After more than 20 years of a near-nomadic existence in college foodservice, Nadeem Siddiqui believes he finally has found a home, at 45,000-student Texas A&M University. And like a new homeowner, he has wasted little time in putting his own stamp on the campus foodservice program, a program with a proud heritage that had fallen into disrepair in recent years.
In little more than 15 months since he was hired as executive director of Dining Services, Siddiqui has resurrected the $28-million program by building a new management team, making minor facility renovations and upgrades while setting up a new master plan for the department, and instilling a new pride and sense of purpose within the staff—300 full-time employees and another 900 part-time and student workers—that has been noticed by students and administrators alike.
“My goal here is to rebuild the brand,” explains Siddiqui. “Foodservice on campus has a huge responsibility to complement the university’s mission.”
To that end, Dining Services has retained an architectural firm to assess the two largest of A & M’s 41 dining locations on campus, The Commons on the south side and Sbisa on the north side. “We need to see what the caliber of the facilities are, as far as physical strength, and determine what investments we need to make,” he says. A proposal is due to be prepared for administrators sometime this month.
But short-term changes already have been dramatic. Among the new programs and facilities are an organic eatery called The Tomato Bar, in the basement of The Commons; sushi at MSC Cafeteria; Asian noodle and rice bowls at Pie Are Square, a halal meal program and, most importantly, a change from a warehouse-based procurement and menu program to one using a prime vendor with more frequent deliveries of products.
So impressive have been the changes to the much-maligned program that Siddiqui was honored by the student government this past spring as its administrator of the year, even though he’d been on the job less than a year. It says much about Siddiqui that he asked the student leaders to come to his staff meeting the following week and present the trophy to his staff. “Otherwise I can’t accept it,” he told the students, “because they are the ones who have earned this; not me.”
Siddiqui was working as a consultant in Madison, WI, when he was approached by administrators at A & M about the job. He quickly learned the history of the Aggie foodservice program: After years of excellent service under the command of IFMA Silver Plate Award winner Col. Fred Dollar, the program had fallen on hard times, plagued by inefficiencies and even financial improprieties.
“One of the things that failed at the leadership level was that people weren’t getting any training,” Siddiqui surmises. “There were no tools, no equipment for staff to do their jobs properly. In addition, expectations were set too high. The staff couldn’t reach them, and so the program was looked upon as a failure. That’s the culture I had to change.”
Despite that track record, Siddiqui says, he felt something at the core of the university that resonated with him.
“The most important things on this campus are family, religion and this country,” he says. “I was so impressed by that. The priorities they have laid out here are what I believe in, as well. This was a place where I felt I could set down roots.”
In his interview with administrators, Siddiqui set out the terms of his employment. He wanted their word that he would have the leverage, ability and freedom to do what needed to be done, “without all the bureaucratic processes.” So far, the university has been true to its word, he notes.
He began by setting up a five-member management team, headed by his new executive chef and director of operations, Gary Arthur. Arthur had worked for Siddiqui at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, CA, and had experience working at five-star hotels. Siddiqui also created the position of financial director, whose job it was to gain control of the department’s finances and rein in the deficit spending. One of the first things Raymond Grams did in this new role was to implement weekly “flash reports” to give Dining Services continuous feedback on its financial performance.
“Usually, the numbers were coming back six or seven weeks after the fact,” Siddiqui explains. “That’s just too late in a 14-week semester. How can you change anything?”
His next move was a bold one: he closed the central warehouse, a huge process but one that Siddiqui felt had to happen if the department was to survive.
“We were buying our food a year in advance,” he says. “We were so tied to the system that we couldn’t change the menu. Our customers are going off campus and seeing new items, and they want us to do that and we can’t change the menu.”
Predictably, there was resistance to the move, mostly from people who feared their jobs would be lost.
“I told them, my job is to save your jobs,” Siddiqui recalls. “We had financial issues, and if we didn’t close the warehouse we were going to have even worse issues. And in the end, nobody has lost a job. Some people have retired, but those who chose to stay all have jobs. They may not be doing the same jobs they did before, but that’s a growth process.”
He and Arthur also have established new training programs for employees, to give them the skills they need to carry out Siddiqui’s initiatives. “We can rewrite the menus and revamp the programs, but in the end it’s the execution,” he notes. “You can create the nice recipes and the beautiful presentation, but if the day-to-day people can’t produce it, then it’s just show business. We’re in the reality business. We have to execute every day what we promise our customers.”
Siddiqui has not been bashful about letting people know what works and what doesn’t within the department. He has outsourced the operation of the campus C-stores to a local vendor “because we don’t have the expertise to run them.” And he has freely admitted that catering has “some challenges.”
“People come to us and ask us if they can use [an outside caterer] and I say, ‘Please do. I support that because we’re not ready for you. And I don’t want [your event] to fail because of us.’ I know that once we rebuild the program the business will come back.”
Siddiqui’s road to A & M has been circuitous, to say the least. It began in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where Siddiqui grew up. He came to this country in 1982, like his father had years earlier, to get an education. He matriculated at Moorhead State, in Moorhead, MN. After graduating, he went to work at nearby Concordia College, under the tutelage of Jane Grant Shambaugh.
“I worked for Jane for three years,” Siddiqui recalls. “Jane was great, because she was straightforward, honest, tell-it-like-it-is, and I appreciated that. I learned so much from her.”
After Concordia came a succession of jobs as Siddiqui criss-crossed the country, never spending more than two or three years with one company or institution: Aramark; St. Lawrence University in upstate New York; Grinnell College in Iowa; the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, his first director’s job; the University of Chicago; another stint with Aramark; Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and finally Stanford, where his boss was Silver Plate Award winner Shirley Everett.
“I also worked for Peg Lacey (another Silver Plate recipient) when she was with Aramark,” Siddiqui adds. “I am probably the only person in this industry who has worked for all three of these women: Jane, Peg and Shirley, and anyone who has worked for any of these women is going to be successful if you practice what they teach you.”
Perhaps the most important thing they have taught him is that students always must be his department’s primary focus. “We’re foster parents, whether we like it or not,” he explains. “For nine months out of the year these are our children and we have to do everything we can to help them.”
That attitude prompts him to do what some people might consider above and beyond the normal routine, such as offering to have a Braille menu printed for a blind girl who will be attending A & M next semester. But Siddiqui believes such actions should be everyday occurrences.
“That’s our job; to make sure that every element of each person’s well-being is taken care of,” he says. “A Braille menu is the least we can do. In the past, students have come to our foodservice operations because they are convenient. We’re trying very hard to create a culture here that will make students come not just because we’re convenient, but because we’re great.”