Nancy Levandowski: Embracing Change
From buying local to training, Nancy Levandowski continually pushes her staff to accept new ideas.
NANCY LEVANDOWSKI has reveolutionized dining services at IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY by:
- CULTIVATING local purchases by launching the Farm to ISU program, which has increased local purchases from $56,000 a year to $900,000 a year
- IMPLEMENTING a comprehensive composting and trayless dining program
- GUIDING the program through the aftermath of an RFP by establishing a mission and investing in facilities
- SPEARHEADING the creation of an on-campus training center, which features a test kitchen and centralized student hiring
Rebuilding after an RFP: One of the biggest challenges Levandowski faced during her tenure at ISU came right at the beginning. When she arrived in 2006 dining services had just been through an RFP process.
“Morale was very low,” Levandowski says. “The department was happy they survived and that they were chosen, but they felt bruised. So I knew a big part [of improving morale] was sharing a vision. I put together a mission statement and every year we update it. Creating that mission, vision and a marketing plan so that people knew where we were going was very important.”
Levandowski says a big part of rebuilding after the RFP came down to communication with the staff.
“Our staff were doing great things but people didn’t know about it,” Levandowski says. “I think it’s a Midwest thing. They don’t like to brag, and believe me, I’m a promoter at heart. So a lot of what I did was just to let everyone know what the staff was doing. I thought it was such a great match when I came here because I knew the process of what we needed to do for everyone to feel a sense of satisfaction.”
One of the most effective ways Levandowski rejuvenated the program after the RFP process was $20 million in renovations. Because people are so visual, Levandowski says, creating facilities that staff enjoyed working in was a big part of turning the program around.
“Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t easy, but when someone gives me $12 million I’m going to make sure to create an opportunity for our staff to have facilities that they can be proud of,” Levandowski says. “Of the $20 million renovations, $8 million was self funded. That goes to say that the campus was financially viable; we just needed to move things around and make things more accessible.”
A big thing with the renovations was figuring out what each location’s niche was going to be. Levandowski says the department wanted each location to have something that made it distinctive. The team asked themselves, “Is there a signature food item in the retail locations or a signature cooking platform in the residence halls?” For example, the Conversations dining facility is a hybrid location. Prior to the renovation, Conversations was an all-you-care-to-eat facility. Now the location is all-you-care-to-eat from 10:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., however from 7:00 a.m. to 10 a.m., the location is a coffee bar.
“It was one of the things I learned from my other [college foodservice jobs,” Levandowski says. “When you have a small school you can’t afford to build more buildings. So I said [Conversations] is right across the street from another dining hall so you don’t want to make it the same. Its niche is that it has this coffee bar.”
Training center: Levandowski says amidst all these renovations the department took over a dining hall that had been closed for about three years and brought it back to operational standards.
“As we came to the end of all our remodels I said I didn’t want to have this dining hall go back to being mothballs,” Levandowski says. “I told my team that I had this dream where we had a training center where we would centralize student hiring and we’d do chef meals there and the students can have house meals there while we train our staff. All of this part of the dream became the vision of what the training center would be. It opened in March and we had our first class in June.”
The centralized student hiring moved into the training center about seven months ago and Levandowski says it’s been phenomenal.
“When you hire 1,400 students, having students be the trainers with the new hires while they learn has been great because students speak each other’s language,” Levandowski says. “It’s freed up my managers to be on the floor. The student employees do the training and a full orientation for new student employees.”