Mike Rice: Spartan Success

Mike Rice has followed in the footsteps of another Silver Plate winner, Ted Smith, but he has put his own stamp on this mammoth foodservice operation.

FoodService Director - Spotlight - Mike Rice - Silver plate

At A Glance:H. Michael Rice
•Director, Auxiliary Services
•Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.
•Hometown: Three Rivers, Mich.
•BS from Michigan State’s College of Business, School of Hospitality Business.
•Enjoys hunting and fishing, collects wildlife art

•Directs auxiliary services, including foodservice, for the largest university foodservice operation in  the U.S., with a volume of $43 million per year. MSU has 14 residential dining units, eight convenience stores, 12 coffee shops, two food courts, the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center, vending and a sports concessions operation that generates $3.1 million per year. Auxiliary Services has 800 full-time employees.

•Mike helped design the foodservice component of the $65 million addition to Spartan Stadium. He then created Concessions Catering to handle the new business.

•Partnered with various academic departments on campus to strategically locate 12 retail coffee shops throughout campus. Auxiliary Services and the colleges have shared in the build-out costs and the revenue, “and we’ve got some nice operations because of that.”

Mike Rice is a rare bird in college foodservice, a man who found a place he liked as a student and stayed there as an employee. In his 32-year career he has seen, and implemented, a host of foodservice changes, from the branding of food courts to the explosive popularity of coffee bars. Now, he prepares to take his career in a new direction—teaching—while still staying true to his alma mater.

“I started working at Michigan State as a student in 1971. I graduated in 1975 and started on Jan. 5, 1976, as a full-time university employee. So I’m in my 32nd year of employment at Michigan State. I think I’ve stayed because there were challenges and opportunities throughout my career because of the size of the institution. So I’ve been able to work my way up the ladder over the years while tackling those challenges. Had those opportunities not been there I may well have gone to another university.

Working on a college campus, change is ever-present. Whether it’s a menu item or a procurement need, whether it’s a new style of service that students want and trying to make it work within cost parameters, whatever it may be there are myriad issues and challenges to solve.

Over the years we’ve changed our meal plans significantly, expanded our offerings and implemented a new debit card system to  give students the opportunity to purchase retail in our food courts, our coffee shops and our convenience stores. We gave more autonomy to our individual dining units to create menus that would serve the needs of students in their own residence halls in each of our 14 locations. In more recent years we’ve made lots of changes to our concessions operations by broadening and expanding the menu, bringing in more concepts and partnering with local vendors to add variety to our concessions operations.

We’ve done a lot of things to involve the local community, whether it’s expanding our debit program to include 30 off-campus operators who are now part of our debit program, or partnering with local vendors to make them more successful. For example, we partnered with Paramount Coffee Co. and they’ve developed some custom blends for us. We partnered with another local company to sell fresh hummus and tabbouleh and other fresh Mediterranean-type products.

One of the biggest changes in college foodservice in my career has been the expansion of service hours. I think the other big one has been the increase in choice and variety of menu items and food products and the expansion of retail concepts. When I started we had no c-stores, we had no coffee shops, we had no branded food courts. There was only a self-operated cafeteria in the center of campus.
I’m always looking at what other universities are doing, but I think today we certainly look to the whole retail side—the restaurant chains and the fast food chains—because really we have all of those kinds of things in some way, shape or form on our campus too, whether it’s fine dining restaurants or fast food outlets or convenience stores. We’re involved in many more trade organizations than we ever were before. We get all the trade publications, so we’re really looking at the foodservice industry as a whole as opposed to just looking at our niche of college and university dining. We can’t be narrowly focused because the ideas are everywhere.

My management style has always been a collaborative style, to listen to people, not to make quick judgments, to be able to let people work on their own and delegate as much as possible but provide what oversight is necessary. I want my people to be successful, allow them to take risks and work on their own, and I don’t want to micromanage.

My previous boss, Chuck Gagliano, who just retired, was probably the one I gained the most from as far as my management style, but I learned from him that you don’t necessarily emulate or take on the traits of another individual. You have to find what works for you. He was never one who proposed, ‘do it my way;’ we had different ways of approaching things and we still got the job done.

About four years ago I started to teach a class in on-site foodservice in the school of hospitality business. Previous to that I’ve worked closely with our hospitality school, helping them in any way I could, as guest lecturer, taking on interns, partnering on all kinds of things. But this last four years was the first time I actually structured and taught a class for a full semester. Through that experience I was able to be closer to students than through my role in auxiliary services or even dining services. Through that effort I’ve kind of determined to change careers next summer, to leave my present position and teach in our hospitality school, and maybe do some other things as well. It was that teaching opportunity that led me to make the decision to leave my present role.

Hospitality programs need to add more exposure to the on-site world and opportunities available in it at the entry level. The courses that have been developed certainly work in opening students’ eyes but I don’t think many of them are required courses. They need to integrate more of noncommercial foodservice to more entry-level classes.

I’d like to be remembered as a manager who listened to employees, who had the best interest of both the customers and the employees at heart, who was fair and honest in his approach to how he managed his facilities, was collaborative in working with staff and students and collaborative with the university.

I’m not trying to be the salesman for on-site foodservice jobs. Students are going to go to the hotel chains and the restaurant chains and other jobs, and that’s fine. But I like to share with them my experience more than anything else. Whenever I share  how I met a challenge or solved a problem on campus, I try to relate how they will be in that exact same situation someday no matter where they work. 

I  have a cottage in southwest Michigan, and I like to go there on the weekends and just relax. I like to hunt and fish, more hunting than fishing. I hunt mainly turkey in the spring and I go deer hunting in the fall. I also go squirrel and rabbit hunting, small game.”

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