Rafi Taherian: Making Memories

Rafi Taherian’s commitment to excellence has brought Yale back to self-op from contract.

Accomplishments

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.” 

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
leftovers containers

We use our Menu Forward idea to empower staff to develop menu items and keep leftovers in check. Product left at the end of service may be claimed by any station to become part of a new item within six weeks. I’m happy to see my star team fighting for their ideas and products; the benefit to food cost is spot-on, and my freezer has no mystery items lurking in the corner.

Ideas and Innovation
food allergy

When potential students come to campus, we match them with a student from our allergy support group for a tour of our dining facilities. The ambassador helps the potential student to understand how they navigated campus with their food allergy. This showcases what we do for allergies on campus, and is a highly successful way to make the students feel good about dining.

Menu Development
muse school produce

Kayla Webb, executive chef at Muse School, has transitioned the private K-12 day school in Calabasas, Calif., to an entirely vegan menu over a three-year period. Webb talks about her menuing, and how the school’s kitchen earned the title of “greenest restaurant in the world” from the Green Restaurant Association.

Q: How did you help parents get used to the idea of an all plant-based diet?

A: The first year, we didn’t announce it. We were just serving one plant-based meal a week, so it wasn’t that drastic. We do monthly Muse Talks where we invite different speakers to our school to...

Ideas and Innovation
lettuce dirt

Savor at McCormick Place developed the Green Thumb brand for menu items and products featuring its rooftop bounty; the latest is a pale ale made with the first crop of hops grown on the roof. Promoting that branding and the convention center’s green certification has brought in business from groups with a sustainability focus.

FSD Resources