Nadeem Siddiqui: Rebuilding a Brand
His next move was a bold one: he closed the central warehouse, a huge process but one that Siddiqui felt had to happen if the department was to survive.
“We were buying our food a year in advance,” he says. “We were so tied to the system that we couldn’t change the menu. Our customers are going off campus and seeing new items, and they want us to do that and we can’t change the menu.”
Predictably, there was resistance to the move, mostly from people who feared their jobs would be lost.
“I told them, my job is to save your jobs,” Siddiqui recalls. “We had financial issues, and if we didn’t close the warehouse we were going to have even worse issues. And in the end, nobody has lost a job. Some people have retired, but those who chose to stay all have jobs. They may not be doing the same jobs they did before, but that’s a growth process.”
He and Arthur also have established new training programs for employees, to give them the skills they need to carry out Siddiqui’s initiatives. “We can rewrite the menus and revamp the programs, but in the end it’s the execution,” he notes. “You can create the nice recipes and the beautiful presentation, but if the day-to-day people can’t produce it, then it’s just show business. We’re in the reality business. We have to execute every day what we promise our customers.”
Siddiqui has not been bashful about letting people know what works and what doesn’t within the department. He has outsourced the operation of the campus C-stores to a local vendor “because we don’t have the expertise to run them.” And he has freely admitted that catering has “some challenges.”
“People come to us and ask us if they can use [an outside caterer] and I say, ‘Please do. I support that because we’re not ready for you. And I don’t want [your event] to fail because of us.’ I know that once we rebuild the program the business will come back.”
Siddiqui’s road to A & M has been circuitous, to say the least. It began in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where Siddiqui grew up. He came to this country in 1982, like his father had years earlier, to get an education. He matriculated at Moorhead State, in Moorhead, MN. After graduating, he went to work at nearby Concordia College, under the tutelage of Jane Grant Shambaugh.
“I worked for Jane for three years,” Siddiqui recalls. “Jane was great, because she was straightforward, honest, tell-it-like-it-is, and I appreciated that. I learned so much from her.” After Concordia came a succession of jobs as Siddiqui criss-crossed the country, never spending more than two or three years with one company or institution: Aramark; St. Lawrence University in upstate New York; Grinnell College in Iowa; the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, his first director’s job; the University of Chicago; another stint with Aramark; Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and finally Stanford, where his boss was Silver Plate Award winner Shirley Everett.
“I also worked for Peg Lacey (another Silver Plate recipient) when she was with Aramark,” Siddiqui adds. “I am probably the only person in this industry who has worked for all three of these women: Jane, Peg and Shirley, and anyone who has worked for any of these women is going to be successful if you practice what they teach you.”
Perhaps the most important thing they have taught him is that students always must be his department’s primary focus. “We’re foster parents, whether we like it or not,” he explains. “For nine months out of the year these are our children and we have to do everything we can to help them.”
That attitude prompts him to do what some people might consider above and beyond the normal routine, such as offering to have a Braille menu printed for a blind girl who will be attending A & M next semester. But Siddiqui believes such actions should be everyday occurrences.
“That’s our job; to make sure that every element of each person’s well-being is taken care of,” he says. “A Braille menu is the least we can do. In the past, students have come to our foodservice operations because they are convenient. We’re trying very hard to create a culture here that will make students come not just because we’re convenient, but because we’re great.”