Gold Plate winner Rafi Taherian's secrets to success

The head of foodservice operations at Yale University was chosen Saturday for the prestigious foodservice honor.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

By 
Dana Moran, Managing Editor

rafi taherian

Just days after accepting the 2016 Golden Plate, Yale Hospitality Associate Vice President Rafi Taherian was back on the stage.

Taherian chronicled the changes in foodservice during the New Haven, Conn., university’s 300-year history at Monday’s noncommercial conference segment of the National Restaurant Association show. While changes in college dining were relatively unexciting for decades, he said, a real “Big Bang” happened in the 1980s, driven by the quality of available chefs, new technology and the demands of ever-maturing diners.

"We own the space for innovations right now," he told the audience Monday, adding that while in the past, college dining fell in the shadow of chain restaurants, “Now, they would never take their dates to Sizzler!”

Taherian himself has been a huge part of that “Big Bang,” taking over Yale Dining in 2008 as it moved from contract management to self-operated. “It was very unusual at the time for a college foodservice to be brought back under the management of the institution,” Taherian said in a Yale News release, “and it was also extremely challenging.” The transition, he explains in the release, required building a team to provide operational leadership, purchasing, menu development, culinary quality assurance, finance and business administration, communication and facility design—while convincing the university community that the new foodservice system would be an improvement.

The university—and its students—seem to be convinced. Programs from Final Cut, an annual “Top Chef”-style undergraduate competition, to The Foodie Program, which invites world-class chefs to cook for Yale students, have become tradition. As Taherian said Monday, "The notion of comfort food has not changed, but the definition has changed." So in 2015, Yale Hospitality sourced all grass-fed beef and lamb, and purchases of plant-based proteins are up 40 percent over the past five years. Taherian, who serves more than 14,000 meals per day at Yale Hospitality’s 32 campus locations, said Monday the university environment allows him freedoms that traditional restaurant operators just don’t have.

"We have the room to take risks, since we have a captive audience for four years," he told the audience of his student diners. If a trendy grain salad gets screwed up one day, chefs can tweak it and bring it back the next day—students will keep coming.

Taherian was chosen for the Gold Plate, the equivalent of Operator of the Year, from among the nine foodservice executives who were adjudged the best within their respective channels. Those segment standouts, the winners of a Silver Plate, included:

  • Diane Imrie, University of Vermont Medical Center, healthcare feeding
  • Jeff Denton, Ponca City, Fla., public schools, elementary and secondary schools
  • Mike Barclay, Southern Foodservice Management, business and industry
  • Rick Abramson, Delaware North, specialty foodservice
  • Steve Carley, CEO of Red Robin, winner of the full-service restaurant category
  • Charlie Morrison, CEO of Wingstop, limited service
  • Thom Sehnert, founder-proprietor of Annie Gunn’s and Smokehouse Market, independent restaurants

Winners of the Gold and Silver Plates were chosen by a jury that included past winners and the editors of foodservice publications. The selection group included Peter Romeo, representing FoodService Director and Restaurant Business magazines.

The Silver Plate winners were recognized in a gala event that coincides with the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago.

Taherian was named FoodService Director’s 2013 Foodservice Director of the Year, and also received the Yale University Ivy Award in April for “his tireless commitment to feed the New Haven community by buying local and supporting local businesses and nonprofits,” according to a Yale News release.

Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA, announced that begining next year the NRA will partner with the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association, which presents the Silver and Gold Plate Awards, to sponsor an Industry Legends Award that will be given out during the 2017 IFMA Gold and Silver Plate Awards Celebration. “Our goal is to create an award that will recognize an individual’s lifetime contributions to the advancement of the culinary industry and recognize extraordinary restaurateurs that have indelibly changed the landscape,” said Sweeney. 

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

In a bid to beef up its presence in sports arenas and a variety of other large venues, Sodexo will acquire foodservice vendor Centerplate for $675 million.

Sodexo says the deal, which is expected to be finalized by the end of this year, will more than double its global footprint.

Centerplate, which serves as the foodservice operator for a number for stadiums, convention halls and other event spaces, brought in revenues of $998 million for the year ending June 2017, according to Sodexo. Centerplate was purchased five years ago by Olympus Partners, a private-equity company...

Menu Development
eggs

Loyola University Maryland took a new approach to all-day breakfast with an egg-focused concept.

Breakfast options were top of mind for students when asked what they would like to see on the menu at the university’s revamped Boulder Garden Cafe. Instead of creating an all-day breakfast station, however, the Baltimore-based dining team went beyond traditional options and created a concept that services all mealparts with eggs.

“It can be somewhat mundane,” says Executive Chef Don Crowther on why the team strayed away from the trendy all-day breakfast. At the eatery’s Sunny...

Industry News & Opinion

The University of Kansas has added a retail pass that allows students to purchase one to-go combo meal per day at cafes and markets on campus, the University Daily Kansan reports.

The pass is available on two different meal plans and is geared toward on-the-go students who don’t have the time to sit down and eat at a residence hall.

“It has increased the participation rate,” Jamie Reed, a service assistant for the school’s dining services, told the University Daily Kansan.

Over 1,800 students have used the pass since its debut at the beginning of the semester....

Industry News & Opinion

The University of Minnesota dining team has created a vegan student group in an effort to improve the school’s vegan offerings, Minnesota Daily reports.

The group was created by the school’s foodservice vendor, Aramark, and its campus sustainability coordinator, who is vegan, after receiving numerous complaints from students about the lack of vegan options on campus.

The group will this week host its first meeting, during which members will be able to share feedback and provide solutions to help enhance the school’s vegan offerings. Members will also keep a photo journal...

FSD Resources