Outside Inspiration

To satisfy customers, non-commercial operators seek new ideas from their commercial counterparts.

We at FoodService Director have long been committed to providing operators with ideas to do their jobs better, often by sharing ideas from within the industry. But we decided it was time to expand our horizons. We spoke to operators about where they go when they are looking for actionable innovation outside of their operations, be it at a fine-dining restaurant, a fast-casual concept or their favorite neighborhood joint.

By far the commercial segment that is having the biggest impact on the non-commercial industry is the quick-serve/fast-casual industry, according to operators.

Dean Wright, director of dining services at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says he has a long-held belief that foodservice directors must be like academics, but instead of “publish or perish” they must “travel or perish.”

“What I mean by travel is you must leave your operation’s confines and regularly go out to eat,” Wright says. “We like to do a strategy planning where we benchmark against what is already out there. We will visit places that do a particular item very well. For example, with burgers we went to In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, Wendy’s and Smashburger to try them out. Those are all totally different routes to go with burgers. But we made a field trip to all those and then we would sit down and decide which route we wanted to take. We don’t want to necessarily just copy them. We want to see how we can put our own stamp on things.”

These trips don’t only provide ideas for food. For example, In-N-Out Burger’s cleanliness and staff training also inspired Wright. “They have somehow developed a training program, or their pay is right, that when you go in there everyone has a smile on their face even when they are very busy,” Wright says. “That is so rare. We can certainly learn from that.”

Larry Gates, director of dining services at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, also turned to Five Guys for inspiration when planning his campus burger concept.

“We used to have a franchise burger place on campus, but we asked the students if they’d be satisfied if we made our own concept based on the Five Guys model, where you walk in, order your burger and they cook it for you on the spot,” Gates says. “We started using that concept, and now we have a very successful burger program in place of a franchised location.”

Industrywide, the operational structures of places like Five Guys are easily adaptable models for many non-commercial operations. Perhaps the most popular and ubiquitous of these service models is the Chipotle/Subway model.

Jon Lewis, director of Campus Dining Services at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., says the idea of moving down an assembly line with your food has definitely become the norm for his department.

“For our in-house Mexican restaurant, Caliente, we modeled it after Chipotle,” Lewis says. “We’ve also simply copied Subway, which is the same kind of model, following the sandwich down the line. [That model] gives a sense that the line is moving. I still think the commercial industry is better at executing the model than we are, but it’s something we are working on.”

Deon Lategan, director of dining services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, also modeled a Mexican concept as a cross between Chipotle and a local concept called Big City Burrito.

“The first thing I do is look at our customers,” Lategan says. “What is it that will appeal to them? What appeals to a 19-year-old doesn’t necessarily appeal to my management team or me. Burrito concepts are big here. What struck me about one local concept, Big City Burrito, [which has a service style similar to Chipotle’s] was that there was a line around the block at 9 on a Sunday morning, which is unheard of in a college town. Kids were lining up to get breakfast burritos. So I saw how popular burritos had become and said we needed to do our own burrito concept on campus.”

Lategan’s team is in the middle of a renovation where it will be adding a similar concept for noodles, which is modeled after Noodles & Co. and a local place called Tokyo Joe. This new location will use the same assembly line process applied to Asian and Italian noodle dishes.

Lategan says his first success with this type of service model, a Mongolian grill, taught him how important it was to be flexible in adopting these concepts.

“My original idea for [the Mongolian grill] was Fire & Ice in Boston,” Lategan says. “However, the Mongolian grill’s problem is if you have to feed a large group of people. We can turn one customer every 40 seconds, which is pretty good unless you are the 40th person in line.”

Students are given a choice. They can either wait in line, pick their ingredients and dining services will cook it for them in 40 seconds or they can select a prepared stir-fry and skip the line.

Ball State’s Lewis says his team also gets ideas from specials that fast food outlets are running, such as a recent Philly cheese steak promo from Jack in the Box. The university’s chefs created their own version and students liked it.

Schools are also taking popular fast food items and offering them for students. Kern Halls, area manager for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., replicated the KFC mashed potato bowl.

“We call it a popcorn chicken bowl,” Halls says. “We replicated KFC’s bowl with healthier items and marketed it to students. That’s one of our biggest hits on the menus.”

Halls also studies commercial grab-and-go outlets for ideas he can incorporate.

“We knew that grab-and-go concepts were big in school foodservice, but I didn’t like the way it was being done,” Halls says. “We do an upscale Happy Meal-type item. It’s in a black box. We have one with chicken tenders, potato wedges, a dinner roll and a Rice Krispies Treat. On a good day with chicken tenders in the hot line we might sell 150 meals. I put that item in a box and put a sticker on it and that same item started selling 800 a day. I had to take a couple of items off the menu on the days that I menu that because it was so popular.”

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., Tony Almeida, director of food and nutrition, says if a restaurant is going to take the time to advertise something, then his department is going to capitalize on it.

“If we see a commercial, then our customers see it too,” Almeida says. “They just do the advertising for us. For example, Subway has been marketing their healthy sandwiches. So we’re doing a 600-calories-for-six-bucks deal. You get a sandwich, fruit and a bottle of water. It’s prepackaged and there will be a different sandwich each day.”

And it’s not just sandwich concepts that inspire operators. Mark Eggleston, director of hospitality services at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash., recently stole an idea from Starbucks.

“We borrowed an idea I saw at Starbucks called protein packs,” Eggleston says. “Basically it’s a pre-packaged grab-and-go item that has a roll, cheese stick, peanut butter, egg and fruit. We tried this in our retail area and even put something similar together for our emergency room patients waiting area.”

Sit-down restaurants of all types continually inspire operators, especially with menu items, says Robert Darrah, director of dining services at Legacy Retirement Communities in Lincoln, Neb.

“In senior living, I would say 75% of our residents never venture out to eat because all of our ancillary services are available on site,” Darrah says. “When planning menus, we have to keep this in mind. Imagine if you went to the same restaurant each and every night. If the food wasn’t innovative or creative, you would become very bored with it in a hurry.”

Darrah says he challenges his staff to take pictures or notes whenever they go out to eat and have a menu item that could work in their operation. He even encourages them to ask for recipes or speak to a restaurant’s chef to ask how a certain dish is prepared.

“I just returned from a weeklong cruise and we’re currently working to recreate several entrées that I encountered in Jamaica and the Grand Cayman Islands,” Darrah says. “While I was on the cruise, I asked to see the chef and not only was he extremely helpful answering my questions, he invited me to tour the kitchen and galley the following morning. It was very cool.”

Darrah says his team has recreated items from several popular chain restaurants including The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s and Applebee’s.

“We’ve done The Cheesecake Factory’s Baja chicken tacos, chicken Madeira and a pasta dish that used farfalle with chicken and roasted garlic,” he says. “We’ve recreated P.F. Chang’s crispy beef, orange chicken and spicy cashew chicken. We’ve also recreated several entrée salads from Applebee’s, one favorite being the Santa Fe chicken salad. We’ve been unsuccessful in replicating some dishes, not knowing their ‘secret’ ingredients. The Internet is a great resource when trying to replicate a restaurant’s entrées.”

A visit to Benihana inspired David Friend, director of dining services at West Virginia University in Morgantown, to ask his sous chef to recreate a dish he had at the restaurant.

“When I eat out I often wonder how I can ultimately incorporate the menu item or concept into our operations at WVU,” Friend says. “I was at Benihana and had a terrific Asian lettuce wrap. I told our sous chef—because he develops menus for our chef express station—about this item and two weeks later he featured a very similar product for our students at lunch.”

Some B&I operators, on the other hand, are more likely to take from local fine-dining restaurants, especially those locations with a more upscale customer base.
Rick Stromire, general manager for Bon Appétit at Starbucks’ headquarters café—SOBO Kitchen in Seattle—says that instead of taking inspiration from the client, his team looks at local fare to see how to take trendy food and make it work for them.

“The nice thing is we have such great variety in our stations here that we can get inspired by every type of restaurant in town, be it Thai, Italian, French, etc.,” Stromire says. “We can access those menus and see what’s happening now.”

For example, Stromire is currently offering a lot of pork belly in reaction to what he has seen in local restaurants.

“The really cool thing to do is take the whole pork belly and put it on a rotisserie and let it slowly cook,” he says. “Then we pull it out and do a nice carve on it and then make a variety of sandwiches with arugula, onions or a nice jam or au jus. Last week we had local lamb and we prepared that on the rotisserie. I’ve seen lamb like that served downtown at restaurants as a nice plated entrée.”

One big commercial trend that has already made an impact for Stromire is smaller portions. His team prepares minis, aka sliders, which sell very well. Sliders have also made an appearance on Orange County Public Schools’ menus, says Lora Gilbert, senior director of food and nutrition services. Gilbert says the district has also added other restaurant-inspired items.

“We have a Southwest veggie wrap, which definitely follows the light and vegetarian trends you are seeing in restaurants,” Gilbert says. “We also see yogurt parfaits everywhere, and we have committed to only serving ours with fresh fruit. Additionally, our toppers for the salads reflect restaurant trends. We have three that are especially trendy: one that is topped with colored tortilla strips, black beans and whole kernel corn; the second is topped with seasoned croutons, diced red apples and crackers; and the third is topped with grape tomatoes, diced carrots, sugar snap peas and croutons.”
Gilbert says the district is also trying to cater to the trend of spicy food by adding jalapeño pepper cheese to items and creating a spicy black bean burger and spicy chicken sandwiches. A jalapeño ranch dressing was recently tested, and students loved it, Gilbert adds.

Adding flavors found in the commercial sector is how Jeff Shaffer, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services at Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, incorporates commercial themes into his operation.

“Pittsburgh is really meat and potatoes, so I’m trying to get some of those other flavor profiles into traditional dishes so they’ll be more accepted,” Shaffer says. “One example was when we did meatloaf but used turkey instead of beef, and I created a chipotle and mango glaze on it. It still looks and feels like meatloaf, but it has a more ‘commercial’ flavor profile that some of my customers wouldn’t necessarily have tried.”

Shaffer looks for these flavor profiles at several small gastropubs in the area. “These places have a more adventurous clientele, and I like to go there to see what they are doing,” he says. “Some [ideas] work for us and some of them don’t. We tried a red eye gravy that I’d seen in one of the pubs, which is made with black coffee. We put it on one of our wild game burgers, but it didn’t go over too well. The customers weren’t fans of the coffee flavor in that instance.”

Incorporating authentic ethnic cuisine is one of the most evident ways commercial establishments influence non-commercial locations, according to operators. As customers become more accustomed to visiting Asian, Indian and other more exotic restaurants, operators must keep up and offer these items as well. Orange County’s Halls says about three years ago he noticed that Asian products were becoming really popular.

“We went to the food courts in the malls to see where the students were hanging out and what they were eating,” Halls says. “A lot of them were eating at Panda Express and other Asian-type restaurants. At that time, we didn’t have any authentic Asian products in the school foodservice arena, so I approached a company and asked them if they would be interested in making items for school foodservice. About a year and a half later the company started developing Asian products for us. In the food court there was an item called bourbon chicken. Of course, we can’t use that name, so we developed a new name, New Orleans chicken. Two other items they developed for us are kung pao chicken and a tangerine chicken.”

Asian is also a hot cuisine at Food for Thought Enterprises Hospitality Group accounts, according to Vice President Russ Benson.

“Vietnamese is having a big influence in our area,” Benson says. “We’ve seen lots of pho and bánh mì shops popping up—and why not? There seems to be a great balance between light and heavy in that cuisine. Pho is dinner in soup form. You can dress it up and serve it with an eight-minute duck egg and braised short ribs or go simple with sliced chicken and ramen noodles.”

Larry Bates, director of dining services at Riddle Village in Media, Pa., says he looks for ways to work in Thai and Asian.

“Some of the Asian foods are starting to make a mark in the retirement area,” Bates says. “I do a Thai chicken satay, a curry shrimp, chow mein and some different fried rices. I think that the skill level of culinary preparation is being altered now. Our staff have to be a little more technical and advanced than what existed in the past for the [non-commercial industry because our customers expect what they see in restaurants]. Things are changing and the boomers are going to expect more [from their dining options], so we better be ready for them.”

Commercial operations are run so differently from non-commercial facilities that it can be difficult to see where operators can adapt. But there are many ways commercial ideas regarding operations and design can influence the foodservice industry.

Brigham Young University’s Wright says one thing he can’t seem to copy from fast food/fast casual locations is something he calls “the mystique of putting on a shirt.”

“What I mean by that is I have a self-branded pizza concept on campus and a franchised Pizza Hut location,” Wright says. “The struggle that I have on a college campus is I have a student employee that when they know it is my brand, they want to improve on the recipes—adding cheese or sauce and not following the recipe. And yet that same employee, working at the Pizza Hut, as soon as they put that uniform on they will follow that recipe exactly. It’s the magic of the shirt. I would love to import whatever that magic is into our operation.

“What I’ve learned from concepts that have this is that if I’m going to do my own concept, I have to be as committed to that concept as the commercial world would be. That’s the system that makes them successful.”

WVU’s Friend says he’s seen renovation designs and new builds on college campuses that are also incorporating commercial concepts.

“[The fact that the norm is] food is no longer stored, prepared and cooked in the back of the house and presented at the point of service came from commercial concepts,” Friend says. “We are now geared to moving production to the front of the house so that students see their food being prepared at pizza ovens, platform cooking venues, grills, deli operations, etc. Today’s students want to be engaged in the preparation and customization of their dining experience due to the commercial dining segment and the evolution of the Food Network.”

Making customers feel comfortable in their surroundings is why Brian Axworthy, executive chef for Colorado Springs School District 11, thinks commercial design has made such an impact in the non-commercial market.

“Foodservice customers across the board, whether we’re talking about fast food, casual family dining or institutional foodservice, all gauge their surroundings when they enter the premises,” Axworthy notes. “As expectations have risen over the years, our customers’ loyalties have shifted toward facilities in which they are comfortable and proud to be seen by their peers. So a redesign of facility will get our customers in the door, make them comfortable and create the pleasant atmosphere. The next step is consistent food quality, presentation and service.”

Operators see the influence of their commercial counterparts on the non-commercial industry only growing in the future. WVU’s Friend thinks the trend to provide students the ability to customize menu selections will continue to escalate in the next two years.

“Concepts that allow students to select specific ingredients, sauces and condiments that reflect their personal preferences [will be big],” Friend says. “Innovations in technology will also expand, including QR codes for everything from specific nutritional information to marketing promotions. I also think that remote ordering via phones, tablets and laptops may become more mainstream on campuses to improve transaction times and portability for students.”

Eastern Michigan’s Gates agrees that technology will have a big impact in the future.

“Self-order kiosks where students put their food order in for pickup later in the day are growing in popularity,” Gates says. “Or the ability for students to place orders from their iPhone or iPad, which can also accept payments, I think that’s an area to watch.”

Other trends that operators say they are following included housemade sodas, increased use of kale, arugula and other dark greens, gluten-free dining, the increased use of organic items and, perhaps most of all, different ethnic menu choices.

Orange County’s Halls says the three biggest things on the radar are Thai food, Indian cuisine and hibachi-type concepts.

“Hibachi restaurants are really big in Florida,” Halls says. “I asked a vendor who had a hibachi restaurant if they were interested in getting into school foodservice. They’ve been working with us for a year to get something going.”  


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