Dennis Pierce: His Own Man
The resident student experience is also being enhanced under Pierce’s guidance. Landolphi teaches a one-credit course called the First Year Experience, in which students learn basic cooking skills, how to grocery shop and how to follow a nutritious diet. This year, a unique “guest chef” program was created in Towers dining facility. Once a month, up to 25 students get to dine with a campus chef. The unique aspect is that they help to prepare the meal they will eat.
New England restaurant scene: Like many of his contemporaries, Pierce got his introduction to foodservice by funding his college education working in various New England restaurants. After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Maine, he took a job with the Seiler Corp. During his brief tenure there, he worked at several Seiler accounts, including the University of Hartford, Simmons College and Bridgton Academy.
He then worked for 10 years at the University of Delaware, until his father died in 1985 and he returned to New England. He took a job as a general manager at Dartmouth College. Two years later, he landed the assistant director’s post at UConn. Over the years, Pierce has established himself not only at UConn, but within the university foodservice world at large. As an active member of the National Association of College & University Food Services for 24 years, Pierce was its president in 1998—a position held by his former boss, Len Hodgson, 20 years earlier.
With 18 years as an assistant under Hodgson and Weller, one might assume that Pierce stepped right into the role of director when Weller retired. That was hardly the case, however. Instead, the university embarked on a national search for a replacement.
“This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Pierce recalls. “I was applying for my own job, so to speak, because as associate director I already was responsible for most of the department—everything except catering and retail.”
What was even more uncomfortable was that, as part of the process, Pierce had to be interviewed by a group of his own employees and sell them on why they should have him promoted. He says he believes he won the job in part because he came to the interview armed with a five-year plan for revamping the department and upgrading the culinary program. Incidentally, six months ago, Pierce and his team drafted a new mission statement and created a new five-year plan.
Change inevitable, growth optional: Pierce says that change in college foodservice is not only inevitable, it is mandatory, because its customer base is changing in so many ways. One way, of course, is in its diversity.
“Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that our customers are so diverse that there no longer is a category of ‘comfort’ foods,” he suggests. “What is comfort to one person is not what is comfort for someone else. As a result, our dining halls have become almost like a seven-day-a-week theme meal.”
Another customer change that college foodservice has to take into account is the increase in food allergies, a fact he attributes to the use of processed foods in today’s society.
“We are not a hospital,” he notes. “We are not built like a hospital. But we have become very adept at meeting a variety of dietary needs. More important, there is an expectation now that you have to provide this. So we have to consider a whole host of allergens as we plan menus and write recipes.”
Sustainability is yet another issue for Pierce and his staff to deal with. He explains that although the university “has taken a hard look at being very good stewards of the environment,” the process has been a series of small steps because “there are not yet a lot of resources or authorities out there on sustainability.” But his department is evaluating all equipment purchases to ensure that they are getting the most energy-efficient and “green” equipment. Buying local and organic is another aspect that Dining Services is eager to embrace, despite “cost and distribution” issues.
Finally, the university is building a composting area, to which Dining Services will contribute enormously. The resulting fertilizer will be used by the university and offered to the surrounding community as well.
“This is an area in which we’ve come full circle,” Pierce points out, “because we were doing this real big back in the 1980s, and then it waned.”
However, as much as Pierce embraces change, he acknowledges that sometimes the “old ways” are best. That is why when students walk into a residence hall dining unit such as Towers, they will find more than 20 varieties of cereal not in the ubiquitous clear plastic dispensers but in their original boxes.
“That is something that Len Hodgson did, and it works,” says Pierce. “I don’t know of another university that does this, and I don’t want to tell you how much more I spend on cereal because of it. But the students like it because they know exactly what they are getting, and I won’t change it.”