GINNIE DUNLEAVY has revolutionized dining services at the RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN by:
• TRANSITIONING dining services from contracted to self-op, which increased cash revenue by 300% and meal plan participation from 58% to 86%
• FOCUSING on building relationships by training her staff to understand the unique demands of the RISD student
• SHOWING ingenuity by connecting with students who are working on projects that align with dining services’ mission
• DESIGNING a program based on embracing community, common sense and a high-risk, high-reward mentality such as allowing unlimited dining access to first-year students
Of all the things to come out of a chaotic situation, creativity wouldn’t seem to be at the top of the list. But that is exactly what Ginnie Dunleavy has been able to do as director of dining at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Dunleavy was able to take a program that was reeling from a switch from contract to self-op and turn it into a program that, since she came to RISD in 2005, has increased cash revenue by 300% and meal plan participation from 58% to 86%.
“Part of that just shows how bad it was,” Dunleavy says with a laugh. “RISD dining had been struggling for a year to get footing after they decided they didn’t want to be outsourced. I was working at Brown University and RISD asked me to come consult. I did a couple of presentations and then they were like, ‘can you just come run the program?’ The first thing that I did was put down a road map with our mission, our vision and our values. It may sound corny, but I have been here six years and we talk about those things all the time.”
It is to those values that Dunleavy attributes all her accomplishments. David May, assistant vice president for business affairs at the University of New Hampshire, a close colleague to Dunleavy, agrees.
“When I think about Ginnie the words cheerleader, coach and mentor come to mind,” May says. “She strives to motivate her team to greatness. You can see this from the core values her department is committed to: relationships, ingenuity, sustainability and design. She recognizes that dining’s role is as more than just a place to eat; it’s a place where friendships are forged.”
Relationships: Dunleavy recognizes the unique situation that is RISD, and teaching her staff to understand what the art and design school is all about is a big factor in helping them build relationships with each other and the students.
“We are a studio-based, critique society,” Dunleavy says. “When I came from Brown I thought it was going to be the same experience but it’s very different. We brought the president and faculty members in to explain to our staff what it means for these students to be in studio for six hours. When a kid comes in and they are cranky and covered in charcoal, we need our staff to have some empathy. We brought our staff to the senior grad show so they [would be] exposed to our students’ work. I really believe that having our staff understand this environment is really important because it is unique.”
The focus on relationships also feeds into the department’s internal employee training.
“I think we do an incredible job with employee training,” Dunleavy says. “We do two all-employee trainings a year. The last one we did was kind of a Myers-Briggs-type one for everyone about how do you talk to people and how do people listen to you and what’s the perception you give off? A lot of our students were rock star artists in high school. When they come to RISD, they are no longer the rock stars. So our staff needs to provide a real grounding.”
Ingenuity: Building relationships with students segues into the next of Dunleavy’s values, in that she takes her cues about how to be creative from working with her students, rather than them working for her.
“It’s funny because people always say, ‘oh, your stuff must be so cool since you are at an art school,’ but no. It’s like the dentist with bad teeth. We can’t get anyone to design us a poster. What I think I’ve had really good success with is taking advantage of some of the student initiatives. If we want to do something, it’s sometimes harder to get students to do it for us. But if we can tap into what a student is already interested in then we can go in their draft and have great success for our program.”
One example of this process occurred when Dunleavy found a graduate student who wanted to do a project focusing on the fact that dining used paper disposables. As a result of the student’s project the department introduced a recycling program and a reusable container program.
“We also had a graphic design student who wanted to know what was on the menu without checking the website,” Dunleavy says. “The student worked with our team to create a prototype and then we launched an app this year.”
Sustainability: Dunleavy employed a similar tactic to enhance some of her sustainability initiatives.
“We had another student who was passionate about composting,” Dunleavy says. “We had a composting program so we took her along to Providence Composting. She ended up meeting with an inventor/designer and the two of them collaborated on a beta project that brings large-scale composting to Rhode Island. We have been a beta site for a year.
Being a beta site we have all the challenges that go with that. We are very committed to working through those challenges because it’s a part of that student’s education.”
Dunleavy says sustainability was one of the things she was eager to improve after arriving from Brown, where she was involved in the dining department’s initiatives, especially local purchasing.
“The first core value is relationships, and that extends to the community,” Dunleavy says. “We buy local. Vendors are coming in all the time to teach us. We take local to the effect of we serve local soda. We don’t have it as a flat percentage of our purchases that are local, but we are moving toward being more sustainable than not.”
Design: The final value is the one that would seem most obvious for RISD Dining, but it’s one that often doesn’t come naturally to foodservice directors. Dunleavy has been able to design a program that is based on high-risk, high-reward endeavors such as offering unlimited meal access to first-year students.
“Our first-year students have to take a very intense foundation year that is studio-based,” Dunleavy says. “Those students were having a challenge on our meal plan because they were so busy. I finally said, ‘We’re going to offer unlimited access to first-years.’ Their program is so intense people were like, ‘are they going to abuse it?’ But they are so busy it’s just not a factor. Others were like, ‘are they going to give it to their friends?’ And I was like, ‘it’s their first year. They don’t have any friends.’ My point is to have this common-sense approach to solve these problems.”
Dunleavy says her team is always asking how they can make getting food on campus easier. A great example of how the department designed a solution to that problem came about when the financial crisis hit and the department was told to reduce its hours to cut costs.
“When that happened we decided to get a food truck [Rosie],” Dunleavy says. “We were going to compress our hours in all these places, but we were going to do it with less labor and have our late-night service provided by a food truck. We are always looking at what’s a creative solution? How can we be proactive against challenges?” [For more on Rosie, RISD’s food truck, click here.]
Another uncommon approach to the RISD Dining program is the fact that all its operations are open to the public. Since the Providence campus is in an urban area, Dunleavy says it made sense to structure the program as more café-based.
“The public doesn’t even realize that Jolly Roger [a popular sandwich shop] is run by RISD Dining,” Dunleavy says. “That was another change that came with me—this idea of embracing a business model that says we are a part of our community, whatever that community may be. I think before [I came here] the department might have just seen themselves as serving the academic community, but I see it as serving the Providence community.”