Joie Schoonover: The Real Deal

Joie Schoonover uses her skills and sincerity to get results at Wisconsin-Madison.


Joie Schoonover has transformed dining services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by:  

  • Spearheading the construction and opening of two major facilities, both of which opened this year, while simultaneously working on three more construction projects  
  • Changing the department’s foodservice systems to adapt to the needs of the department’s new operations
  • Leading a major staff restructuring, which decreased the number of layers of people between Schoonover and her managers
  • Improving purchasing practices by combining vendor contracts and implementing a cycle menu, which helped forecast ordering more accurately

Joie Schoonover has been a busy woman. In just four years as director of dining and culinary services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Schoonover basically has reinvented the foodservice program. She led a team that opened two major projects this year, while simultaneously planning three more renovations. The department also completely changed its management structure and revised operational systems such as inventory and purchasing. Looking back, Schoonover acknowledges, “There’s not much that’s the same as it was four years ago.”

Patrick Pawelski, unit manager, says he thinks it is Schoonover’s ability to make all employees feel empowered that has led to the department’s success.

“She believes in allowing her staff to make tough decisions,” Pawelski says. “The amount of planning and work that was involved [in opening the new facilities] was unreal. I don’t know too many people who could have stayed sane, functional and dependable throughout this entire process, but she did.”

New spaces: Opening two major facilities at the same time is something other directors might find daunting, but Schoonover was not only able to open the two locations, she was able to keep things on track for the opening of three more operations in the next two years. The two new marketplaces are Gordon Dining and Events Center and the Four Lakes Market at Dejope Hall. Gordon also houses meeting space and the department’s central production with a cook-chill area and bakery.

Each facility offers a variety of the department’s self-branded concepts. Gordon features a marketplace comprising Bean & Creamery (coffee and ice cream), Flamingo Run (c-store), Capital City Pizza, Buona Cucina (pasta and Italian entrées), Fired Up (grill), Global Kitchen (international fare), Que Rico (Tex-Mex), 1849 (comfort foods), Delicious (deli), Great Greens (fresh salads and soups), Buckingham Bakery (desserts) and Eggcetera (all-day breakfast).

Four Lakes has a number of the same concepts, as well as Maki Mono, which offers noodle bowls and sushi. Despite some similarities in food offerings, the two locations have two distinct atmospheres.

“For Gordon, we really wanted it to be a place where students could hang out,” Schoonover says. “It has an urban kind of feel to it. There is a two-story fireplace, and one wall is two stories of glass that will eventually overlook a green space. The feel at Four Lakes is very serene and quiet.”

Schoonover says managing two projects simultaneously meant that staff couldn’t consider each location individually. They had to look at what it was going to take to execute both. At the same time, the department had to be cognizant of three other projects coming down the road. So how did they do it? Staff involvement and buy-in was key.

“We had our full-time staff reviewing the plans while we were designing things, trying to get their buy-in, but seeing really is believing,” Schoonover says. “Each management team had to be engaged with its whole staff to run its project because I can’t run five projects. We spent three hours each week doing planning. Then our staff meeting was two hours the next day. I think that’s why the opening has been successful. The other projects coming up are much smaller, so the staff had the opportunity to learn from the larger projects.”

Those other projects include Carson’s, which is a gut renovation of a building built in the 1920s. That project will reopen in June 2013 with concepts similar to Gordon and Four Lakes and an atmosphere that takes its cues from the history of the building. Schoonover says by January 2014 all of the department’s locations will either be new or remodeled.

“I didn’t get here and say we need all these new facilities,” Schoonover says. “I was fortunate that I inherited a very strong structure. University Housing has always done a great job of planning around the master plan. I walked in and got to execute those plans.”

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