Specialized jobs bring unexpected benefits

Getting creative on the clock.

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

university washington produce display

The “help wanted” section for a typical foodservice operation probably reads something like this: Cook, chef, purchasing manager, cook, sous chef and maybe a few more cooks thrown in for good measure. But some operators are finding value in adding specialized roles or responsibilities to the mix. These workers aren’t always spending their time in a white apron; instead, they’re focusing on improving the operation in surprising ways.

Ashley Cassat

Farm-to-School Specialist
San Diego Unified School District

Held position since: July 2012

Responsiblities: Managing $4 million in annual produce procurement; coordinating 350 fresh salad-bar programs throughout the district; supervising Food Corps volunteers; managing the district’s Garden Cafe program, which trains foodservice staff on safe growth and harvesting, in partnership with the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health.

Biggest challenge faced so far: “Just working within our large system has benefits and drawbacks,” Cassat says. “We have a lot of buying power but also a huge demand.” For example, 35,580 pounds of romaine lettuce is served on SDUS’s salad bars every month—an amount San Diego farmers alone aren’t able to supply. Menus also are planned about six months in advance, so last-minute purchases of farmer surpluses are difficult to organize.

Advice for other operators considering this position: The farm-to-school position at San Diego Unified originally was funded through a 2009 Centers for Disease Control grant; once that expired, the district added the role to its budget. Cassat advises that smaller school districts would do well to bundle the duties with overall produce management or a dietitian position.

Sara Cox

Research and Development Chef
Dining Services
Washington University in St. Louis

Held position since: January 2014

Responsibilities: Beyond recipe developments, calculating and compiling nutrition information for WUSTL recipes; inventory and database maintenance. Cox also partners with a campus dietitian to teach a Dine with the Dietitian class, where she demonstrates a healthy menu for students and answers questions.

Biggest challenge faced so far: There were nearly 4,000 recipes in WUSTL’s database when Cox started her job—many of them duplicates or triplicates. Part nutritionist, part quality-control expert, she was able to clean things up within a year, creating confidence in the database’s nutritional information. Cox now is able to focus more time on developing new recipes.

 Advice for other operators considering this position: Look for someone who is passionate and tenacious, Cox says. Standardization across an operation requires adherence, because chefs tend to veer away from recipes. “I think the biggest thing is there was a need for someone to dedicate their time to the things I do on a daily basis,” Cox says.

Kara Carlson

Business and Sustainability Manager
Housing and Food Services
University of Washington, Seattle

Held position since: May 2015

Responsibilities: Working with groups across campus toward the school’s sustainability goals—UW hopes to be climate-neutral by 2050. Ten percent of the school’s produce purchases and 52 percent of all dining food purchases are local, another focus for Carlson.

Biggest challenge faced so far: Getting the word out to students and letting them know what the department is doing on campus. “It’s a chance for them to see, ‘Wow, this is being grown right down the street,’” says Carlson. Dean Masuccio, administrator for dining business operations, says Carlson’s predecessor had been on campus for 30-plus years and had deep institutional knowledge; he hasn’t seen any bumps since Carlson took over the role.

Advice for other operations considering this position: Masuccio says that customers’ interest in sustainable purchasing only is growing, so it’s important to sell administrators on the idea of having a liaison with a focus on dining.

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