Foodservice Operation of the Month

Montclair State: Serving students with urbanite palates

This school year, Montclair hired food service vendor Gourmet Dining to revamp the university’s foodservice at large. Students can now enjoy several new concepts, including an updated New York-style pizzeria and a virtual kitchen.
Gourmet Dining
Gourmet Dining took over the school's foodservice operations in summer 2023 and since then, has rolled out several new concepts for students.| Photos courtesy of Gourmet Dining

Montclair State University lies just 12 miles outside New York City, making it quick and cheap for students to head to Manhattan for the day, the weekend or a just bite to eat. People in the New York metro area know good food, and their standards are high.

Food Service Director Jim Robinson knows this well. He’s worked at New Jersey’s Montclair State for 16 years, but in a previous career he spent more than 27 years in marketing at Prudential Financial working with—and sometimes entertaining—affluent clientele. That New York experience, plus his culinary degree, shaped how he approached joining Montclair in 2008.

Robinson is the only full-time foodservice employee at Montclair, liaising with and leading vendor partners who operate the program. Over his years at the school, not every partner has been able to achieve the high standards set before them.

“Prior to me coming here, frankly, it was just a step above a high school [foodservice] environment,” Robinson says. “We’ve come a very, very, very long way since then. Our partners had to learn that our students are also diners in the local area, and that means they know New York-quality food.”

So this school year, Montclair hired the vendor, Gourmet Dining, to revamp the university’s foodservice at large, with a focus on new concepts: an updated New York-style pizzeria, an outpost of a Middle Eastern vendor beloved at other universities called The Halal Shack, the Korean-American street food concept Chick-N-Bap, a Starbucks truck, a virtual kitchen devoted to mobile app ordering and more.

It's all in the service of Robinson’s mantra: Know Your Customer.

That manta was the driving force of the Request for Proposal that Robinson and the university issued to potential partners. They shared deep demographic and consumer-preferences data related to Montclair’s 18,000 students. For example, 60% of students are female and many of them are interested in more vegan and vegetarian meals; a growing Muslim population seeks halal options; about 11% of students are part-time, some of whom are professionals with busy schedules.

Gourmet Dining won the bid, in large part because of their attention to those details.

“One of the highlights was that they showed us they could negotiate and get businesses like The Halal Shack here on campus,” Robinson says. “The other highlight was that the Freeman Dining Hall focused on clean eating, with allergy-friendly and vegan sections. They listened and came up with solutions.”

Freeman Dining Hall

Freeman Dining hall features allergen-free options for students. 
Gourmet’s contract began July 1, 2023, and the company set out to catch attention right away with a variety of new concepts, revamped spaces and additional options. Montclair now has 17 food locations on campus.

“It’s so important to make a good first impression, so we wanted to make a lot of changes right away,” says Brian Conway, one of two general managers. “That meant not only bringing exciting new brands to campus, but also extending hours in some locations. It was crucial to build dining service here around what the students wanted.”

Yet “what students want” is a dynamic, ever-evolving answer. To remain in close contact, Conway holds a weekly Dining With the Director series to talk with students in addition to focus groups, advisory committees, regular surveys and town halls.

Of course, not all feedback is relentlessly positive. For example, sales at the Korean-American concept Chick-N-Bap have dropped in the last few weeks, Robinson says, and some Latino students have indicated there aren’t enough options within that cuisine. As a result, Montclair will soon introduce a Latin concept—which may or may not replace Chick-N-Bap.

“Some things have been a bumpy road,” Robinson says. “For example, Gourmet was big on getting [a major mobile ordering app] to campus, and it’s been great for establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts but really challenging operationally at some other venues.”

There are other “kinks to be worked out” in Gourmet’s rookie year, Robinson says—like boosting social media marketing and engagement—but plenty of bright spots too. Gourmet brought more than 300 employees to campus, including a few registered dietitians, which Robinson says is a valuable addition to Montclair and its 300-400 students each year with special dietary needs.

For other operators seeking new foodservice partners through an RFP or other processes, Robinson recommends digging in to ensure bidders can back up their claims.

“Never just take a bidder’s word for something, because everyone wants to put on a show,” Robinson says. “But you have to really delve into what they’re claiming: Gourmet didn’t just say they could or would help serve our growing Muslim population; they showed they could actually bring a halal concept to our campus. If you focus on results, I think you’ll come out on top.”

That foundation of trust is crucially important from the vendor side as well, Conway agrees.

“What makes the relationship on this campus really special is that the administration trusts in me, and they know I’m here to provide the best program for their students,” Conway says. “Student dining often means evolving and making changes on the fly. Trust is what allows us to do that, and to feel like members of the community we’re serving.”


Get to know Montclair State University's Jim Robinson

See what’s in store for Robinson’s operation, which was named FSD’s March Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

It's the relationship building with students. There are students who are at various stages of their school career, including those who are new to this environment who are looking for guidance. Because of the position I’m in, I get to see a lot of them. With nutrition and our meal plans, I like to think of it as helping them answer the question: How do you make the first best decision for yourself?

The second one for me personally is having our Gourmet team learn the ins and outs of having a stable infrastructure for themselves. We don’t have a lot of middle management, so I’m in almost all our operations on a daily basis. I can take that operator's perspective: meeting with the GMs weekly, discussing what we could be doing better, and then, crucially, following up on it. If I see something, then our customers see it— so we want to put our best foot forward in all things. What you see, what you smell, what you experience, is all part of dining. So everything has to be in great shape.

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

I’m always seeking as much stability as possible. Not many people are coming into this business, and that’s a challenge. So we have to be mindful of that and do all we can to continue to bring in bright, intelligent, knowledgeable people into the business.

Second, we’re working to satisfy a group of customers out in what we call The Village: upperclassmen apartment-dwellers who feel at times neglected because there's no food operation out there. We have to gather enough knowledge to develop a solution to address the immediate need, and then build off that foundation.

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