Russ Meyer: Powerful Persuader

Now, Meyer and the university are in the planning stages of two major projects for the new Student Union slated to open in fall 2007 and a new Knowledge Center (a library) complete with coffee shop offering espresso beverages and grab-and-go items, due to open in fall 2008. "So there's been a big shift in thinking, planning ahead for foodservice," he says. "We were never on the radar screen in new buildings. You have to work with all the different campus entities to make it happen."

Numbers up: At UNR, all freshmen living on campus are required to have a meal plan, and about 85% of on-campus residents are freshmen. This fall, there were 1,750 students on meal plans. Just two years ago, prior to the opening of new facilities, only about 1,300 were on meal plans. "We've also increased the number of upper classmen who live on campus, especially about 225 sophomores, juniors and seniors in a newer, apartment-style facility," Meyer explains.

The dining facility that opened in 2003 occupies space in Argenta Hall, a 30,000-square-foot residence complex completed in 2003 (phase one opened in 2000). The lobby of the building is 1-1/2 stories above ground with the dining facilities beneath, (thus the name Downunder Cafe and Food Court, or DC). A c-store (D-C-Store), kitchen facilities and loading dock are nearby.

"At the D-C-Store, we allow a meal transfer (swipe) for a burger, fries, salad and beverage combo," Meyer reports. "We're doing about $15,000-to-$16,000 a week. Our numbers for transfer transactions are about half our total transactions in the DC Store, which is open until 1 a.m."

More options, greater speed: In the DC, the menu provides multiple options within a marketplace format. Although food costs have not been appreciably reduced, the intent was to increase cash sales from faculty, staff and non-resident students, as well as to entice students without meal plans to want to sign up. The wide array of stations (including a grill, pizza, deli bars, Comfort Carvery, Mongolian BBQ, Bread, Broth and Beyond, paninis) can be opened or closed depending on traffic patterns.

Since The Overlook foodcourt opened about a-year-and-a-half ago in the Jot Travis Student Union, total retail sales, campus-wide, are up 18% to 19%. In that location (previously two smaller facilities within the same building remodeled into a foodcourt) sales are up about 24%. The Overlook features Mandalay Express, Mondo Subs, Coyote Jacks Grill, Sbarro Pizza, Outtakes, Freshens, and We Proudly Brew Starbucks.

Both DC and Overlook were designed to give customers as much circulation space as possible, Meyer points out. "We scrunched the back of the house,"he explains, "then did simple things such as replacing the old dial-up credit card machines with high-speed machines so it takes only a couple of seconds to move people through. We can get them in and get them food with more points of sale, plus the technology part is there to move them out."

"That 24% increase (in Overlook) is due to popularity because there are more options and there's always space to get another person into the servery, so it's not just one thing but a series of considered decisions."

Meyer finds it hard to compare growth year-to-year, since so many changes have been made. Having worked the master plan to arrive where he and the department are now, he expects some re-prioritizing will be in order. For example, one facility in the Student Services building has caught his attention. Operating in cramped quarters and with fairly flat sales this year (a time when everything else on campus is up double digits) he figures it's due for a facelift.

Casino competition: Meyer is also working hard to increase catering sales which stand at about half a million dollars annually (that's less than 10% of the department's revenue). "We're constrained by the dollars allowed per department," he says. "And the competition for off-campus dollars is stiff, casinos are pretty neat places to have events."

"But of the events we do, many are high profile and account for 90% of our image with important campus administrators," he continues.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Meyer, who'll become president of the National Association of College and University Food Services this summer, now lives 13 miles from work. But 13 miles in the other direction the ski area beckons. Each morning this avid skier finds he must make a decision. But especially in this 13th year on the job, when Center of Excellence status has been achieved, he consistently heads for his uplifting job instead of the lifts to those slippery slopes.

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