HELEN WECHSLER has transformed the dining services department at BOSTON COLLEGE by:
• ENCOURAGING the use of local and healthy products by creating a farmers' market, opening a locally focused location called The Loft @ Addie's and a vegetarian concept called Be'an Green
• IMPROVING department communication by establishing an employee council and improving the monthly employee newsletter
• DEVELOPING a Gold Standards of Service program and a Shoot for the Stars incentive program to motivate employees
• SPEARHEADING an employee wellness initiative and implementing a new training program
Helen Wechsler, Boston CollegeHelen Wechsler wants her staff to be engaged on every level. As director of BC Dining at 14,700-student Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., Wechsler knows that a happy staff makes for happy customers.
“Helen has a great management style in that she respects her team for their knowledge and experience and lets us do our job,” says Megan O’Neill, associate director for restaurant operations. “Helen leads by example but is also not afraid to say when something is not her expertise. She is very open with her feedback and is genuine when she says thank you.”
Since becoming director in 2005, Wechsler’s many initiatives have increased revenue from $25.4 million to $39 million, a growth factor of 53.5%. While she admits some of this increase is due to inflation, the rest is attributable to new business for the department.
Focus on local: One of the initiatives that Wechsler is most proud of is the department’s weekly farmers’ market.
“We partnered with one of our produce purveyors and they bring the produce from the local farms to us and we set up our own farmers’ market,” Wechsler says. “Our students are allowed to use their mandatory meal plan to buy food from the market. It’s new money. It’s trying to promote and educate students about local food. We run it for the first eight weeks of fall.”
Wechsler says the department has been able to bring the market’s local philosophy into the rest of the department, most overtly through a local-focused café called The Loft @ Addie’s.
“When we were developing our farmers’ market a group of students from the Real Food Challenge—a student organization—came to us and demanded a local operation on campus,” Wechsler says. “For the whole summer a group of about five students, myself and my purchasing person got together and worked out what the philosophy of the location was going to be and set out to write a menu that fit. We ended up with The Loft @ Addie’s.”
The Loft @ Addie’s is a dinner-only location that offers flatbread pizzas, housemade veggie burgers, flatbread sandwiches, custom-made salads, soups and desserts. All menu items are locally sourced and “reflect the mission of the concept to provide local and sustainable food options at reasonable prices,” according to BC Dining’s website.
“We wanted to have a venue for students to come and really understand what it means to eat in a very different manner,” Wechsler says. “All the students from Real Food work behind the line so they are able to articulate the story of the local items.”
Another challenge the department faced was vegetarians. To answer the demand for veggie options, the department opened a completely vegetarian concept called Be’an Green last year.
“When you come into our operations we have lots of options for vegetarians, they are just not overt,” Wechsler says. “We came up with Be’an Green where we took the best vegetarian options from each of our concepts and put them all into one.”
Staff engagement: Beyond what she has brought to the department’s food is what Wechsler has done to make her employees happier and more satisfied. This philosophy seems to be working, as the department’s seven-year retention rate is 60%.
“I have an incredible group of people that I work with who are very talented,” Wechsler says. “These are very challenging times as a business that is not the primary business of the institution and as a self-operator. I think the things we’ve done with our people and for our people have actually made us stronger.”
One of the most impactful things Wechsler has done was form an employee council. Once a month Wechsler and her management team meets with the council, which is made up of 15 or 16 employees from each location.
“Every operation within my department is represented,” Wechsler says. “They can bring up anything from the that cart hasn’t been fixed to how are we communicating.”
To improve communications Wechsler says the department revitalized its employee newsletter.
“We produce the newsletter about six times per year,” Wechsler says. “Everyone contributes—I write the front page, my associate directors write articles and general managers in every operation write articles or interview an employee.”
During the last year Wechsler says she had a personal transformation around health and wellness that led her to want to do the same for her staff.
“I lost a lot of weight and got my health together,” Wechsler says. “I looked at statistics about medical costs and people being absent and I thought we needed to do something about the health of our employees. We started a voluntary program called Step Up to Wellness. We have 205 FTE and 160 joined. We went into the locations and we said this is all about walking so we’re going to have a competition. We gave them all pedometers and employees kept track of how much they walked and turned it in every week.”
Wechsler says out of the 160 who started, more than 100 finished the program. She says the program encouraged people to keep things simple—take a 10-minute walk during your 15-minute break. At the end of the semester the team had to decide where they wanted to take the program next. By asking employees, the team found that members wanted more information on healthy eating.
“Our executive dietitian and I went out into the units and did these 15-minute little sessions about nutrition in all the operations,” Wechsler says. “I can’t walk through a unit without someone talking to me about it.”
Gold standard: Wechsler says one big staffing challenge she encountered was trying to convey her vision for the department.
“My role is to give the vision of the department and talk about where we are going,” Wechsler says. “I kept hearing, ‘How do I fit in?’ As a leader of the department I was like, ‘how come no one gets it?’ So we developed the Gold Standards of Service, which spells out our vision and our values.”
There are 12 gold standards. The standards cover everything from how the employees talk to each other to how they serve their customers.
“We came up with a credo to define employees’ roles: ‘To demonstrate through every action or commitment concerning care for each and every individual. I do this daily with pride, purpose, respect, integrity, dedication and enthusiasm.’”
As a result of the Gold Standards of Service, the department came up with 411 meetings, which are quick meetings that happen throughout the day to update everyone on what’s going on.
“We struggled with how to communicate within operations when your workday spans 18 hours,” Wechsler says. “The manager holds the 411 right at the time clock. Before these meetings people wouldn’t know whom they were working with or who the manager on duty was.”
Another important initiative for the department was the Shoot for the Stars incentive program, which focuses on three key areas: absenteeism, food cost and sales.
“We started an incentive program called Shoot for the Stars where all the operations compete in those categories,” Wechsler says. “At the end of every semester, a unit wins and they are each awarded a $50 bill. They are competing not only with each other but also against themselves, so the better they do the harder it is to top it.”
Training: Wechsler admits another issue for her department was training. When she became director new employees would come in and be thrown right in because everyone was so busy.
The training program starts with hiring. Once an employee is hired he or she goes to a training unit where he or she works with a trainer for two weeks. During those two weeks the new employee doesn’t just do the job for which he or she was hired, but works an entire round in the operation so he or she gets the entire picture. Wechsler says the department trained hourly employees as trainers.
“Each day you are with a trainer so you learn best practices,” Wechsler says. “When those two weeks are over the employee goes to the unit he or she was hired in and is paired up with a peer who is the same level, and he or she trains for a week with the peer.”
Management training follows the same system although the managers train for six weeks and they go to every operation. Wechsler says this works well because she had managers who had been with the department for years and had never been to every location. The managers in training do everything from cashiering to cooking.
“Before they ask someone to do something like put milk in the milk machine, they know what it’s like,” Wechsler says. “They know what receiving is like and they know where a receiving record is kept. That’s something I’m really proud of.”