For two decades, Dennis Pierce has been a big part of the success of
the University of Connecticut’s Dining Services program. But until two
years ago, Pierce always worked in the shadow of other directors—first,
Len Hodgson and then Gerald Weller.
Since 2006, however, he has had the opportunity to leave his own stamp on UConn Dining, and he is making the most of it. He has begun reorganizing the department to give it a greater culinary focus and to better provide for the needs of Dining Services employees. Renovations have brought more retail units onto campus and menus are being tweaked to respond to student demand for more ethnicity, more health and more convenience.
A state university in the heart of Connecticut serving 20,000 undergraduate students, UConn has a massive dining program. A $34-million budget covers nine residential dining units, five retail outlets and a $4-million catering department. A team of 300 full-time employees and 700 student workers operates this machine, which includes, among other things, a full kosher kitchen in one of the residence facilities.
Pierce became the director in 2006 with the retirement of Gerald Weller, and he has been reimaging the program ever since. A major piece of Dining Services’s rebirth has been the hiring of Rob Landolphi as culinary operations manager.
“Rob’s job is to bring us to higher standards,” says Pierce. “We want to upgrade our menus to improve quality and make ethnic selections more authentic. We also want to build our culinary training. Rob has the enthusiasm and knowledge to make those things happen.”
The department is taking a similar tack with catering, Pierce adds, and is currently conducting a national search for a catering director.
“The last piece will be to bring in an HR director,” he notes. “Eighty percent of my employees are not state employees. So I have pensions, insurance, workers’ comp and payroll, and I need someone to manage that.”
Retail mindset: On the facilities side, the department has enhanced retail foodservice offerings on campus, by installing a six-station food court in the Student Union last year, called Union Street Market. The stations include Fireside Rotisserie, Pompeii Oven and the Good Earth.
In one of those stations, Market Express, as well as other retail venues across the campus, Dining Services has begun marketing a line of healthy items called Spa Foods.
Spa Foods was developed by Dining Services last summer after studying menus offered at various spa resorts. Pierce says Spa Foods was created in response to students’ desire for healthful food that could be carried out.
“This began as a thought at my kitchen sink as I was washing dishes,” Pierce explains. “So we got our think tank together and said, ‘okay, now how can we make this happen?’”
Some examples of Spa Foods are the Fruity Tuna Wrap, which is lemon curried tuna, red grapes, sliced almonds and dried cranberries in a wheat wrap; Citrus Bean Salad, made up of black beans, red kidney beans and chick peas tossed in a citrus vinaigrette with mandarin oranges, and Turkey Wrap with Honeyed Apple Cabbage, which contains sliced Granny Smith apples, marinated with a honey vinaigrette, tossed with shredded cabbage and wrapped in a wheat wrap with thinly sliced turkey breast. Most of the items contain less than 300 calories and as little as two calories from fat.
Pierce also has brought the first convenience store to the UConn campus, also in the Student Union. He plans to add three more units across campus, including one that will be built in an apartment complex that houses many Asian students. That c-store, he explains, will feature all Asian specialties.
“We think it will make those students feel more comfortable in the community, and they won’t have to go all the way to Hartford to buy Asian products,” Pierce says.
The resident student experience is also being enhanced under Pierce’s guidance. Landolphi teaches a one-credit course called the First Year Experience, in which students learn basic cooking skills, how to grocery shop and how to follow a nutritious diet. This year, a unique “guest chef” program was created in Towers dining facility. Once a month, up to 25 students get to dine with a campus chef. The unique aspect is that they help to prepare the meal they will eat.
New England restaurant scene: Like many of his contemporaries, Pierce got his introduction to foodservice by funding his college education working in various New England restaurants. After graduating from St. Joseph’s College in Maine, he took a job with the Seiler Corp. During his brief tenure there, he worked at several Seiler accounts, including the University of Hartford, Simmons College and Bridgton Academy.
He then worked for 10 years at the University of Delaware, until his father died in 1985 and he returned to New England. He took a job as a general manager at Dartmouth College. Two years later, he landed the assistant director’s post at UConn. Over the years, Pierce has established himself not only at UConn, but within the university foodservice world at large. As an active member of the National Association of College & University Food Services for 24 years, Pierce was its president in 1998—a position held by his former boss, Len Hodgson, 20 years earlier.
With 18 years as an assistant under Hodgson and Weller, one might assume that Pierce stepped right into the role of director when Weller retired. That was hardly the case, however. Instead, the university embarked on a national search for a replacement.
“This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Pierce recalls. “I was applying for my own job, so to speak, because as associate director I already was responsible for most of the department—everything except catering and retail.”
What was even more uncomfortable was that, as part of the process, Pierce had to be interviewed by a group of his own employees and sell them on why they should have him promoted. He says he believes he won the job in part because he came to the interview armed with a five-year plan for revamping the department and upgrading the culinary program. Incidentally, six months ago, Pierce and his team drafted a new mission statement and created a new five-year plan.
Change inevitable, growth optional: Pierce says that change in college foodservice is not only inevitable, it is mandatory, because its customer base is changing in so many ways. One way, of course, is in its diversity.
“Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that our customers are so diverse that there no longer is a category of ‘comfort’ foods,” he suggests. “What is comfort to one person is not what is comfort for someone else. As a result, our dining halls have become almost like a seven-day-a-week theme meal.”
Another customer change that college foodservice has to take into account is the increase in food allergies, a fact he attributes to the use of processed foods in today’s society.
“We are not a hospital,” he notes. “We are not built like a hospital. But we have become very adept at meeting a variety of dietary needs. More important, there is an expectation now that you have to provide this. So we have to consider a whole host of allergens as we plan menus and write recipes.”
Sustainability is yet another issue for Pierce and his staff to deal with. He explains that although the university “has taken a hard look at being very good stewards of the environment,” the process has been a series of small steps because “there are not yet a lot of resources or authorities out there on sustainability.” But his department is evaluating all equipment purchases to ensure that they are getting the most energy-efficient and “green” equipment. Buying local and organic is another aspect that Dining Services is eager to embrace, despite “cost and distribution” issues.
Finally, the university is building a composting area, to which Dining Services will contribute enormously. The resulting fertilizer will be used by the university and offered to the surrounding community as well.
“This is an area in which we’ve come full circle,” Pierce points out, “because we were doing this real big back in the 1980s, and then it waned.”
However, as much as Pierce embraces change, he acknowledges that sometimes the “old ways” are best. That is why when students walk into a residence hall dining unit such as Towers, they will find more than 20 varieties of cereal not in the ubiquitous clear plastic dispensers but in their original boxes.
“That is something that Len Hodgson did, and it works,” says Pierce. “I don’t know of another university that does this, and I don’t want to tell you how much more I spend on cereal because of it. But the students like it because they know exactly what they are getting, and I won’t change it.”