People

Rafi Taherian: Making Memories

Rafi Taherian’s commitment to excellence has brought Yale back to self-op from contract.

At a Glance

Accomplishments

RAFI TAHERIAN has transformed dining services at YALE UNIVERSITY by:

  • MANAGING the transition of Yale Dining from a contracted account to a self-operated program
  • RECRUITING top talent, part of a commitment to excellence in service and food quality
  • REFOCUSING the program on culinary by bringing in a certified master chef to elevate the quality and variety of menus
  • OPENING new locations in unconventional spaces to control costs and increase revenue 

You would think simply attending Yale University would be enough of an experience to remember, but Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining in New Haven, Conn., believes creating memorable experiences is at the core of what his department does. It is this passion for delivering excellence in every aspect of the business that has allowed Taherian to build an award-winning dining program almost from scratch.

Since coming to the university to lead its transition from a contracted account to self-op five years ago, Taherian has recruited top talent to his team, refocused the department as a culinary-based program and opened locations in unconventional spaces in a tough economy. Evidence of Taherian’s impact can be seen in student satisfaction scores: During the past four years the department has seen a 25% increase in the number of “extremely satisfied” responses from students. The combination of “extremely satisfied” and “satisfied” responses brings the department to an 85% to 90% satisfaction rating for food and service.

“[Rafi is] always looking to make a memorable experience for every customer,” says Jeanette Norton, deputy director for dining. “He makes sure that whatever he is doing complements the Yale tradition. I would say he is a true visionary. He knows the direction he wants to go and is committed to excellence every step of the way.”

Starting from scratch: Taherian was brought to Yale in 2008 to transition the dining services department back to self-op status after more than 10 years of outsourcing.

“I was starting basically with a blank piece of paper,” Taherian says. “It was a huge opportunity for us to show to the marketplace that the reverse track [from contract to self-op] is also a possibility, and one that can be very successful. I think in the national market, especially with a prestigious program like Yale, this was a major undertaking and one that was very exciting for us.”

Taherian says more important than the actual operational steps made during the transition was the establishment of what Yale Dining was going to be about: creating excellence in hospitality through memorable experiences.

“We wanted to make sure that what happens in our dining halls and locations and what we do with our food and service are reflective of the great standing that Yale has worldwide,” he explains. “We have 12 residential colleges, and at the heart of each one is the dining hall. So the key focus is not just to provide a strong program in terms of quality and sustainable food for customers but creating moments of expression and memorable experiences.”

Such experiences include a guest chef series and house master’s teas, as well as new traditions such as Final Cut, a huge “Iron Chef”-type event, and Reality Bites, which teaches graduating seniors life lessons like grocery store shopping and fine-dining etiquette.

Top talent: Taherian says he knew from the start of his time at Yale that the previous management had not spent much of its resources on the training and development of the staff—something he desperately wanted to change.

“We knew that if we were to going increase the quality of the food and service, we had to start first with our people,” Taherian says. “We provided over 10,000 hours of culinary training to our staff by leveraging industry resources, our certified master chef and any guest chefs that come through. We’ve also leveraged our relationship with The Culinary Institute of America by developing a lot of training programs with them.”

Taherian says this training was integral to the program, especially once the food quality increased so dramatically.

“Our staff need to know what to do with those quality ingredients,” Taherian says. “For example, I just came back from looking in on the end of a three-day training with our cooks. Today, they did a competition against each other. There were four teams and they had to compete with a market basket. It was amazing how the interpretations were different from team to team. I asked a couple of our cooks today, ‘Is this something you can do in your dining room when you go back,’ and they said yes. I said, ‘Great, cause that’s the expectation.’”

Training chefs to know what to do with sustainable products became especially important once an effort was made to increase those purchases. When Taherian arrived on campus the department was purchasing about 19% of its total purchases from sustainable sources. Now that number is at 40%.

Culinary shift: A key step in the goal of recruiting top talent was the hiring of Ron DeSantis, a certified master chef, who has led Taherian’s mission to bring the program into a sharper culinary focus.

“Ultimately, what we do is culinary focused. The product that we put out there is food. Our craftsmanship and our ability to transform what we buy will dictate our success with our customers,” Taherian says. “To do that well you have to have the best in class. It took us a long time, but we were able to recruit a certified master chef to lead our culinary team. We are the only dining program in the country that has a CMC leading their team.”

Taherian says DeSantis has been very meticulous in his strategic planning to execute new recipes and create innovation. From improving the health quotient of items to focusing on ethnic comfort foods, DeSantis and Taherian have worked together to overhaul the program’s culinary fundamentals. [Read more about the ethnic comfort food shift in The Big Idea, July 2012.] Another big change has been becoming more artisanal in the department’s production.

“We roast our own deli meats and make fresh soups every day,” Taherian says. “Then you have all we do toward our healthy meal collaborative initiative, which has a goal of doubling our produce consumption by 2020. I never thought I would be getting emails from students asking for more cauliflower. We also did a major initiative around our salad bar.” [Read more about Yale’s salad bar makeover online in our Five Questions for Joyce Goldstein.]

Tight spaces in tough times: The most evident change made during Taherian’s tenure has been the variety of new locations opened, which, considering the economy’s state when Taherian took over, could be considered a feat in itself.

“When I came it was just the burst of the economic bubble,” Taherian says. “But we didn’t want to put our plans on pause. When it came to renovations and facility enhancements, we had less money and resources available to us, and yet we still wanted to make some bold statements. We wanted to make sure that the students were getting what they deserve and more. We did the renovations with very limited resources and the payback was enormous for us.”

One example is Uncommon, a small c-store and grab-and-go location that was created out of a manager’s office inside Yale’s Commons dining facility. Uncommon was developed with less than $10,000, and Taherian says the daily revenue is between $1,200 to $1,500, with only three hours of operation. Other new outlets include Durfee’s, a tiny c-store hybrid; a health center café that aims to be a mini Whole Foods; and the KBT Café, a converted classroom where coffee is roasted on site.

“Rafi and I have worked together to successfully create a number of comfortable/unique hospitality destinations,” says Tom Tucker, director of retail operations and Graduate Dining. “The renovation of our flagship convenience store Durfee’s won a NACUFS Best in the Business award, and several of our other locations have won national recognition. Right now, Yale Dining has five major projects in some stage of planning, development or construction, including two new residential colleges.

“When Rafi took on his role as director, it wasn’t about taking the reins of an already prospering operation and moving forward—it was a high-risk job that involved starting from square one,” Tucker adds. “Five years and thousands of hours later, he has successfully transformed Yale Dining into a dynamic, internationally respected hospitality operation.”

Taherian says he believes it is his ability to surround himself with talented people that has led to his success at Yale.

“People like me would not be able to do what we do if other people don’t do it for us,” Taherian says. “As far as your employees and colleagues, I’m always asking myself, ‘What is it they need to be successful?’ From the moment we come to our workplace, we should be looking at how we can do things better in every aspect. By letting my employees explore their talents and follow through on their ideas, they allow themselves to want to be better every day and show their commitment to excellence.” 

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