FSD Goes to Austin

This month, FSD moseys down to Austin, Texas, a place where weirdness is the norm, bats are not uncommon and food, be it Mexican or barbeque, is as authentic as it comes.

SFM Conference 2008, Austin, Tex.In September, the Society for Foodservice Management (SFM) held its national conference in Austin, Texas. The conference’s theme, “Cool City, Hot Topics,” was designed to inform and entertain the more than 250 foodservice professionals that attended the four-day event.

The “Hot Topics” covered such varied fields as health and wellness, sustainability and Texas cuisine. A session titled “Triple E’s: Energy, Efficiency and Equipment,” informed operators about the importance of choosing efficient equipment as it translates into saved dollars in energy costs, as well as looking at waste as an indicator of inefficiency. Attendees also learned how tracking waste, dollars can also be saved. Another session, “Mobile Work Force,” educated operators on how to deal with the 25% of U.S. employees who worked from home at least once a week in 2007. Tactics included making food the glue that brings workers together, encouraging desk food and drink and offering take-out and take-home options. Keynote speakers included Andrew Zimmern, host of The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” who spoke of maintaining your sense of adventure,  and Andy Ford, WaveMaster and Chief Insights Officer for CultureWaves who spoke about knowing your customer.

Austin, cool city that it is, proved to be a place where foodservice operations embodied some of these “hot topics,” so FSD decided to check out three of them.  

Kicking Styrofoam to the Curb

As part of Founder Michael Dell’s goal to make Dell Computers the greenest technology company on the planet, Dell’s headquarters in Round Rock, Texas—about 20 minutes north of downtown Austin—recently switched from Styrofoam disposables to all paper. Judy Stone, district manager for Eurest Dining Services, a division of Compass Group, says all of the 13 eateries on Dell’s Round Rock campus used only disposable serviceware because none of the cafés are equipped with dishwashers. So starting in August, all disposables were switched to biodegradable paper products.

Dell Computers environmentally-friendly foodservice “Dell, especially at this location, has a really young workforce,” Stone says. “They really wanted to get rid of the Styrofoam, so they received the change very well. We’re now completely paper, and all the products are biodegradable and compostable. Since we have always used all disposables, making this switch is going to make a big impact.”

The process was challenging for Stone and her team because of the arduous process of looking for suitable paper products that were still cost effective. Stone says the biodegradable products are about twice as expensive as the polystyrene. The dining program at Dell is completely P&L-based, so the company wasn’t subsidizing any of the changes. To cover the biodegradable cost, as well as to help combat the overall higher cost of doing business, Stone says her department recently increased prices, something Stone says Dell had not done in many years. However, instead of a blanket increase, Stone and her team decided to raise prices on unhealthier items and keep the prices on healthy items the same or even decrease them.

“For example, baked chips are 79 cents and regular potato chips are 89 cents,” Stone says. “Another example is our very popular breakfast tacos. We have a healthy taco that is made with a whole-wheat tortilla, egg whites and turkey sausage, which costs 99 cents. The regular taco made with a flour tortilla, eggs and sausage is $1.49. We decided to do it this way as an effort to encourage Dell’s employees to lead healthier lifestyles. In the big picture of things, a healthier workplace also helps Dell with its insurance costs and in making up lost time for its employees.”

The price increase on unhealthy items also plays right into Dell’s wellness program, “Well at Dell.”

“‘Well at Dell’ is what we call our healthy eating program,” says Laura Lozano, facilities manager for Dell Global Dining. “Basically, it’s our vendor’s wellness program [in this case Compass’ Balanced Choices] with our name on it, so we can use it in corporate communications and everyone will know what we’re talking about.”

“Well at Dell” uses menu identifiers at each station to show which items meet the program’s requirements. Identifiers include FIT, which means the item has less than 600 calories for a meal, 30% or fewer calories from fat, 10% or fewer calories from saturated fat, 80 mg or less cholesterol and 600 mg or less sodium; Organic, which notes that the item contains at least 95% organically produced ingredients from a USDA certified source; and Local Favor, which are items grown or produced locally, among others.

“We haven’t had a chance to really track the data yet, since we just made the price increase in August, but we’ve definitely been seeing an increase in the amount of healthier items sold,” Stone says. “We’re seeing a very positive reaction and nothing negative has come out of the price increase.”

Another way Stone says her team tries to encourage customers to eat healthier is with their “Got $5” program. Stone says for the “Got $5” program, customers can choose between two healthy meals both priced at $5, including tax.

“The items change every month but it is always two healthy meals for $5,” Stone says. “So right now, we have a large salad bar container and a bottle of water for $5. We’re also doing a garden burger, fruit and a bottle of water for $5. It’s great because we’re assigning value to the healthier meals.”

Each café also has at least one chef’s table per month—the larger cafés have two—where the chef prepares a more upscale healthy option. For example,  during a “sustainable seafood around the world” chef’s table, they offered items like Tahitian lime-marinated Blue Nose sea bass with a taro, chickpea and sweet potato curry over rice or a Spanish seafood stew. Also on a monthly basis, Stone and her team choose one “superfood” to highlight and educate customers about.

“We have a table set up explaining the benefits of whatever our superfood of the month is,” Stone says. “This month is winter squash, so we set up a display telling the customer all about the nutritional value of squash and then we try and feature squash in some of our menu items.”

At Dell, the variety of the menu changes with the size of the café, says Gary Hooker, regional chef for Compass Group. The larger cafés have more room for made-to-order stations where they are able to offer such special items as made-from-scratch stir-fry with fresh vegetables, a tandoori Indian concept with lots of variety (chicken, tofu, fresh Naan bread) and sushi. Hooker says he’s also done an assortment of small bites to create smaller meals for customers—items such as super sliders, which can be either mini-hamburgers, mini-chicken or fish sandwiches that customers can mix and match.

“Customers grab one of each and make up one portion,” Hooker says. “Usually we try these kinds of specials as promotions first to see how they go. It also depends building to building because the demographics of all the locations are different. So we try to make programs that are flexible and display variety for the customers. Our biggest struggle is just with space.”

Buying local is another priority, but it’s not easy, Stone says. They have been able to buy from a local tortilla company, Stone says. They are especially interested in seeking out minority vendors.

“Especially with that vendor—Fiesta Tortillas—we wanted to be help them get their name out in the community more,” Stone says.

Overcrowding Leads to Innovation

FoodService Director - field trip- Dell - University of Texas - Foodservice in Austin, Tex.When 2,300-student Westlake High School, part of the 7,300-student Eanes Independent School District, needed more instructional time, the district decided to go from three lunch periods to two. This presented Director of Child Nutrition Steve Stracke with the challenge of serving 1,200 kids per lunch period instead of 800.

 “It was crazy. Our participation at the high school is about 100%. We knew we needed to have additional points of service, so we began the year with seven points of service—four downstairs and three upstairs,” Stracke says. Then, we opened up another one upstairs, which gave us four in each area. That alleviated a lot of the pressure and our revenues increased about $500 per day compared to last year.”

To draw more kids to the upstairs serving lines, Stracke switched pizza vendors and also brought in Chik-fil-A, which he says has been a huge success. Another draw to that area is the school’s smoothie/coffee bar called The Blend. Stracke says because so many more kids are using the upstairs serving lines, the smoothie bar’s sales have increased by $200 per day.

“We serve about 125 smoothies per day,” Stracke says. “We also carry bagels, muffins and other pastries from a local bakery at the smoothie bar. We serve gourmet coffee from Mozart’s Coffee Roasters, which is located at Lake Austin. The kids love it.”

Another tool Stracke hopes to use to control long lines and short lunch periods is a biometric purchasing system. He says his entire department has all the equipment necessary to start a pilot in one of the district’s six elementary schools; he’s just waiting for the set-up to be complete.

“I’m hoping it will be ready to go in our pilot school by mid-fall,” Stracke says. “Speed of service is the biggest reason I want to go to a biometric system. We use keypads right now where the kids punch in their own numbers. The biometric system will be much faster. Once everything is working, we’re going to implement it district wide. The pilot will probably last until at least the end of this semester. It will really help manage the increase in the number of kids we’re serving per lunch. We are going to cover the costs in the extra sales we expect to earn. We’re able to shift labor around a little bit so the impact labor wise is negligible.”

Stracke is excited about the different menu choices that he has been able to add this year, which have accounted for some of the increased revenue. The most successful has been the introduction of Chik-fil-A.

“We worked with a local Chik-fil-A franchise and they’ve been great to work with,” Stracke says. “Only our elementary schools are on the National School Lunch Program, but we still meet and sometimes even exceed the nutritional guidelines set by the state. We also took part in a state recipe survey. We tried out different recipes at the high school and one of the middle schools. Some of the recipes we tried were unusual and not real pleasers but there were some that worked out really well for us.”

FoodService Director - field trip- Dell - University of Texas - Foodservice in Austin, Tex.Stracke says they buy all local produce and are participants in the farm-to-school program, which makes for a very popular salad bar. The school also makes its own croutons.

“A lot of the administrators and faculty go through the salad bar every day,” says Stracke. “It’s just an amazing variety of fresh produce for a school salad bar.”

Another big change for the district was the elimination of polystyrene trays and disposable cutlery, which were replaced with washable trays and stainless steel cutlery. The process began in the spring of 2008 at one of the elementary schools.

“During one of our committee meetings at this particular school, the topic came up and we said ‘we could do that,’” Stracke says. “The manager of that cafeteria and I got together and determined what we would need and how we could set it up so it would work on a daily basis, with limited negative results. It was a change and any change is a little difficult at first, but now the students have got to the point where it’s just routine.”

The washable trays have been added at all the elementary schools and the two middle schools. The transition at the high school will be a little trickier because of the two service levels. Stracke says there is no dishwasher at the upstairs servery, so the plan is to implement the washable trays just at the lower-level cafeteria.

“Because of the amount of business we do on the upper level, switching to washable trays up there would force us to add labor,” Stracke says. “We’re doing stainless cutlery at two elementary schools right now. We’re rolling the silverware out one school at a time during the course of this semester. It has really been a pleasant surprise at the elementary schools. Yes, we have lost some of the new silverware but not to the extent that we thought we would.” 

Making the Case for Trayless

As hundreds of college campuses make the decision to go trayless in all-you-care-to-eat dining halls, those that haven’t made the switch yet, like the 50,000-student University of Texas at Austin, are making a case to their students to give it a try. Scott Meyer, associate director of housing and foodservice, says his department conducted a waste study that found that 112 tons of edible food waste was thrown away during last school year.

FoodService Director - field trip- Dell - University of Texas - Foodservice in Austin, Tex.“Seeing the amount of waste we generated last year was eye-opening,” Meyer says. “So we decided to make trays optional first and then measure that to see how we did. I think it has to come from the customers. Our tagline for going trayless is “Friends Don’t Let Friends Waste Food.” So we want to see if education and peer pressure can help reduce food waste. We have signage up that encourages students to forgo taking a tray. Four different times we’ve done an actual promotion where we asked them to not take a tray. As they entered the dining halls, we let them know about the promotion and then when they went to the dish drop off, if they didn’t have a tray, we gave them a coupon for a free iced tea. Each time we’ve done those promotions, I’d say about 20%-25% didn’t take trays.” Meyer says they also made a display of trash bags, which represented how much waste the dining halls generated to promote going trayless. The plan is to do another waste study in October to see how the “trays are optional” effort is working.

Another effort to reduce waste has already begun for Meyer with the switch to biodegradable and compostable take-out items made from corn or sugar.

“We’ve already started making the switch to these new biodegradable items,” Meyer says. “They cost about 30% more but we are planning to offset some of those costs by changes in the way we package. It used to be you’d have people get a plate and they’d put that big clear plastic lid on it if they wanted it to go. Well, that lid costs 40 cents. So what we are setting up now is what I’m calling ‘to-go stations.’ So if you want your food to go, you take your plate over to these stations and you wrap it yourself.”

Although the new products are biodegradable and compostable, the university doesn’t have a composting program in place yet. However, Meyer says that is the ultimate goal. Currently, the department uses pulpers in all the dish rooms. Meyer says they recently purchased a machine that takes the pulped material and cooks it down to a drier mixture called “soil amendment.”

“We’re testing this new machine for 60 days,” Meyer says. “It’s called a eCorect Waste Reducer. The pulper alone reduces waste by 88% and then when you put the remaining amount in this machine, it reduces it another 90%. So when you’re done, you’ve got 3%-5% of the original mass to deal with, so it’s very green just as it is. Our ideal would be to get our landscape crews to mix it with the soil they use on campus.”

Meyer’s team has also worked to address waste created by plastic bottles and plastic bags. As part of the university’s “Bleed Orange, Think Green” campaign, Meyer’s department gave out aluminum water bottles to the 107 resident assistants.

“Typically if our resident assistants are putting on a program for their floors, we would provide bottled beverages,” Meyer says. “Now our policy is to not pay for anything in a plastic bottle. So we gave the resident assistants the aluminum bottles to get them to encourage the students on their floors during those meetings to bring their own drinking container. We also sell the aluminum bottles in our c-stores for $7.99.”
Another part of the “Bleed Orange, Think Green” campaign is encouraging reusable bags at the c-stores.

“To promote the bags, we created bag tags that worked like a punch card,” Meyer says. “When the student uses his bag, he gets a punch. After five punches, they get a free aluminum water bottle. After 10 punches, they get a free T-shirt.” The campaign is most evident on Go Green Tuesdays when all the retail employees wear green T-shirts to promote these initiatives.

Purchasing locally is another important aspect to Meyer’s operations. The department participates in a Texas Farm Direct program in conjunction with the Austin Sustainable Center, which acts as a vendor to small local farms, to purchase produce from local farmers. Meyer also has worked with his prime vendor, U.S. Foodservice, to make sure it tries to source as much local product as possible.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the efforts we’ve been making, but our prime vendor partnered with a local grower recently, and I’ll say it was just in time. Our main local provider was a farmer that doesn’t use pesticides—he’s organic but not certified organic. All of the fields that surround his fields are cotton and they sprayed the pesticides on the surrounding lands so all the worms came over and got in his crops, so he had to plow his fields over. We were not going to have anything from him for five or six weeks. Just in time, U.S. Foodserivce was able to provide us with locally grown bell peppers, zucchini, sweet potatoes and jalapeños. So we’ll still be able to have some Farm Direct product through this trying time.”

Meyer also runs a featured Texas Fresh Focus program, where he chooses a locally grown item such as watermelon, strawberries or pecans to feature in all the dining operations. The department also hosts a Texas local dinner once a semester where the entire meal is prepared using local foods.

However, one of the most apparent changes to the resident dining operations this year was the addition of daily specials to some of the stations. Meyer says he had his executive chefs hire sous chefs in order to improve quality and variety as much as possible.

“We always want to enhance the variety of the items we’re serving,” Meyer says. “This push was aimed at more trendy items such as specialty burgers and pizzas. Whereas in the past, we had three pizza options every day, now we’ve added a specialty pizza that changes daily. It’s the same with the burger station. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, and then on a certain day you can get a burger with Cheddar and caramelized onions. It’s just more variety within the three-week cycle menu.” 

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