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.”

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

Sodexo aims to reduce carbon emissions by 34% at its foodservice and facilities management sites by 2025, a goal it says it will reach through such changes as converting cooking oil into biodiesel fuel and using energy-efficient HVAC systems.

In announcing this endeavor toward sustainability, Sodexo—which manages more than 32,000 sites globally—noted that over 7,200 of its sites in North America recycle aluminum and paper, and 8,640 recycle cardboard.

Managing Your Business
restaurant uniforms illustration

The standard foodservice uniform has undergone a makeover. Whether to make the job more appealing or extend personality to the guest, restaurants are allowing workers to express their individuality through what they wear, from T-shirts to bandannas to hipster-style aprons. Even in more conservative operations, staff can show their personality through uniforms, now offered in a wide range of colors, fits and styles. In choosing uniforms, operators also are weighing the message their workers’ wear sends, be it one of culinary skill and expertise, or a sense of camaraderie with the community...

Ideas and Innovation
rooster illustration

Sustainability is such a priority for Santa Rosa Junior College’s culinary arts program that produce often doesn’t even hit the cooler before becoming a meal. Students quickly transform the bounty of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and more, harvested from the college’s own farm, into restaurant-quality dishes at the Culinary Cafe and Bakery. They learn the basics of agriculture, practice pivoting a menu based on seasonality, and compost as they cook.

It’s little wonder the program recently placed first in the CAFE/Kendall College Green Awards: This Northern California community...

Managing Your Business
alumni worker

It’s a sure sign that a school is doing something right when its students want to come back and work as adults. From the standpoint of the foodservice director, though, there is plenty to gain from retaining homegrown talent—call it the ultimate return on investment. In the wake of back-to-school season, two dining programs with a robust alumni contingent share their thoughts on hiring former customers.

Local expertise

At Georgia Southern University, about one-third of Eagle Dining Services’ 107 full-time employees are alumni. “They way we do things on our campus may be very...

FSD Resources