Big dreams on a small budget
Whether it’s aging equipment, a growing audience, the need to add a new location or just the desire to get creative, change is always on the radar at noncommercial facilities. But sometimes the budget just isn’t there. Nearly half (45%) of respondents to FoodService Director’s 2017 Operator Renovation Survey said they expected funding to be a potential issue for completing a project. So how are they meeting those challenges?
1. Partner up
The University of Missouri’s Campus Dining Services was looking to launch a composting program as part of its environmental initiatives. But there were zero compost facilities in the city of Columbia, and the dining department didn’t have the budget to build its own. Instead of admitting defeat, MU looked to campus farms.
“There’s always somebody out there that you can partner with,” says Michael Wuest, dining services marketing manager. “Don’t be afraid to ask.” Campus Dining Services ultimately linked up with Bradford Farm, part of MU’s Bradford Research and Extension Center, which features the largest concentration of research plots in crops, oils and related areas in the state. Each segment pitched in about $30,000, and now collaborates on a compost system operated by Bradford students, saving more than 250 tons of food waste from the landfill annually.
2. Spend someone else's money
Grants are another avenue for making improvements without a big out-of-pocket investment—including the nearly $200 million appropriated by Congress in the past six years for USDA kitchen equipment grants. Georgia’s Tift County School District received one such grant to irrigate its existing school farm and retrofit a canning plant to preserve tomatoes.
“We continually apply for the Farm to School Grants because agriculture is huge here in Tift County,” says Vanessa Hayes, the district’s nutrition program director. Hayes says the district’s focus on the value of agriculture helps students academically while also encouraging them to try fresh fruits and vegetables. “With these additional funds, we can continue to provide activities that connect and engage our students,” she says.
3. Change your approach
Sometimes the equipment itself is the cost-saver. When Wisconsin-based Pine Haven Christian Communities built a new long-term care building a few years ago, Dining Services Assistant Manager Mary Aderman wanted to avoid the enormous expense of a full-service kitchen. Rather than invest in a full suite of equipment, she adapted the space into a blast-chill facility with a medium combi oven.
Now, Aderman says, her team can prepare main entrees for all three facilities in advance and retherm with ease. The blast-chill facility allows her to save on labor costs since it requires fewer cooks, and she can even splurge on pricier ingredients like shrimp. “I would never go back,” she says.
With an impending budget squeeze due to declining enrollment, Wuest and his team needed to attract new customers. The Tiger Plan, launched in fall 2016, is designed to capture the business of off-campus students and comes with flexible dining dollars and discounts at a la carte locations and convenience stores.
Adding the Tiger Plan came with its own costs, including managing the program, marketing it to students and training staff. But Wuest says it has helped stretch the department’s budget. “You have to adapt,” he says.