Ask any foodservice employee on 20,000-student Ball State University’s Muncie, Ind., campus and they’ll tell you Jon Lewis has served them well. As director of dining, Lewis believes if his employees feel valued, they will do the same for their customers. It’s this service-oriented mentality that has led to some very positive changes in Lewis’ three years as director.
“[When I became director] I think we were doing a lot of things right and I think we were providing good service, and yet we were being criticized,” Lewis says. “You’re never going to be perfect, but I thought service was an area that we ought to get right. With this generation of students, we knew eventually the campus would also see the importance of service. So it really just rose to the top as a priority that we needed to work on.”
Remarkable service: To inspire the level of service Lewis wanted, he knew his employees needed to feel their efforts were valued. Thus, the Remarkable Service Award was born.
“Providing remarkable service was good and all, but if you don’t identify the people who exemplify remarkable service then we’re really not taking it full circle,” Lewis says. “So we’re using our quality assurance team, which has been in place for a long time and includes seven students who go out and evaluate our food and report back. We asked that same group to identify people who they think provide remarkable service. Once a month they make a recommendation and then the management team decides which of the recommendations is the best. Then we surprise the employee on the job in front of their colleagues and give them a framed certificate, balloons, flowers and really make a big deal out of it. It is interesting to see the reactions from our staff. We have built a situation where our staff really appreciate getting the recognition, to the point that women break down and cry because they’re so honored.”
The program has been so successful, Lewis says, the university started a similar program called Roll Out the Red. The campus even recognized dining services as an example of a campus department that provides good service. Lewis attributes this reputation to the department’s focus on training.
“We were doing a lot of training, but we decided we’d better work on service,” Lewis says. “We bring all of our staff together for one day of training before school starts. Three years ago, we decided that during that time we would only do service training. We bring in a nationally recognized speaker who talks about service.”
Lewis learned how important service was from his beginning in foodservice. Lewis grew up in a resort community near Benton Harbor, Mich., where he worked in small resorts’ restaurants as a bus boy, cook’s assistant and chef. He graduated from Purdue University’s restaurant/hotel/ institutional management program and moved right into university foodservice with a position at Northern Illinois University. He’s been in university foodservice ever since.
“I thought college foodservice was a pleasant environment to be involved with,” Lewis says. “I thought it would be fun to be in a university environment, and it is.”
Employee feeding: Through his years in the university setting, Lewis knew the importance of keeping his employees happy. One way he knew he could accomplish that was by offering them an employee meal plan.
Lewis says he was surprised when he became director that there was no meal plan option for employees. Employees now get one complimentary meal after working at least six hours.
“Our employees couldn’t enjoy the food unless they paid for it,” Lewis says. “That, to me, was kind of counter intuitive and counter to what I’ve experienced throughout my career. So I lobbied for and instituted an employee meal plan, and now our employees can eat the food they prepare just like at any other restaurant in foodservice.”
This change immediately endeared Lewis to his employees.
“For the past 25 years I had worked for BSU, we had to pay for our food, and it actually discouraged us from eating on campus, “ says Liz Poore, assistant director of operations. “It also wasn’t good that management was eating off campus and not eating the food we were saying was good, healthy and a great value for our customers. Jon has definitely improved the morale and culture of our department and that is why I feel he has been so successful. He is clear about his expectations but not unrealistic. He has high standards and expresses them well.”
Lewis made another big push for meal plans for non-resident students. Lewis says they introduced block meal plans—where students just buy a certain number of meals per semester rather than a certain number of meals per week—in both 75 and 100 blocks as opposed to a traditional five meals a week plan. They also created discounted dining dollar block meal plans where the more you deposit the deeper the discount. For example, if a student buys a $500 plan, they get a 16% discount and only pay $420, but still get the $500 in value. For a $100 plan, the discount is 8%, a $200 plan, the discount is 10% and so on.
“We have increased our non-resident meal plan participation from 180 three years ago to 370 this year. We took a look at the non-resident meal plans and made some changes to make them more attractive, and as a result our numbers have increased dramatically, but the truth is those plans were priced way too high. So we lowered the price and the number of meals and now we’re selling more because students are willing to invest in those because it’s not as much commitment.”
Concept crusade: In Lewis’ short time at Ball State he has developed more than five restaurant concepts including The Bookmark Café, a library coffee shop with pastries, sandwiches and salads; The Retreat, a faculty and staff restaurant that is open to students for dinner; and Out of Bounds, a market and grill that features grab-and-go items. However, Lewis is currently focusing his efforts on bringing more national brands to campus.
“We want a stronger portfolio of national brands,” Lewis says. “This fall, we opened a Taco Bell and a franchised Starbucks, which I know a lot of people have done but here it’s still kind of a novelty. We’re also opening a Jamba Juice and a Quiznos within a year. There has been a big demand for that. We’ve done market research and listed out the preferred brands and, regardless of what people think, students still strongly prefer national brands. We decided if they want them, we’re going to give them to them. Even though there is a commission involved, we price it in a way that we can still make it reasonable. Rather than argue about nutrition, these national brands are what they want. We have enough nutritious food elsewhere on campus.”
Lucas Miller, manager of menu development and the test kitchen, says it is Lewis’ willingness to think outside the box and give students and employees what they want that makes him an effective director.
“I’d say that he’s innovative,” Miller says. “He’s willing to bring in new ideas and at the same time he’s good at balancing that with financial health of the business. We are constantly renovating. He is innovative with developing concepts whether it’s national or one we come up with on our own. He’s always willing to make sure we’re meeting the needs of our students because those are always changing, while still making sure we’re financially healthy.”
One area where Lewis has improved food quality is by increasing the culinary talent in each operation.
“In some locations where we had one culinary trained person, now we have two,” Lewis says. “Rather than hire a manager and try to teach them food, we’re doing the reverse as much as we can by hiring food people and teaching them the business part of it. It is kind of turning the whole philosophy on its head. We’re showcasing the chefs. Whenever we can, we feature chefs in the pictures or promotions so that our customers can get used to the fact that we’re not using untrained cooks, we’re focusing on the higher-end culinary.”
With all these changes, Poore says Lewis has only had a positive impact on the dining team at Ball State.
“Jon has lifted the dining department to a new level of service and brought much needed change and inspiration,” Poore says. “We meet every two weeks at a scheduled time to touch base on projects and assigned tasks, so it is great to have that time to share where we are on things, and I can always count on a few laughs from him as well. It is amazing how relaxed yet focused the team has all become in working alongside Jon, and speaking for myself, I am grateful and appreciative."