Julie Hanrahan: Reaping Rewards

Some say, "You can't go home again," but Julie Hanrahan, foodservice director at St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn., knows that's certainly not so in her case. Hanrahan and her 12 siblings grew up on the idyllic, 100-acre campus situated on the shores of Gardener's Lake after their father founded the school in 1962. She never expected to return when she graduated from high school and left home at the age of 17 to forge a career in the restaurant industry. For the next 15 years she worked primarily in upstate New York restaurants, principally in the Hyde Park area where she honed her skills working side by side with several Culinary Institute of America (CIA) trained chefs.

Nine years ago, the headmaster at St. Thomas More asked her to help out in foodservice, if only for 12 hours a week, since the cook in charge of the program was ailing. Soon it turned into a full-time job and Hanrahan became the dining services manager, overseeing meal service for the 200 students in residence plus faculty, staff and families.

Getting to work: She immediately tackled the tasks of improving sanitation standards and moving the menu from "institutional" to restaurant quality. But other changes lay in wait. "Not too long afterwards, the headmaster wanted a contract management company," Hanrahan recalls. "I was less than enthusiastic then, but now I call myself 'Ms. Corporate.'"

The contractor was Flik Inter-national, the division of Compass Group whose private schools unit operates under the name Flik Independent Schools by Chartwells. "I became the client and their employee was brought in to manage," Hanrahan explains. "Within two years, and a couple of changes in managers, Flik offered to hire me as foodservice director. Overall, it gave me a great opportunity to receive a lot of management training and has allowed the foodservice to grow."

In addressing the needs of the all-male students, growing the foodservice is all about improving quality and providing choices in a program that is totally customer satisfaction-driven. "My job is to keep the quality high within the budget," she asserts.

"Reducing the numbers is not the headmaster's motivation, and customer satisfaction has gone way up. We have 'report cards' out on the front line every day. Sometimes I go around myself and pass them out, so there's constant feedback. I actually have to beg people to come to the monthly food committee meetings that are open to everyone. We put up flyers and I go around that day to encourage them to come, but they don't have any real issues or requests."

A 1999 remodel of the dining room eliminated both the old steam table and the resultant long waiting line out the door. In its place is the contractor's Profiles program, offering students six stations or bars to choose from, including: pizza, deli, specials (hot or cold), yogurt/fruit/dessert, soup and bread, and a salad bar, plus two identical beverage stations instead of only one.

A "natural" fit: But Hanrahan's imprint on the operation is unmistakable. "Initially, when I took over and it was self-op, I moved the menu from institutional to scratch-cooking with an upscale menu," Hanrahan explains. "We only use canola, olive or sesame oil and we try not to have processed or frozen foods. Turkey and roast beef are cooked in-house, then sliced at the deli station. Muffins, bread and desserts are usually from-scratch, as well. So when Flik came in, it wasn't just me making this policy; their policy was thoroughly in line with mine."

Hanrahan's basic program, incorporating many of her own restaurant recipes for meatballs, dressings, marinara and Bolognaise sauces, for example, has been influenced by numerous Flik programs, including Food Focus and Slow Cuisine. "The Food Focus on the cuisine of various cultures, such as Brazilian with its churrasco barbecue, Mediterranean, Indian or Korean, allows me to learn," she asserts.

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