When Purdue University says it wants to engage students in all aspects of dining, it goes a lot further than mere surveys and taste tests.
At Purdue, industrial engineering students take apart failing churrascarias and get the Brazilian barbecues working better than before. Food science majors develop new ice creams from scratch to be created by a local alumni-run creamery.
And student employees receive professional-level training that lasts a lifetime.
Just ask Kathy Manwaring, associate director of dining at the university, who just celebrated her 45th year at Purdue—a career launched when she began working in dining halls in January 1974.
“I worked on everything from the dish machine to the serving line to cooking. At one point I was ‘assistant to the assistant director,’” she says, laughing. “I’ve seen a lot of history with all the changes we’ve been through, and it has absolutely shaped the course of my life.”
Greg Minner hears that a lot, not only from former student employees like Manwaring, but also from members of academic classes who never expected to work with Dining & Catering.
“Dining & Catering used to roll up under Purdue Housing and Services, and as of a few years ago it’s under Student Life, so we really took that to heart,” says Minner, director of Dining & Catering. “We focused on academicizing: really getting ourselves ingrained in student life as much as possible.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
A partnership between dining and diners
Last school year, Dining & Catering partnered with 24 academic classes across Purdue’s schools, which included engagement with 284 students in total. The number of partnerships has risen since 2014, when there was just one academic class partner.
These inventive partnerships include multiple projects with Purdue food science majors. For Purdue’s 150th anniversary this year, for example, each of the university’s divisions was assigned a month “to show off a bit,” as Minner puts it.
Dining & Catering’s month is coming up in March, and as part of the celebration, food science students split into seven groups to develop 21 ice cream flavor concepts. They tested, rejiggered and finally voted on the winner: Boiler Tracks. It’s a black and gold (Purdue colors, of course) confection dotted with caramel and fudge swirls, toffee pieces and chocolate chunks. Boiler Tracks will be made at local Round Barn Creamery, a business founded by two Purdue alums. The sweet treat will be served in several dining halls and as the “featured milkshake” at two campus retail locations.
Other partnerships include projects with agricultural classes, hospitality and tourism majors, an on-campus farm and the student-run Butcher Block store, which supplies items such as sausages to Dining & Catering.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Making it work
But it’s hardly only food-focused majors that work with Dining & Catering. Purdue is famed for its engineering program, and the dining team works closely with those students too. Each semester, a class of industrial engineering students splits into groups of six to complete capstone projects. The dining team fields about three or four capstones each year.
One industrial engineering group examined how to make delivery-truck routes on campus more efficient. Another made recommendations for queuing and other logistics at the school’s extremely busy Au Bon Pain location. An allergy-focused group created a “Purple Diamond” concept that involves a painted spot on the floor in dining halls where students can stand and wait for a staffer to guide them to foods free of their individual allergens.
Beyond hands-on academic projects, Purdue Dining & Catering also offers 120 credit-earning internships. Student human resources generalists help recruit and hire employees, nutrition majors learn how to order food and supplies and entrepreneurship students develop new revenue streams for the division.
“We don’t dismiss them as young students who don’t know anything yet,” Minner says. “They have a ton of knowledge and excitement and ideas to share with us, and in turn, they get this real-world experience that is just fantastic for their portfolio.”
Purdue’s “academicizing” of the dining experience has expanded rapidly in only a few years, and Minner says it’s a successful experiment that’s easily replicable—for operators willing to put in the effort. “When we first started, people, especially those outside of [food- or hospitality-centered courses], were like, ‘What can you possibly do to help me?’” Minner says.
Minner and his team started by asking about the classes professors teach: Which topics do you cover? Who runs capstone projects as part of the course? What do you want students to learn through internships? “You have to build on that and show what you can offer them, the experience you can give their students, the testing ground you can provide,” Minner explains. “You have to be the one to create the opportunity, not the other way around.”
Such opportunities provide mutual benefits that can last for years, both for future Purdue generations arriving to campus and for alums who seek careers elsewhere. Minner says he frequently hears from former employees who received a spatula with their name on it when they graduated and moved on: “One guy recently told me he hung the spatula in his office,” Minner says. “He told me, ‘Greg, the experience I received working with dining was the most important part of my degree.’ And he was an engineering major.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Greg Minner
Director of Dining & Catering
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
A:We’re hoping to build closer vendor relationships. I’d like to get us using our buying power to create more opportunities, like signature items that set us apart. I’m excited about what we have coming in the technology realm. We already have a great, very robust app that 8,000 of our students use. We reiterate on the app every three to six months, and mobile ordering is on our radar screen to add to it in the future. I think our students would just love that.
Q: What is it that sets Purdue Dining & Catering apart?
A: It’s the people. And I say that not only from the standpoint of the employees, but also the students and the community we work in. There’s no real separation of those populations—we’re serving together and serving each other.Nominate an FSO of the Month