Jon Plodzik is all about relationships. In his two years as director of dining at 12,450-student University of New Hampshire in Durham, Plodzik says he has worked hard every day to create a culture that fosters close relationships—be it between him and his staff, between his staff and the students or between him and his peers. His passion for his staff is evident by their demeanor—when he walks into an operation, his staff is eager to show off, ask his opinion or just say hi.
“My mission has been about creating a culture where people enjoy coming to work,” Plodzik says. “I want the staff to feel rewarded by being here.
I want them to know that whatever they do, it matters. Everyone knows that we’re in this together and that we care about each other. We’ll stop on a dime to help each other. I believe that breeds intense loyalty.”
David May, assistant vice president of business affairs, agrees that Plodzik’s strength lies in his ability to relate to his staff and make work fun.
“He works hard at developing relationships with his staff and guests,” May says. “He works to bring about change in a collaborative way. He looks to bring fun to the program. Jon has a great passion for service. He is always smiling and encouraging staff to do better. His mantras is, ‘We will be better tomorrow than we were today.’”
Guiding Stars: May says when UNH embarked on a goal to be the healthiest university by 2020, Plodzik’s efforts to implement Guiding Stars, a nutrition labeling program, in the dining halls was a major part of reaching that goal.
“Guiding Stars is used to supplement nutritional labeling by encouraging healthier eating throughout our operations,” May says. “Combining the Guiding Stars rating system with product signage that identifies key information like calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates provides for one of the most complete, simple-to-use nutritional guidance programs available today. As you can imagine, this has been a huge task and has been successful due to Jon’s leadership.”
Plodzik says the program is different than other Guiding Stars programs on college campuses. The program assigns a star rating, out of three, that lets customers know how healthy an item is—three stars means the item is very healthy; zero stars means the item did not meet nutritional rating guidelines. That led to some tricky maneuvering to get all of dining services’s recipes in the system and rated correctly. [For more on Guiding Stars, see our Five Questions for: Jon Plodzik, at foodservicedirector.com]
“Guiding Stars came to us with the idea that they’d like to label our c-store products,” Plodzik says. “I said we should implement the program in the dining hall because if you want to drive Guiding Stars home, that’s where you do it. They hadn’t done it to that level before. We translated our nutritional information into data that Guiding Stars could use. We had a lot of problems with recipes such as questions about why certain items didn’t rate well. For example, we thought our pasta marinara would get a star, but it turned out it had too much sugar in it. Now we are driving the menu around getting the most stars. I think the program is a marked difference for us versus any other dining program in the country.”
Dairy Bar: Another big undertaking for Plodzik came when the Dairy Bar, a campus landmark that also serves as the campus’s train station, was turned over to dining services in 2008.
“We were asked to take over and renovate the Dairy Bar,” May says. “Jon pulled a team together that included faculty, staff and students and created a restaurant that focuses on local, sustainable and fresh food. The operation has been a huge success.”
Plodzik says the Dairy Bar renovation was a challenge because of the state the building was in when it was turned over to the department. The first year after dining services took over the Dairy Bar it earned about $4,000 profit, which Plodzik says is surprising considering all the renovations. This year the Dairy Bar is on track to earn about $15,000 in profit.
“When we took it over it was losing about $90,000 a year,” Plodzik says. “My boss told me we had to break even. Previously, it was a burger and french fries kind of place. We wanted it to be a healthy and sustainable kind of place. It seemed like the perfect venue for us to try out some of the things we couldn’t do in the dining halls. I can’t have organic bread in the dining hall due to price, but I can over there.”
Creating the “wow” factor: Since Plodzik became director two years ago meal plan participation has increased by nearly 11%. However, Plodzik is most proud of the growth in voluntary meal plans. This year roughly 34% of purchased meal plans were voluntary.
“The voluntary plans mean students are buying into the program,” Plodzik says. “The special events help. We used to just do meals for the big holidays. Now we do something special every week. We really want to be creating this ‘wow’ all the time. Staff either rally around that or they hate it. But at the end of the day, they know it makes a difference.”
Ralph Coughenour, director of culinary services, says Plodzik has been the motivator behind several changes to the menu, including the creation of an all-day breakfast concept, which helped increase participation.
“Jon is very much a visionary,” says Coughenour. “He sets the standards and allows us to execute them as we see fit. We have modified many of our concepts so that the food is customized for the students immediately. He has an ability to build a culture of excellence in both the culinary and service departments and he also shows compassion for our associates.”
Plodzik’s passion for his team is palpable. He is quick to credit them for any success the department has had.
“All I can do is spark the passion the staff has in them,” Plodzik says. “I’m not a foodie. If I were cooking, people would scream. They say ‘Jon paints with a big brush,’ but I don’t have the expertise to fill in the dots. My staff gives me a hard time because I was one of them, but I was fortunate enough to be chosen. But I value so much what they do. Students may not appreciate what this staff does for them right now. They may leave UNH without appreciating it. But if they think back to it along the road someday and they think, ‘wow, I had it good,’ then we’ve gotten the ‘wow.’ I’m going to get that ‘wow’ sooner or later.”
Not a foodie: Plodzik’s quest for the “wow” started when he used to sell soda at his brother’s baseball games.
“I was probably 13 or 14 and I would buy the soda and I sold it for a quarter a cup,” Plodzik says. “My bike had all these racks on it so I could carry the soda. That started me in the business. I always loved engaging and talking with people. I never was terribly shy.”
After his adventures selling soda, Plodzik didn’t work in foodservice again until he was a student at UNH, where he worked in dining to pay some of his bills. However, his stint in college dining didn’t convince him it was where he’d spend his career.
“I always thought of myself as being in public relations,” Plodzik says. “I majored in business administration with a minor in psychology. When I graduated I worked for a car rental company. I rented a car one day for a district manager for Marriott Management Services. He was so delighted in the way he and I engaged with each other that he told me I should come interview with Marriott. Marriott hired me to work in several healthcare accounts for them. David [May] had been at Marriott and when he left to be UNH’s director of dining, he said ‘I’m going to call you for a job someday.’ I never really thought he would, but that’s why I’m really indebted to him.”
At the end of the day, Plodzik’s ability to engage and interact with people has been his greatest asset.
“I love what I do,” Plodzik says. “I can’t imagine doing anything different. I love it because we have so much fun here. People come in here and see that we are approachable—we’re human. They know we’re trying to do the best we can. We’re not always perfect. That’s what it’s about—the relationship we have with the students. I want them to know every single person who works for us.”