Mary Lou Kennedy is all about providing care. Whether it's taking care of others or taking care of business, Kennedy has had the opportunity to use her caregiving attitude to great effect during her 20 years as director of dining and bookstore services at 1,700-student Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Originally trained as a registered dietitian, Kennedy's strong organizational skills and a desire to satisfy customers at every opportunity have turned Bowdoin's program into one of the best foodservice operations in the country, according to the Princeton Review.
"When I first came here, the employee procedures were very ad hoc," Kennedy says. "For example, in dining they would just write a new menu off the top of their heads each week. So when I came in I wanted to get a rotating menu going. But they insisted it would take away flexibility, when really they had been repeating themselves by coming up with a new menu on the spur of the moment. So I think I contributed a lot of organization. If you get enough structure around the day-to-day routine, then everyone will be open to change because you're not dealing with day-to-day craziness."
It was Kennedy's organizational skills that got the department through a time of tremendous growth. Bowdoin used to have several fraternities on campus that fed about one-third of the students. When those fraternities closed, Dining Services had a sudden influx of students that hadn't been dining with the department. This, along with growing enrollment, changed the focus of the dining program to a more culinary-minded approach to satisfy students. In the past 10 years, Kennedy has increased revenue 62%.
"Mary Lou definitely has her eye on the big picture," says Michele Gaillard, assistant director. "This isn't to say she doesn't get involved in the day-to-day operations, she actually seems to be everywhere at once. She makes us aspire to do more than what is right in front of us."
Green thumb: Kennedy's ability to see the big picture served her well when a student approached Dining Services about creating an organic garden, long before gardens became the trend du jour on college campuses.
"The Bowdoin organic garden seemed like a completely crazy idea five years ago," Gaillard says. "Few of us in the department had the vision of what it could be. Mary Lou was not deterred and fought hard every step of the way. Now, we all bask in the glow of our beautiful, abundant garden that helps fulfill our sustainability commitments, but without Mary Lou, it would just be a mound of dirt."
The college now has two organic gardens that cover an acre of land about two miles from campus. Kennedy says during the short Maine growing season, the garden can provide 14% of Dining Services' produce.
"Our top five crops last year were salad greens, tomatoes, broccoli, basil and beans," Kennedy says. "We planted 21 high bush blueberries two years ago and look forward to our first crop this year. Because of the short season, we have a small greenhouse for getting some seedlings started and we're hoping we can build a larger greenhouse. Meanwhile, we're trying to do more freezing of items for use later."
Along with the garden, Kennedy is committed to providing as much local produce as possible. The department partnered with Farm Fresh Connection, a program that provides resources for local farmers to help get their products to customers. Farm Fresh Connections sends weekly memos about what's on the market. Last year, about 24% of Kennedy's purchases was local.
"The Bowdoin garden produce and the produce we purchased from Farm Fresh Connection local farmers provided 38% of our total produce," Kennedy says. "I think another thing I've always tried to do is develop community connections. That's why we started these ‘feed a farmer' lunches. We bring farmers in and we talk about what they're growing, what their challenges are and what the students like to eat. Students from one of the environmental studies classes sit in on the meetings with us and ask all sorts of questions. This gives us the opportunity to get to know the farmers better. You hear what they're doing and you want to make an effort to connect with them."
Another sustainability initiative Kennedy is proud of is the department's vendor sustainability survey.
"I had heard that Stonyfield Farm had a huge sustainability program," Kennedy says. "I thought we should talk to our vendors about what they're doing so we can keep the communication going. So we came up with a survey for our vendors that asked about their sustainability programs. When a vendor sends out a proposal, we have them fill the survey out. The vendors love it. We thought there'd be some pushback, but they love to share this information and it's made them more cognizant of what they're doing."
Satisfying students: Kennedy credits a close working relationship with Bowdoin's students as a major part of the department's successes.
"We're very fortunate that Bowdoin is a small college," Kennedy says. "I think being in a small location and not taking advantage of the community connection would be a big disservice. I think just being a part of a learning environment is such a wonderful place to be because the students have so many ideas."
One idea that came from students that has become a huge success for the department is Super Snack. Super Snack is a late-night dining option, held from 10:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m., Thursday through Saturday, that has become more like a campus party than just another dining opportunity.
"The students love Super Snack," Kennedy says. "One of my concerns was that I wanted students with board plans to use as many of the meals as possible. Of the 150 students living in facilities on campus who aren't required to purchase a plan, only nine of them don't have one. So I thought we needed more meal opportunities so students could use all their meals. The students suggested nighttime, so we developed Super Snack. We serve simple snack foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, fruit, cheese and crackers and cereal. Of the 1,700 students on campus, last week's meal counts for Super Snack were 560 for one day. It's incredibly communal."
Another thing Kennedy has changed with the students in mind is how Dining Services approaches themed meals. The department used to host its own themed meals, but several years ago, Kennedy decided to let students plan their own theme meals.
"We always had student groups coming in and saying they wanted to put on a small theme meal," Kennedy says. "So we started encouraging them to bring it into the dining hall and we'd make the whole dinner whatever theme they wanted. Students work with our chef and bring in recipes. It keeps our ethnic menus authentic."
Catherine Longley, senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer for Bowdoin, and Kennedy's boss, says Kennedy's efforts to improve food quality have really made her stand out.
"When it comes to foodservices, Mary Lou knows her stuff," Longley says. "She stays ahead of the latest trends and is often the go-to person for innovative ideas. Mary Lou always strives for the optimal dining experience, and the food is truly delicious."
Renaissance woman: Learning is something that Kennedy has always been passionate about. Kennedy grew up in Burlington, Vt. She got her start in foodservice in high school working in a hospital kitchen making feeding tube formulas. She earned her degree in dietetics from the University of Vermont and then completed a one-year dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital before becoming a registered dietitian. She switched to colleges when she became assistant to the director of dining at Wellesley College, before coming to Bowdoin as assistant director in 1986.
"I love the job because my internship was a generalist internship and through that I discovered that I love to know a little about everything," Kennedy says. "I like to organize systems so that they work. I want to give my staff the tools, but still let them have ownership over their jobs."
Gaillard says Kennedy's management style is the driving force behind making Dining Services as strong as any academic department at the college.
"I think Mary Lou's effectiveness is enhanced because her management skills are so well balanced," Gaillard says. "I've worked with directors who were extremely talented in one area, like operations or marketing, but they fell apart in other areas. Mary Lou doesn't make a big deal out of it, but she does everything well."