Ginnie Dunleavy: Cultivating creativity

Ginnie Dunleavy believes ingenuity is the key to RISD Dining’s success.


Ginnie Dunleavy has revolutionized dining services at the Rhode Island School of Design by:

  • Transitioning dining services from contracted to self-op, which increased cash revenue by 300% and meal plan participation from 58% to 86%
  • Focusing on building relationships by training her staff to understand the unique demands of the RISD student
  • Showing ingenuity by connecting with students who are working on projects that align with dining services’ mission
  • Designing a program based on embracing community, common sense and a high-risk, high-reward mentality such as allowing unlimited dining access to first-year students

“It’s funny because people always say, ‘oh, your stuff must be so cool since you are at an art school,’ but no. It’s like the dentist with bad teeth. We can’t get anyone to design us a poster. What I think I’ve had really good success with is taking advantage of some of the student initiatives. If we want to do something, it’s sometimes harder to get students to do it for us. But if we can tap into what a student is already interested in then we can go in their draft and have great success for our program.”

One example of this process occurred when Dunleavy found a graduate student who wanted to do a project focusing on the fact that dining used paper disposables. As a result of the student’s project the department introduced a recycling program and a reusable container program.

“We also had a graphic design student who wanted to know what was on the menu without checking the website,” Dunleavy says. “The student worked with our team to create a prototype and then we launched an app this year.”

Sustainability: Dunleavy employed a similar tactic to enhance some of her sustainability initiatives.

“We had another student who was passionate about composting,” Dunleavy says. “We had a composting program so we took her along to Providence Composting. She ended up meeting with an inventor/designer and the two of them collaborated on a beta project that brings large-scale composting to Rhode Island. We have been a beta site for a year.

Being a beta site we have all the challenges that go with that. We are very committed to working through those challenges because it’s a part of that student’s education.”

Dunleavy says sustainability was one of the things she was eager to improve after arriving from Brown, where she was involved in the dining department’s initiatives, especially local purchasing.

“The first core value is relationships, and that extends to the community,” Dunleavy says. “We buy local. Vendors are coming in all the time to teach us. We take local to the effect of we serve local soda. We don’t have it as a flat percentage of our purchases that are local, but we are moving toward being more sustainable than not.”

Design: The final value is the one that would seem most obvious for RISD Dining, but it’s one that often doesn’t come naturally to foodservice directors. Dunleavy has been able to design a program that is based on high-risk, high-reward endeavors such as offering unlimited meal access to first-year students.

“Our first-year students have to take a very intense foundation year that is studio-based,” Dunleavy says. “Those students were having a challenge on our meal plan because they were so busy. I finally said, ‘We’re going to offer unlimited access to first-years.’ Their program is so intense people were like, ‘are they going to abuse it?’ But they are so busy it’s just not a factor. Others were like, ‘are they going to give it to their friends?’ And I was like, ‘it’s their first year. They don’t have any friends.’ My point is to have this common-sense approach to solve these problems.”

Dunleavy says her team is always asking how they can make getting food on campus easier. A great example of how the department designed a solution to that problem came about when the financial crisis hit and the department was told to reduce its hours to cut costs.

“When that happened we decided to get a food truck [Rosie],” Dunleavy says. “We were going to compress our hours in all these places, but we were going to do it with less labor and have our late-night service provided by a food truck. We are always looking at what’s a creative solution? How can we be proactive against challenges?” [For more on Rosie, RISD’s food truck, click here.]

Another uncommon approach to the RISD Dining program is the fact that all its operations are open to the public. Since the Providence campus is in an urban area, Dunleavy says it made sense to structure the program as more café-based.

“The public doesn’t even realize that Jolly Roger [a popular sandwich shop] is run by RISD Dining,” Dunleavy says. “That was another change that came with me—this idea of embracing a business model that says we are a part of our community, whatever that community may be. I think before [I came here] the department might have just seen themselves as serving the academic community, but I see it as serving the Providence community.” 

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