At a Glance: Tim Dietzler
Director of Dining Services
Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.
Grew up in Drexel Hill, Pa.
B.S. in accountancy, Villanova University
Married to Rosemarie; has two daughters, Christina, 12, Lauren, 10
Enjoys traveling with his family, reading and cooking
As director of dining at 10,000-student Villanova University in Pennsylvania, Tim Dietzler is always at the forefront of the latest industry trends, such as eliminating partially hydrogenated oils. His ability to be on the cutting edge of trends and knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right experience has led him to much success in his 34 years in foodservice.
“Growing up in a family of nine kids, there was always a social gathering surrounding food. This meant there was work to do in the kitchen, and I enjoyed it, while I complained loudly as I wanted none of my family to know how much I loved it. My parents made sure we always ate dinner together as a family. These wonderful feelings and positive emotions I have associated with food and service have stayed with me and are the reasons I love food service. One of my earliest food memories is from when I was about 10 years old. I invited all my friends over and I baked them brownies on my own. I remember it being a big undertaking at the time.
My first job, when I had just turned 16, was working in a small food grocer that had its own butcher shop. It was called Sinclair’s Food Market. I worked as a general clerk, stocking shelves and running the register. Six months after I started working there, a friend who had done deliveries left. In that area, people had started moving out farther so the shop started doing weekly deliveries. So here I was, 16 years old, taking about 20 to 25 different orders of cut meat and I would literally drive up and walk right in these people’s homes, stock their fridges and not even see them. It’s amazing to me that they actually had enough trust in me to take care of those deliveries as a 16-year-old kid. From there, I’ve always been interested in food.
I worked at a delicatessen during college and then at a golf club. Looking back, it’s interesting to see that for whatever reason, I’ve always had great success in every food operation where I was given responsibility. For instance, at the delicatessen they allowed me basically to manage the store on my own on the weekends. I was 18 at the time and I was pretty much left alone. So I seemed to always have management opportunities from the start. When I was in school at Villanova I studied accounting and was interested in pursuing my M.B.A., but along the way I had gotten a job at a golf club as a waiter and a host. When I graduated they gave me a full-time job, where I was in charge of the staff. The most thrilling aspect was the integral role I played at weddings.
I was very young and had a lot of responsibility that I enjoyed, but at the time I thought I needed more training. I thought my advancement may have outpaced my training. So I looked where I might work to get more training. I got a job with Pillsbury-owned Bennigan's, which was a Norman Brinker concept, because he was known for his training programs. They hired me and I went through a four-month manager training program. After that I worked in several different restaurant managing positions until I heard Villanova was hiring. The director at the time, Les Gies, had an excellent reputation. My father had worked at Villanova so through that connection I was able to get an interview with Mr. Gies and he hired me as an entry-level manager. I've found that a lot of my career could be described as being in the right place at the right time—some would call it luck. But I always felt prepared so when those opportunities came to me, I felt ready to take them on.
I came into a program that had a really solid sanitation program, a solid service orientation but was still a very traditional college foodservice. I came in at a time when some of our facilities were older. When I first started here, there were only three meal plans and the dining halls opened at 4:30 p.m. for dinner and closed at 6:30 p.m. However, we had a very willing and able staff. What I’m most proud of was our ability to look at the resources and facilities we had and we were able to turn them into what we have now, which is 15 meal plan options and operations that are open from 7:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. The meal plans have been a great success for us.
We are a university that does require a meal plan for any student who lives in a dorm. We have approximately 3,300 traditional resident hall students on campus. I’m proud to say we sell an additional 1,100 to 1,200 plans to apartment and off-campus students that are volunteer plans. One of our most successful plans is the SGA Inflation Fighter Plan. It’s a plan where if a student comes in as a freshman, the price of the plan will not go up for the rest of his or her college years. Within that plan students have options. They can have a 12-meal, 15-meal, 20-meal or an alternative plan, which is a block meal plan. They have flexibility within the plan, and the price never goes up. The diversity of our meal plans has allowed us to grow revenue.
Another big initiative for us is nutrition, which is where eliminating PHOs and MSG factors in. A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to go to a seminar that was being put on by the CIA in partnership with the Harvard School of Medicine. They were offering it to M.D.s because at the time you could go through medical school and not learn anything about nutrition, which I think is changing now. The Harvard School of Medicine realized that this was a problem, so they partnered with the CIA in Greystone for this seminar. They also wanted to connect with members of the industry because we’re the ones who have to make the changes to the foods.
When the facts were presented about PHOs at that seminar, it was pretty scary stuff—things like the impact that PHOs have on cholesterol and how it is basically a poison to your body. The speakers at the seminar beseeched us to take action upon our return to our work. Without hesitancy, we decided to eliminate PHO, MSG and hydrolyzed yeast extract from all our food in all our operations on campus. I’ve been careful not to be too outspoken because we do rely on industry so much, but this was an area where we decided we were going to take a stand. It hasn’t been easy. Now it’s one of the things we are most proud of—the fact that we went beyond what the FDA requires on its labeling. They allow an item to be labeled trans-fat free if it has 0.5 gram or less per serving. We took it to the next level by completely eliminating PHOs from every food product we serve and sell on campus. We’re about 98% free of those ingredients. I’m not sure many colleges can say that. We are completely nut-free except for peanut butter. We have peanut butter in a separate area to avoid cross contamination. We call it stealth health, and in reality it was a very gradual change with most of the products. It was just selecting the products students were going to eat anyway but looking for PHO and MSG-free versions. The stealth health approach has been very successful for us.
We are a relatively small school, but we have more than 21 profit centers. I am proud those grew out of a service mentality more than a financial one. The only way we could deliver what the students wanted without doing a $30 million renovation was to allow them to use their meal plans in the retail operations. By allowing students to use their meal plan in the retail operations we were able to expand menu variety and hours of service without adding labor and making material investments in facilities. We leveraged what we had to expand and improve our services. With that came a push to provide more late-night options, so coffee bars and c-stores were designed and strategically placed on campus as a way to have an operation stay open late based on lower staffing requirements and the ability to offer a wide variety of food. Very early on I was posed the question, ‘is your department about service or is it about making money?’ I quickly adopted the view that we were about both. You can provide for the bottom line while still providing a high level of service.
Part of that philosophy was improving the culinary side of the business. We had two executive chefs when I first started, but they retired and we decided not to replace them at the time. Our focus was more on expanding training and support and so we decided we needed more operational managers. We went probably about eight years without an executive chef—we still had talented chefs, but we didn’t have an executive chef position. Around 2000 we wanted to bring in a trainer for our culinary staff so we focused on finding a new executive chef. Now we have three executive chefs. They fill the knowing-doing gap. You know what you want, you’ve seen it on the Food Network, but how do we do it? Those chefs make it happen. There is also a component of, people want to see executive chefs—a chef in his whites brings so much more to the program than just a station cook.
Improving our training has been a focus for a long time. We hired two training managers, one of whom is a certified ServSafe trainer. We used to have just one and she retired. We do volunteer laboratory testing of certain protein foods, plates, utensils and ice machines, which I introduced and it really keeps us on our toes. We have about 120 of our staff who are certified.
Following the opening of the Exchange in 2000, it seemed we could take a respite on the operation side of things as we now had full-service dining operations on all three areas of our campus. But NACUFS would not let us rest. We had a great reputation for serving quality food, and just about the same time that NACUFS started the Culinary Challenge, we began to focus on elevating our culinary program even further. NACUFS has always been a valubale resource for us. It’s always interesting to see the nuances and differences between people. We learn a lot from examining different perspectives. We were talking about management styles—it’s interesting to see other directors’ styles through NACUFS. It’s also challenging because you meet someone like UMass’s Ken Toong who is doing remarkable things that challenge you. You want to compete in a friendly way and try to one-up those guys. NACUFS also does the Loyal E. Horton Dining Awards, which gives us a chance to showcase what’s going on. You hope to get recognized in some way, and it builds confidence in your staff and really motivates them. It gives them a chance to show off and if we win we get bragging rights.
I’m a big reader of Patrick Lencioni. His most recent book is The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. He teaches in fables and stories, which I like. He says the signs of a miserable job are anonymity, irrelevance and immeasurement. He talks about how managers need to recognize the individual first—be it a simple ‘hello’ or ‘how’s it going.’ People are so busy, it’s easy to forget to acknowledge the person. Irrelevance is about how employees need to feel their job contributes to something bigger. Then immeasurement is about what can they to track their performance, so they can see how they’re doing. I really like his philosophy.
Each year our focus morphs a bit, but our philosophy and attention to our core values stays consistent every year. I feel my customers are actually not students, faculty and campus staff; my customers are my internal staff. Because I do not directly serve students and faculty, it is my staff who ultimately serve our customers, therefore my management philosophy focuses on giving my customers—my staff—the tools and resources they need to perform best in their roles. With our training managers leading the way, we put tools and support in place for the associates who ultimately are the face of Dining Services. If the combination is right, you’ll have very good financial results.”