Randy Lait: The business of hospitality

Published in FSD Update

Randy Lait has transformed dining at North Carolina State University by leading the development and construction of 16 new campus dining units.

By Megan Warmouth, Associate Editor

At a Glance

  • 34,000 enrollment
  • $34 million foodservice budget
  • 32,000 meals served daily
  • 600 foodservice employees
  • 9,100 students on meal plan

Accomplishments

Randy Lait has transformed dining at North Carolina State University by:

  • Leading the development and construction of 16 new campus dining units
  • Applying business acumen to hospitality services in order to increase program efficiencies and improve the department’s bottom line
  • Overhauling the menu management system to ensure accurate ingredient and nutrition data from recipe development to point of sale
  • Hiring culinary, nutrition and recipe development staff to elevate the campus dining experience

When you’ve been an employee at the same place for more than 30 years, you’re bound to see a lot of change. You leave an impact on the workplace when you are the driving force behind those changes. Such is the case with Randy Lait at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. In his 30 years with the university, Lait has reorganized the department, transformed retail dining and cut costs while increasing services.

Though he planned to study computer programming, Lait worked his way up the department’s ranks from student employee to dining unit manager and eventually to business manager, discovering the ins and outs as he went. “The foodservice thing just came about as they needed somebody to work and I needed a job,” Lait explains. “I switched my major to economics and I ended up getting two degrees, one in economics and one in business management. And I kept working with dining and then they had a job opening when I finished [school] and I was fortunate enough to be selected for that.”

The retirement of both his boss and his boss’s boss, after each put in their own 30-plus years, opened the door for Lait to step into the director’s role. With that step came reorganization of the department, first on an administrative level with the establishment of a new auxiliary services division and then with the rejuvenation of the hospitality services department. “There was an ambitious new plan to develop new foodservice and to remodel existing foodservice and to really shake things up,” Lait explains. “So it was a great opportunity to take a department and also have a semi-blank canvas for the new operation.”

Transformation

While Lait felt that he had acquired a number of business skills that would be beneficial to successfully lead the department, “I also felt like I lacked some things,” he admits. “I lacked the true culinary skill and that food knowledge to take things to the next level.” But he knew that you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, so he set out to hire people who could fill those gaps. “I knew we wanted to have better food [and a] better customer experience for our campus, so [I] took a group of people who were very hard-working, dedicated people and added to them new folks who were more culinary minded and really started to change how we planned these new operations.”

“Randy’s basically a businessman,” explains Lisa Eberhart, R.D., dietitian for university dining. “He looks at it from a very business [perspective]: are we going to make money, are we going to serve the students, how’s this going to work for us. He really realized that when he took over, ‘OK, I’m a businessman, but I don’t really know food that well,’ and so he’s tried to surround himself with people who knew food, which has been really nice because we’re all really similar in our focus of wanting NC State to be the best.”

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