is currently conducting a national search for a catering director.

“The last piece will be to bring in an HR director,” he notes. “Eighty percent of my employees are not state employees. So I have pensions, insurance, workers’ comp and payroll, and I need someone to manage that.”

Retail mindset: On the facilities side, the department has enhanced retail foodservice offerings on campus, by installing a six-station food court in the Student Union last year, called Union Street Market. The stations include Fireside Rotisserie, Pompeii Oven and the Good Earth.

University of Connecticut’s Dining ServicesIn one of those stations, Market Express, as well as other retail venues across the campus, Dining Services has begun marketing a line of healthy items called Spa Foods.

Spa Foods was developed by Dining Services last summer after studying menus offered at various spa resorts. Pierce says Spa Foods was created in response to students’ desire for healthful food that could be carried out.

“This began as a thought at my kitchen sink as I was washing dishes,” Pierce explains. “So we got our think tank together and said, ‘okay, now how can we make this happen?’”

Some examples of Spa Foods are the Fruity Tuna Wrap, which is lemon curried tuna, red grapes, sliced almonds and dried cranberries in a wheat wrap; Citrus Bean Salad, made up of black beans, red kidney beans and chick peas tossed in a citrus vinaigrette with mandarin oranges, and Turkey Wrap with Honeyed Apple Cabbage, which contains sliced Granny Smith apples, marinated with a honey vinaigrette, tossed with shredded cabbage and wrapped in a wheat wrap with thinly sliced turkey breast. Most of the items contain less than 300 calories and as little as two calories from fat.

Pierce also has brought the first convenience store to the UConn campus, also in the Student Union. He plans to add three more units across campus, including one that will be built in an apartment complex that houses many Asian students. That c-store, he explains, will feature all Asian specialties.

“We think it will make those students feel more comfortable in the community, and they won’t have to go all the way to Hartford to buy Asian products,” Pierce says.

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