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.”

More From FoodService Director

Menu Development
frozen raspberries

“As a chef, I pretty much have grown up through the business thinking that fresh was always better—produce, fish and meats, especially,” says Ryan Conklin, executive chef for UNC Rex Healthcare’s culinary and nutrition services. “But the more ‘re-educated’ I get, the more I’m learning that some frozen options may be more appropriate for me to be using on my menus.”

Right now, the perception of frozen foods doesn’t match the reality, especially for high-volume foodservice operators, says Conklin. Often, chefs and operators picture not-great product that’s been sitting in a block of...

Sponsored Content
Roasted Beet Salad Pickled Blueberries
From Blueberry Council.

What’s trending in the culinary world? The basics! According to the NRA, diners today are craving authenticity, simplicity and freshness on menus. But basic ingredients don’t have to lead to boring menu options.

It’s easy to fall into the latest craze to capture consumer attention and drive sales. But we’ve learned it’s not always about novelty. Instilling a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity by using well-known and well-loved ingredients in new, experimental dishes can lead to an increase in adventurous dining decisions, while staying in your customers’...

Managing Your Business
umass amherst food

Restaurateurs in Amherst, Mass., aren’t happy with UMass Dining .

Registered dietitian Dianne Sutherland told local NBC affiliate WWLP News in May that the high quality of food served on campus means students aren’t visiting neighborhood eateries as frequently as those businesses might like.

“Even our vendors who we work with, they get complaints from the restaurants that students are staying on campus,” she said. “They are already paying for the food; why should they [go] off campus to eat?” More than 19,000 Amherst students are on a meal plan—6,000 of whom live off campus...

Ideas and Innovation
lettuce eat dining

Forced to battle crumbling infrastructure and a constant churn of trends, sometimes the best way to save a foodservice operation is to change it entirely. As Steve Mangan, director of dining at the University of Michigan, puts it, “At some point when your building starts to fail, the cost of maintenance stands out.” But for operators with limited budgets, the challenge is discerning the right time to do so—and how far to take it.

At Jefferson High School, change came because little worked anymore. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, school’s cafeteria hadn’t been updated since 1957; students...

FSD Resources