Many people have career paths that lead them to do different things at different stages in their lives. Actors, for instance, may at some point become directors. Later in their careers they might take a stab at writing. Their career paths branch off, sometimes leading back to the original road and other times taking off in an entirely new direction.
Conversely, Mary Molt’s career path has been as straight and as flat as a Kansas highway, a three-lane road that Molt has been taking full advantage of since she began her foodservice career 38 years ago. She is assistant director, Housing and Dining Services, at Kansas State University in Manhattan. She is also an assistant professor of hospitality management and dietetics at the university. Finally, she is the author of Food For Fifty, the highly regarded “bible” of the foodservice industry that, now in its 13th printing, requires continual monitoring and frequent updates.
“Forty years has gone by pretty darn quickly,” says Molt in her flat, Midwestern accent. “I love the position I’ve had here, because we teach as well as run operations. It’s not a position where you run operations and oh, by the way, you teach on occasion. It’s one fabric, each part inseparable from the others.”
A dream job: As someone whose undergraduate degree is in both education and home economics, Molt considers her job at K-State to be pretty much a dream career. K-State is, she believes, unique in high education as the only school in which management employees are both operators and educators. She currently teaches an online food production management class, and has taught quantity foods and management systems courses in the past.
This dual appointment system is a remnant of the early days of the university’s housing and dining program in the 1920s.
“In those days the academic department ran the foodservice, and so foodservice was grounded in that teaching philosophy from the very beginning,” Molt says. “The head of the academic program was also the foodservice director. It is why we place such an emphasis on food standards and the way to do things properly. It was only in the late 1950s that the foodservice director became separate from the academic dean.”
Of her operational side she says, “I am in charge of the meals we serve, the purchasing that we do, the standards that we have and the hiring that we do. I really enjoy serving students. Their job is to get their degrees, be successful and find a job that is going to be rewarding for them. Our job is to make their job easier, and our goal is to spend students’ [meal plan] money correctly. I think we do an excellent job of it.”
And then there is Food For Fifty. First published in 1937 by Grace Severance Shugart, the book is a compilation of recipes, production information and menu planning that, according to its preface, is “designed as a text for use by students in quantity food production and as a reference for persons in foodservice management.”
Molt was tapped by Shugart in the mid 1980s to take over as author, which she has done since the book’s 7th edition.
“Why do I do it?” she asks rhetorically. “It is a tremendous amount of work but it is a resource of quantity recipes that, if they’re gone, they’re gone. No one else is doing this. No one else has this kind of resource. It gives people in a quantity environment the means to be adaptable and be on trend with products, with the resources to make it easy.”
Celebrating food: Molt could not have predicted as a child what her career path would be, but in retrospect she knows that the seeds were planted by her parents, particularly her mother, back in her hometown of Spalding, Neb., a rural town of less than 600 people on the Cedar River, about 130 miles west of Omaha. She recalls growing up in an environment where food was celebrated—and experimented with. Molt’s parents encouraged her and her three siblings to use the kitchen as a laboratory.
“If we wanted to cook something or bake something, no restrictions were put on us, and I liked to cook,” Molt says. “My parents were pretty easy-going and they ate whatever we cooked without saying anything.”
Molt adds that her parents’ refusal to criticize her culinary efforts encouraged her to take risks and, as a result, become more skilled in the kitchen. It also helped shape the path that began when she matriculated to the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“My mother was a schoolteacher, and she thought everyone should have an education degree,” Molt says. “And I did pursue a teaching degree. But in high school I had an older friend who was a dietitian, and the whole concept of being a dietitian opened a new world of thinking for me. I was a good student, and I enjoyed the sciences, so the rigors of the program never scared me away.”
However, because she wanted to be able to make the best use of a teaching degree, she decided to pursue home economics on her way to becoming a dietitian.
“In home ec there was a lot of food preparation,” she notes. “So I double majored. I went for three years, including every summer, so when I finished my degrees it was mid-year. Not all that many internships start mid-year. Oklahoma State had one, and Indiana University Medical Center was another.”
She was accepted at Oklahoma State, where she got to work with Foodservice Director Joe Blair, who would himself win a Silver Plate Award. Mary Leidigh was the director of the internship program, and while Blair taught her a lot of college and university foodservice, Leidigh instilled in her the importance of high standards.
“I learned a lot from Mary about the right way to do things,” Molt says.
A career begins: When her internship was over, Molt was ready to join the working world, and she was “steered” in the direction of Kansas State.
“Mary was friends with Jean Riggs, who was the foodservice director at K-State,” Molt recalls. “When it was time to move on, Mary and Jean met with me and sort of placed me here. I thought I was interviewing, but I think it was a foregone conclusion that those two thought this would be a good place for me.”
And by all accounts, it has remained a smart choice for Molt. For one, her life intersected with yet another future Silver Plate winner, John Pence. Pence would one day take over Riggs’s job, although Molt classifies Dining Services at K-State as being a “flat” organization where she and Pence are basically equals.
“John has allowed me to do the things I’ve done, make the mistakes I’ve made and have the successes I’ve had,” says Molt. “He has been a tremendous support; we’ve worked together for almost 40 years.”
In her early years, Molt says, she learned from Riggs the standards required to run a top-notch foodservice program. From Pence she has learned the value of vision and the need to continually question the way things are done in order to ensure that best practices are always being followed.
Unmatched standards: Molt readily acknowledges that K-State’s foodservice program is far from being the most modern in the country. But that doesn’t mean the program is any less deserving of praise. Operators might not visit K-State to see the latest marketplace design or mobile food program. But Molt believes that if you want to see best practices in food production and food quality, her units are unmatched. She says that’s because the program has long embraced the idea of scratch cooking.
“I am most proud of our ability to please students,” she says. “I try to sit down with students every day, to ask them what they like, what they don’t like, what they’d like to see more of. Then I work with our menu writing committee to make that happen.
“Students are really happy with what we’re doing, and I think it’s because of our from-scratch philosophy. We are able to respond quickly to trends, likes and dislikes. If we see something in a commercial restaurant [students would like] we can be making it by the end of the week, which is not something you can readily do if you are relying on purchasing products instead of ingredients.”
Challenges and opportunities: But Molt recognizes that scratch cooking does present some challenges, particularly in today’s economy.
Operationally, the biggest challenge we have is finding employees that have the cooking background,” she explains. “Because we are a from-scratch operation it is just critical that people can get in there and follow recipes and have a sense for the art and science of food production. We can teach and train people, but we have a lot more turnover today than we’ve ever had.”
She also laments the lack of facilities to handle the kind of food variety students demand these days. As a matter of fact, Molt says she has no plans to retire until a series of renovations now on the drawing board come to fruition.
One new facility recently came on line. J.P.’s, after John Pence, is a sports bar in a student apartment complex. J.P.’s also has a convenience store, a coffee shop that sells fresh baked pastries, and an upstairs room that can be used as a sit-down restaurant. But the biggest—no pun intended—element of J.P.’s is its 12,000-square-foot kitchen.
“The kitchen is oversized and overequipped for what the facility will be used for,” Molt admits. “But we want students to be able to work in a commercial food environment. It’s just one example of us designing a facility with what we have in mind to do with it academically.”
Another example would be Molt’s dream of an amphitheater-type station for display cooking.
“I would like to have something where we can have display cooking going on in an operation that could also serve as education,” she explains “But how that would be set up and how it would work still has to be determined.”