Like the honor of receiving the IFMA Silver Plate Award, not many can say that they have worked for the same organization since high school. But Kevin D’Onofrio, director of food service at the United States Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., can.
“My career started when I was in high school. I started working here on weekends, cleaning tables, doing dishwashing and things,” he explains.
While attempting to establish a carpentry business after high school graduation, D’Onofrio increased his hours at his West Point job to help make ends meet. “And then it just went from running the sports bar to being the catering manager to going to the West Point Officers Club to be the assistant manager,” he says. Then in 1987, D’Onofrio set his carpentry business aside and stepped into the position of director of food service for the entire West Point facility.
Steps to success
During his 26-year tenure as director, D’Onofrio has taken the dining services arm of West Point from “$1 million in sales and losing money in 1987, to $9 million in 2013 and making a profit,” he says.
To achieve such figures, virtually every inch of the organization has been modified under his command, including renovations, changing service hours, updating menus to align with current trends and branding the department. “When I first took over in 1987, there were six different food establishments at West Point. When you were eating at any of the Culinary Group locations [Culinary Group is the name of West Point’s foodservice department] you really didn’t know you were eating there, so the first thing I did was [give it] its own identity by creating a logo. I wanted that recognition of what we did versus the other five or six [dining options] on campus,” he says. For example, a Burger King and Subway at West Point are run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.
And while D’Onofrio is proud that the department is now profitable, he is even more so of what he does with that profit. “The money that I make, 100% of that profit goes back to the Corps of Cadets through extracurricular clubs and other activities. [It] offsets their equipment, uniforms, transportation and fees.”
D’Onofrio also credits his management team and full- and part-time staff of 250 as another contributor to his success. “I know that great food comes from a great team of people. They are loyal and hardworking and go above and beyond every single day. Without them, the Culinary Group would not be successful.”
D’Onofrio’s team says his vision is what sets him apart. “He’s the type of person who’s a visionary [and] provides ownership to his management team,” explains Maria Hoagland, food service branch manager, who reports to D’Onofrio. “He’s just a great mentor. He leads by example and provides the leadership in a team-building atmosphere, [which is] probably why [so many of us] have been here for lots of years.”
Serving 4,000 to 5,000 meals each day requires D’Onofrio and his team to continually reinvent the department by keeping an eye on food quality and trends and obtaining customer feedback. “We research from conferences to trade shows to magazines and try to capture all those latest [trends] and new things that are going on and, when possible, we want to implement those things or at least try them,” he explains. “Some of the newer things that we have added recently have been really taking that step back to fine-tune the quality of the things that we do.” For example, the culinary team makes its own pizza dough and sauce and is shredding its own cheese.
During the past few years, D’Onofrio has implemented a new method of finding out what the cadets want.
“What I was able to do three years ago—which I tell people was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my 26 years here—is to form a focus group of 16 to 20 cadets where we meet every two weeks and discuss issues related to the Culinary Group service quality and to get their feedback and their buy-in—it’s just a tremendous value to us,” he says. “What happens is they are out there, within the student body of the Corps of Cadets and they are listening and talking to their classmates … it’s almost like a board of directors where they’re out there selling our Culinary Group.”
Despite all of the changes West Point’s dining program has undergone, one area of the business never changed: D’Onofrio’s focus on satisfying his West Point customers. “What I do every day is to try to give the Corps of Cadets and our customers what they want—meaning the best quality, the best service, for the best possible price I can. We like to say that everything we do is ‘All for the Corps.’”