GARY COYLE has improved dining services at WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY by:
• CREATING brand recognition for WSU Dining Services
• SPEARHEADING the renovation of Southside Café and improving menu diversity
• IMPLEMENTING a comprehensive well-being program called Eat Well, Be Active, Live Fit
• DEVELOPING sustainability initiatives including switching to compostable serviceware and fostering the use of local products
Gary Coyle is a man with time on his hands, courtesy of a 70-minute commute to his job as director of dining services at 17,700-student Washington State University. During that daily drive to Pullman from his home in Spokane, Coyle says, his mind reels with so many ideas about improving his department that his staff sometimes wishes he didn’t have so much time to think things over.
“I get so many ideas during my commute,” Coyle says, “my staff is threatening to take my car keys away.”
Despite the fear of a staff “intervention,” Coyle says his daily musings feed perfectly into his management style.
“I’m all about being proactive and getting back to the basics,” Coyle says. “We need to listen to our customers and anticipate what their wants and needs are. I also believe in the idea of management by walking around. I tell my managers to walk from the front of the building where the customers enter, and learn to walk the same path that the customers do. I want them to continue to monitor their operations to ensure that what they expect is actually happening—inspect what you expect.”
Becoming a brand: One area where Coyle has put his proactive philosophy into action is in creating a brand for WSU Dining Services. Coyle says when he arrived at WSU in December of 2007 he found a department that was “very scattered.” Coyle says the previous management had had each dining center operating independently.
“There are good and bad things about that,” Coyle says. “When I got here I started seeing that the teams weren’t working together. So I started the process of creating brand recognition for our department [as a way to create unity]. I looked at the university’s mission statement and realized that we needed to have our own mission statement. I brought the team together to think about what our business is. Through that process we defined ourselves as a team that is all about the customer, so we came up with the tagline, ‘making a difference—one customer at a time.’”
To create the actual brand, Coyle brought in a student as his first marketing employee. She helped come up with a logo to create brand recognition.
“Now that we have a brand and mission statement it’s easy to go back to check how we are doing,” Coyle says.
Terry Boston, senior executive director of housing and dining services, says that Coyle’s team approach has helped him achieve success.
“Gary is both engaging and a good communicator, which is critical to having a successful team approach,” Boston says. “His strategic approach to listening to customers and staff allows him to anticipate needs, then implement training and direction setting for successful delivery.”
Another aspect of bringing the team together was getting his team to work more efficiently. When Coyle came to the position and saw each of the dining centers purchasing products separately, he saw an opportunity to consolidate purchasing to save money.
“Our goal was to cut our food costs by about $100,000 [that year],” Coyle says. “We ended up cutting $200,000, and the following year we cut $600,000. We went over what the vendors had to offer and we looked at which products had the best yields. For example, just switching from one brand of salad dressing to another we saved $40,000. We did a lot of testing to make sure it was the right product and that’s what drove all of our cost savings.”
Coyle says he learned many of his purchasing practices when he worked for Sodexo. After attending the University of Montana, where he worked in dining services, Coyle got a job with Saga Corp.
“I thought I’d give it five years and see where it goes,” Coyle says. “I worked in college and healthcare accounts. Next thing I knew I’d worked with them for 31 years—first with Saga, then Marriott, then Sodexo.”
Southside Café: Coyle was also instrumental in the renovation and opening of Southside Café, which is the largest dining hall on campus and is inspired by the Palouse region that surrounds the university. Coyle’s commute served him well in coming up with ideas for the café.
“One of the key things we focused on for Southside was moving everything from the back of the house to the front,” Coyle says. “We created a lot of theater and interaction points. One of the things I wanted to do differently was in regards to the deli. As I make my commute each day I see all these silos. We were trying to come up with ideas for the Southside Café because we wanted it to represent the region that we are in. I thought silos would be an interesting concept with a sandwich. So we developed the Silo sandwich, which stands upright like a silo.”
Menu diversity: Coyle says his team is continually trying to come up with ways to keep customers excited about dining services. The first change he made with regards to the menu was to move from a three-week cycle to an eight-week cycle. Coyle also developed a program called the Passport to Culinary Adventure as pace changer.
“We have a great opportunity in dining with diversity because we are able to bring different foods to our customers,” Coyle says. “We also have a responsibility to teach our customers. Once a month we focus the menu on a certain country. I have our marketing team do research and put up displays about the country while the chefs research authentic recipes. Those recipes are incorporated into our Chef’s Creations platform, so the students get a taste of culinary diversity.”
After a few years offering the Passport to Culinary Adventure, Coyle decided he wanted to bring the focus back to the different regions of the U.S. Now every two weeks the department runs either a Passport event or what is called Destination USA.
“It makes it so something fresh is always happening within our dining program,” Coyle says. “The thing that was gratifying was last year we saw our NACUFS customer satisfaction scores improve dramatically. Out of 23 attributes, 22 of our scores went up.”
Working on wellness: Coyle also has been a driving force behind the department’s Eat Well, Be Active, Live Fit wellness program, which in 2009 NACUFS selected as the most innovative nutrition program award.
“I asked our marketing students to come up with a brand for our nutrition program,” Coyle says. “We came up with this concept of My Nutrition, where our dietitian would also offer information about exercising and food to supplement the online nutrition information aspect. Then we came up with the 500-calorie meal and all the labeling associated with that. A 500-calorie meal has an entrée, a side and a starch. We asked our dietitians to create a standard of what we consider a healthy option.”
Eat Well, Be Active, Live Fit achieved celebrity status when restaurants in downtown Pullman started asking for details about the program. Coyle says because of this interest, the department trademarked the brand and then allowed outside businesses to use the department’s logos.
“That’s been a huge success for us,” Coyle says. “What we are finding is that our students are become more aware of what they eat and so they are pleased that we provide identifiers.”
Sustainability: Coyle says that sustainability has become a major endeavor for the department, especially when it comes to local purchasing.
“One of the biggest things for us in our sustainability initiatives is our work with Shepherd’s Grain flour, which was created at WSU,” Coyle says. “It’s now come full circle because we are now using Shepherd’s Grain for all our bakery products. We’ve also been able to talk to some of our vendors about our work with Shepherd’s Grain. For example, when we opened our Mexican concept, Carlita’s Mexican Grille, we wanted our tortillas to be made with Shepherd’s Grain. So we took a tour in Spokane where we talked to a local family who had just started up a flour tortilla business. We told them about the product, and they made the decision to convert their whole production to use Shepherd’s Grain. It’s great because we are impacting other businesses.”
The department has also made headway in offering compostable disposables in its locations where reusable serviceware is not possible.
“Our goal was that they could drop a tray into a slot and everything that was on the tray was compostable,” Coyle says. “So far we’ve been able to be about 90% with items at that café that are compostable. Another new sustainability initiative is a small organic garden at Southside Café. We’ve always worked with the university’s organic farm to buy produce from them when available. Now we have our own organic garden.”