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Peter Fischbach: Complacency Killer

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Peter Fischbach wages war on the status quo.

At a Glance

Accomplishments

PETER FISCHBACH has transformed the dining services department at NEW JERSEY INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY by:

  • DEVELOPING a vast series of specials and monotony breakers to keep dining fresh for customers
  • CREATING an authentic Indian/Asian concept as part of a larger focus on ethnic cuisines
  • WORKING with Gourmet Dining’s sustainability coordinator to implement a rooftop garden and more local purchasing
  • PROMOTING a healthy eating program that offers students choices rather than mandates

Peter Fischbach considers complacency to be a dirty word, and the director of food services for Gourmet Dining Services at 9,500-student New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J., fights against it every day.

“Complacency is a killer,” Fischbach says. “A lot of people believe that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I believe the opposite. I believe if it’s not broke, break it and make it better. There is always room for improvement. You can always find a way to do things better and faster and more efficiently. The key is to stay up on current trends so you can keep the students interested in what [dining is] doing. The only way to do that is through a hands-on approach.”

It is this mind set that has made Fischbach [who is also regional director of culinary development for Gourmet Dining corporate] an effective director, according to Anthony Frungillo, vice president of operations for Madison, N.J.-based Gourmet Dining Services.

“Peter is an extremely driven individual with a passion for food and perfection,” Frungillo says. “He constantly raises the bar to never become complacent in what he or his staff does. Peter’s implementation of specials and interactivity has been paramount to help develop a strong sense of community involvement on campus.”

Frungillo also notes that Fischbach likes to compete whenever he gets the chance. This competitive streak helped give birth to one of the accomplishments of which Fischbach says he is most proud—the department’s monotony breakers and specials.

“I’m an extremely competitive person,” Fischbach says. “[Frungillo] always did special events at [another location] and then he wanted me to introduce them here. When I saw what he was doing I would always try to outdo whatever he was doing and he would [do the same]. It just turned into this rivalry amongst our college campuses of who can do the better special. We actually put out incentives where [staffs] would take pictures and whoever’s account had the best special would get a $200 gift card, just to keep that competitive spirit going. Some of the specials have really taken off.”

Fischbach says his monotony breakers started with a student “Iron Chef” competition, which eventually morphed into a competition based on the Food Network show “Chopped,” and then most recently into an event based on The Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food.”

“We’ve had ‘Man v. Food’ events for hot wings, five-pound hamburgers and Sicilian pizza,” Fischbach says. “We try to do at least three big events [like “Man v. Food] per semester, which is where we give away [a prize like] $200 in flex dollars or an iPad. We have other specials we run weekly, such as International Day [where dining focuses on the cuisine of a specific country] on Wednesdays.”

Another popular special event NJIT offers is a series of cooking classes called “Cooking with Pete,” which was one of the first outreach programs the department developed. Fischbach explains that the team wanted to become more engaged with the students and become a larger part of the campus community. One of the things staff suggested, he adds, was a cooking class.

“[At first] I did one or two classes, which were open to students, faculty and staff,” Fischbach says. “We had such tremendous success that we now try to offer three classes a semester. Every time we offer a class, it sells out. We usually get about 20 to 30 people. I’ll do a cooking demo and show the participants how to cook certain things. I’ll hand out pamphlets with the recipes and some cooking notes. Also, we’ll have a buffet of the food for them to sample and I answer any cooking questions they have.”

Coordinating and planning all these special events begins in the summer. The key for Fischbach is to get everyone on the team involved in brainstorming and planning the events and specials.

“We usually have a meeting with myself, the assistant director and the executive chef, and we’ll plan out what we want to do,” Fischbach says. “Then the chef will go back to the kitchen staff and [for example, for the International Day countries] he says, ‘we have five countries, but we need five more countries.’ We’ll get them involved and that way they have a say in what they are doing rather than just being told what they are doing. It keeps them motivated. With the big events we just try and see what would be fun, what the current trends are and see how we can fold that into what’s going on. Plus, we poll the students and ask them what they’d like to see.”

Adventures in ethnic: Fischbach’s passion for new flavors extends beyond the weekly International Day. Fischbach created an Indian/Asian retail concept called Café Spice in order to improve ethnic food options for customers.

We put in Café Spice about two years ago,” Fischbach says. “We actually revamped the space this past year. It now offers Indian classics such as channa masala and chicken tikka. We added some naan sandwiches and a Thai salad. We’ve had tremendous success. It’s not just Indian—we also have some Mediterranean items like spreads. Everything is halal so it [also] serves that community. We made the space brighter and a little friendlier. We also added some value meals where students could come in and get like samosas chaat, which would be a samosas, channa masala, naan bread and a lemonade or iced tea for $6. We worked on making [the food] more affordable.”

For International Day, Fischbach says the department has featured cuisine from countries like Portugal or Germany and also countries with lesser known cuisine such as Ethiopia or Liechtenstein. Fischbach says throwing these different countries into the mix also is good for the staff because it gives them a chance to do research and try new things.

“Green” team: One new project that Fischbach launched was to team with Gourmet Dining’s sustainability coordinator to install a rooftop garden.

“I worked with Julie Aiello [director of sustainability and marketing for Gourmet Dining] to make [sustainability-type initiatives] happen,” Fischbach says. “For the garden, I put the prototype garden up on the roof, and once she saw we had success with it, she is the one who expanded it.”

The 220-square-foot garden currently grows a variety of herbs and produce. The garden isn’t the department’s only source of local produce. Fischbach says about 30% of the department’s produce comes from the state of New Jersey. The produce is obtained through partnerships with farms that are willing to send to NJIT’s distributor without any special ordering.

Healthy habits: Something else that is new for the department is its focus on healthy menu items. Fischbach says the department recently installed a whole-grains bar, where the chefs are able to maximize the bounty from the rooftop garden.

“We’ll have a lemon parsley quinoa salad or a beet salad with farro or a honey pecan wild rice salad at the bar,” says Fischbach. “The bar has six different types of whole-grain salads every day. We utilize the rooftop garden whenever it’s available to put the produce into that bar.”

The department’s philosophy on healthy food is based on the fact that you can’t force people to eat healthy foods, Fischbach says.

“We try to work in healthy practices where they make sense,” Fischbach says. “You’ve got to give [customers] the options. One of the things we are in the process of doing is providing a way for students to count calories. That way even if students still wanted to get a hamburger they could see the calories and perhaps choose to get a healthy side. We are in the process of developing new nutritional cards that have a barcode that you can scan with your smartphone, which will tell you what the caloric count on that item is. Hopefully that will be in place by the middle of next semester or next fall. It’s a way for students to be healthy without having to be ‘healthy,’ so to speak. It’s a way to eat healthy without taking away the things they really want. You can’t make students eat healthy, but you can give them the opportunity to be healthy.”

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