Rafi Taherian: Making Memories
RAFI TAHERIAN has transformed dining services at YALE UNIVERSITY by:
- MANAGING the transition of Yale Dining from a contracted account to a self-operated program
- RECRUITING top talent, part of a commitment to excellence in service and food quality
- REFOCUSING the program on culinary by bringing in a certified master chef to elevate the quality and variety of menus
- OPENING new locations in unconventional spaces to control costs and increase revenue
Culinary shift: A key step in the goal of recruiting top talent was the hiring of Ron DeSantis, a certified master chef, who has led Taherian’s mission to bring the program into a sharper culinary focus.
“Ultimately, what we do is culinary focused. The product that we put out there is food. Our craftsmanship and our ability to transform what we buy will dictate our success with our customers,” Taherian says. “To do that well you have to have the best in class. It took us a long time, but we were able to recruit a certified master chef to lead our culinary team. We are the only dining program in the country that has a CMC leading their team.”
Taherian says DeSantis has been very meticulous in his strategic planning to execute new recipes and create innovation. From improving the health quotient of items to focusing on ethnic comfort foods, DeSantis and Taherian have worked together to overhaul the program’s culinary fundamentals. [Read more about the ethnic comfort food shift in The Big Idea, July 2012.] Another big change has been becoming more artisanal in the department’s production.
“We roast our own deli meats and make fresh soups every day,” Taherian says. “Then you have all we do toward our healthy meal collaborative initiative, which has a goal of doubling our produce consumption by 2020. I never thought I would be getting emails from students asking for more cauliflower. We also did a major initiative around our salad bar.” [Read more about Yale’s salad bar makeover online in our Five Questions for Joyce Goldstein.]
Tight spaces in tough times: The most evident change made during Taherian’s tenure has been the variety of new locations opened, which, considering the economy’s state when Taherian took over, could be considered a feat in itself.
“When I came it was just the burst of the economic bubble,” Taherian says. “But we didn’t want to put our plans on pause. When it came to renovations and facility enhancements, we had less money and resources available to us, and yet we still wanted to make some bold statements. We wanted to make sure that the students were getting what they deserve and more. We did the renovations with very limited resources and the payback was enormous for us.”
One example is Uncommon, a small c-store and grab-and-go location that was created out of a manager’s office inside Yale’s Commons dining facility. Uncommon was developed with less than $10,000, and Taherian says the daily revenue is between $1,200 to $1,500, with only three hours of operation. Other new outlets include Durfee’s, a tiny c-store hybrid; a health center café that aims to be a mini Whole Foods; and the KBT Café, a converted classroom where coffee is roasted on site.
“Rafi and I have worked together to successfully create a number of comfortable/unique hospitality destinations,” says Tom Tucker, director of retail operations and Graduate Dining. “The renovation of our flagship convenience store Durfee’s won a NACUFS Best in the Business award, and several of our other locations have won national recognition. Right now, Yale Dining has five major projects in some stage of planning, development or construction, including two new residential colleges.
“When Rafi took on his role as director, it wasn’t about taking the reins of an already prospering operation and moving forward—it was a high-risk job that involved starting from square one,” Tucker adds. “Five years and thousands of hours later, he has successfully transformed Yale Dining into a dynamic, internationally respected hospitality operation.”
Taherian says he believes it is his ability to surround himself with talented people that has led to his success at Yale.
“People like me would not be able to do what we do if other people don’t do it for us,” Taherian says. “As far as your employees and colleagues, I’m always asking myself, ‘What is it they need to be successful?’ From the moment we come to our workplace, we should be looking at how we can do things better in every aspect. By letting my employees explore their talents and follow through on their ideas, they allow themselves to want to be better every day and show their commitment to excellence.”