Nadeem Siddiqui: Rebuilding a Brand
After more than 20 years of a near-nomadic existence in college foodservice, Nadeem Siddiqui believes he finally has found a home, at 45,000-student Texas A&M University. And like a new homeowner, he has wasted little time in putting his own stamp on the campus foodservice program, a program with a proud heritage that had fallen into disrepair in recent years.
In little more than 15 months since he was hired as executive director of Dining Services, Siddiqui has resurrected the $28-million program by building a new management team, making minor facility renovations and upgrades while setting up a new master plan for the department, and instilling a new pride and sense of purpose within the staff—300 full-time employees and another 900 part-time and student workers—that has been noticed by students and administrators alike.
“My goal here is to rebuild the brand,” explains Siddiqui. “Foodservice on campus has a huge responsibility to complement the university’s mission.”
To that end, Dining Services has retained an architectural firm to assess the two largest of A & M’s 41 dining locations on campus, The Commons on the south side and Sbisa on the north side. “We need to see what the caliber of the facilities are, as far as physical strength, and determine what investments we need to make,” he says. A proposal is due to be prepared for administrators sometime this month.
But short-term changes already have been dramatic. Among the new programs and facilities are an organic eatery called The Tomato Bar, in the basement of The Commons; sushi at MSC Cafeteria; Asian noodle and rice bowls at Pie Are Square, a halal meal program and, most importantly, a change from a warehouse-based procurement and menu program to one using a prime vendor with more frequent deliveries of products.
So impressive have been the changes to the much-maligned program that Siddiqui was honored by the student government this past spring as its administrator of the year, even though he’d been on the job less than a year. It says much about Siddiqui that he asked the student leaders to come to his staff meeting the following week and present the trophy to his staff. “Otherwise I can’t accept it,” he told the students, “because they are the ones who have earned this; not me.”
Siddiqui was working as a consultant in Madison, WI, when he was approached by administrators at A & M about the job. He quickly learned the history of the Aggie foodservice program: After years of excellent service under the command of IFMA Silver Plate Award winner Col. Fred Dollar, the program had fallen on hard times, plagued by inefficiencies and even financial improprieties.
“One of the things that failed at the leadership level was that people weren’t getting any training,” Siddiqui surmises. “There were no tools, no equipment for staff to do their jobs properly. In addition, expectations were set too high. The staff couldn’t reach them, and so the program was looked upon as a failure. That’s the culture I had to change.”
Despite that track record, Siddiqui says, he felt something at the core of the university that resonated with him.
“The most important things on this campus are family, religion and this country,” he says. “I was so impressed by that. The priorities they have laid out here are what I believe in, as well. This was a place where I felt I could set down roots.”
In his interview with administrators, Siddiqui set out the terms of his employment. He wanted their word that he would have the leverage, ability and freedom to do what needed to be done, “without all the bureaucratic processes.” So far, the university has been true to its word, he notes.
He began by setting up a five-member management team, headed by his new executive chef and director of operations, Gary Arthur. Arthur had worked for Siddiqui at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, CA, and had experience working at five-star hotels. Siddiqui also created the position of financial director, whose job it was to gain control of the department’s finances and rein in the deficit spending. One of the first things Raymond Grams did in this new role was to implement weekly “flash reports” to give Dining Services continuous feedback on its financial performance.
“Usually, the numbers were coming back six or seven weeks after the fact,” Siddiqui explains. “That’s just too late in a 14-week semester. How can you change anything?”