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Gary Coltek: Seeking what’s next

Coltek used his passion for sustainability to transform his program.

At a Glance

  • 16,000 students on meal plan
  • Nine dining locations
  • 230 employees
  • Up to 8,000 residential meals served a day 

Accomplishments

GARY COLTEK has transformed dining services at KENNESAW STATE UNIVERSITY by:

  • IMPLEMENTING small-batch cooking into The Commons dining hall infrastructure, allowing more dishes to be made to order
  • MAKING sustainability the program’s backbone, from a closed-loop waste management system to using product from three campus farms
  • SPEARHEADING the creation of a new culinary sustainability and hospitality academic program
  • BUILDING a team with varied skill sets that doesn’t need to be micromanaged 

When the foodservice program at a 25,000-student university in a suburb of Atlanta bests the behemoth that is the Walt Disney World Resort, its director demands to be noticed.

Under Gary Coltek, director of culinary and hospitality services, Kennesaw State University’s dining department has created a program that upstages many others, especially when it comes to sustainability. Dining services’ efforts have been so impressive the department was rewarded earlier this year with the National Restaurant Association’s Innovator of the Year Award, which earned the department its bragging rights over Disney, which was also up for the award.

While Coltek is quick to credit his team, and his foodservice partner, Sodexo, with the department’s accomplishments, Melissa McMahon, marketing manager, says it is Coltek who sets the tone for the department’s success.

“He’s the ideas man,” McMahon says. “He has such an incredible vision and imagination when it comes to what he is passionate about, which is providing healthy and delicious food for our students, and sustainability. He makes it so difficult to not be as passionate as he is. You can either be doing the same thing every day or you can be pushed, and it’s really great to work in an atmosphere that pushes you to be better every day.”

The Commons

Coltek’s big ideas started upon his arrival at Kennesaw State University (KSU) in 2007. After he had retired from a career working as a chef in high-end hotels and restaurants, Coltek came to KSU to start a continuing education culinary apprenticeship program. That was when the university’s president enlisted him to help design the campus’s new residential dining hall, The Commons. Coltek was named director in 2009, just in time for The Commons to open to much acclaim.

“From my experience as a chef I knew immediately I wanted to build a facility around the idea of small-batch cooking,” Coltek says. “When I looked around at other universities, and we visited quite a few, everything was being cooked in bulk. We wanted a fresher approach, so we actually designed the building around that. To accomplish our goals, everyone has to stay in their stations for that three-hour lunch rush. So we had to design the stations so employees had no reason to leave. Every line station has its own hand sink, pots and pans station, refrigeration and freezer space.”

The Commons features nine stations that make nearly everything from scratch: Piati (pasta/pizza), Dan’s Deli (sandwiches/soups), Campus Green (salad bar), Apron Strings (comfort foods), Globetrotter (an international station that changes weekly), Highway 41 (burgers/cheesesteaks/fries), Wok Your Way (Asian), Stone Mill Bakery (scratch-made bakery) and a coffee station. Coltek estimates that the department makes about 85% of its items from scratch.

“The space itself has kind of a Disney cruise ship look to it,” Coltek says. “It has bright colors, curved lines, an open floor plan and every station looks a little different. It’s an atmosphere that invites students to hang out. You come in and you want to stay.”

Sustainability

“Our whole focus is on the triple bottom line—people, planet and profit,” says Rob Nolen, associate director. “[Gary wants us to ask,] what can we do on this campus to not only benefit our students but also minimize our environmental impact? How can we provide better opportunities through education about what we are doing? What of those things can supplement the bottom line, be it through cost savings or realizing revenue through additional resources?”

The answers to those questions start in the dining hall with the department’s closed-loop waste management system. The department composts about 60,000 pounds of food waste per month. The composted waste is processed into a nutrient-dense water source, which is used as irrigation at the campus farms, thus closing the loop. The operation also diverts 44,000 pounds of non-compostable waste a month from landfills, and more than 220 gallons of cooking oil is recycled annually for use as biodiesel.

Beyond waste management, it is what the department has been able to procure locally that is really impressive. The department receives the bounty of three campus farms, an on-campus permaculture garden and more than 10 hydroponic units located in The Commons.

For Coltek, this passion for sustainability was ingrained from an early age. “My grandparents had a farm in upstate New York where we’d work in the spring and summer,” Coltek says. “I remember taking the kitchen scraps out and dumping them in the field. We were taught to respect the land and the oceans.”

Culinary program

Coltek and his team have recently fused this passion for great food and sustainability by launching a new academic program for the university that will award degrees in culinary sustainability and hospitality.

“When I first came to the university, starting a culinary program was one of the first initiatives I discussed with the university president,” Coltek says. “Then last year we hired a director and we’ll be accepting our first students this fall.”

The program will offer a B.S. in culinary sustainability and hospitality, which the program prospectus says is “designed as a unique approach to the study of culinary and hospitality management, transcending the traditional culinary arts or hospitality management curricula to incorporate and infuse the study of sustainable best-practices employed around the world, emphasizing areas like food science, nutrition, agroecology, resource conservation, as well as essential business skills/abilities.” In addition to classwork, students will also partake in internships.

Coltek says the university took a different approach with its culinary program than those at other universities, which he says usually design the academic program first, then build a lab.

“With the construction of The Commons, the farms and the hydroponics, we basically built the lab first,” Coltek says. “We smoke our own meats and make our own cheeses and pickles. We’re looking into putting in a dry-aged meat room. The facility is also one of the largest freestanding LEED-certified Gold dining halls in the country.

“What excites me is that students who have an interest in our field don’t have to leave the state anymore,” Coltek says. “When they leave the state, they don’t usually come back. Another great thing about the program is that it is teaching what is relevant now. Some programs are still teaching old techniques. This is teaching what chefs need to know right now.”

Team building

Coltek credits the “best team in the country” with all his success. How was he able to build it?

“Every single member of our team are people I have hand picked,” Coltek says. “A lot of them grow into their positions and all of them have earned their responsibilities. We all work off each other every single day. I come up with ideas and they bring me back to reality. I think the biggest job they have is keeping me in check. I never micromanage. I let the pilot fly the plane. I present the end goal and [the staff] knows how to get there.”

McMahon says Coltek has also created a collaborative team environment.

“He puts people around him with varying skill sets that are able to do many things in many areas,” McMahon says. “I may be the marketing manager, but I have my hands in pretty much every aspect of the business here. I would say the same about everyone on our team. Gary’s very good about picking people who really know their business, so we have a really nice cohesive group.”  

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