10 top influencers of the industry

What’s on their radar and why you should care.

You may know them. They’re the names that roll off the tip of the tongue when referencing those industry leaders who have their fingers on the pulse. Theirs are the operations that come to mind when the phrase “ahead of the curve” is dropped in conversation. They are the speakers at a conference who you maneuvered your way to the front of the podium to meet with and swap business cards for a future exchange of ideas. They’re the oracles of the industry, and it’s easy to argue that the issues on their radar should be on everyone else’s, too.

While the influencers in your own segment likely are familiar, those from the other areas of noncommercial foodservice are worth knowing. Many of the challenges they’re facing are the same others encounter, be it in hospitals, colleges and universities, senior living or schools. And the creativity, resourcefulness and innovation with which they’re addressing those challenges offers inspiration and solutions industrywide.

eric montell    Eric Montell

jeff denton    Jeff Denton

lisa poggas    Lisa Poggas

linette dodson    Linette Dodson

mark-freeman-small    Mark Freeman

arthur bretton    Arthur Bretton

dan henroid    Dan Henroid

amy beckstrom    Amy Beckstrom

chris burkhardt    Chris Burkhardt

kathy sanders    Kathy Sanders

eric montell

Eric Montell

Executive Director of Stanford Dining
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

The issue
How can universities share best practices?

The innovation
Become an incubator for operational ideas, and then spread the word.

Whether rethinking vegan offerings on campus, building a teaching kitchen or launching a women’s leadership program—all initiatives he’s spearheaded at Stanford in the past year—Eric Montell has a big picture in mind.

The leadership program, in particular, which Stanford launched in partnership with the Women’s Foodservice Forum, is designed not only to provide support for Stanford employees but for culinary leaders in noncommercial foodservice at large. “That’s the goal,” Montell says. “To build a model that can be exported to other schools.”

Homegrown programs, such as forward-paying family fisheries to source seafood or offering a teaching kitchen for the hands-on nutrition curriculum of Stanford’s medical school, all aim to be examples for other departments, schools or operations.

This broad vision is why Montell is called upon when big thinkers like Google and Harvard get together to brainstorm the future of food. With Harvard and The Culinary Institute of America, Stanford is one of 40-plus universities taking part in a Menus of Change research collaborative, testing and sharing ideas for healthful, clean-food options and studying how they translate across the country. 

—Kelly Killian


jeff denton

Jeff Denton

Director of Child Nurition
Ponca City Public Schools
Ponca City, Okla.

The issue

How can schools get kids excited about eating their veggies?

The innovation

Appeal to their sense of wonder, whimsy—and purple.

For five minutes of every school day, Jeff Denton morphs into his alter ego, Chef Jeff, to teach elementary school students about healthy eating. Each week, Denton visits his district’s seven elementary schools to showcase seasonal produce and items that are featured in cafeteria menus. Foods are his props. For example, when Ponca City incorporated purple lettuce into the salad bars, Denton told the assembly of students, “We’re going to do this kind of lettuce, and it’s purple. This doesn’t mean it’s moldy, that means its good.”

During his presentation, he appeals to the students’ sense of wonder about how the produce is grown and prepared. He’ll also ask a school principal to taste-test foods in front of the students—always a big hit. 

The success is in Denton’s delivery because he speaks with students on a level they understand but also creates an interesting lesson for adults. “He brings it to a conversation that you might have around your kitchen table at night,” says Carla Fry, a principal at Ponca City’s E. M. Trout Elementary School. 

Denton’s weekly assemblies, which helped him earn the 2015 Foodservice Achievement Management Excellence Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year award, have been well received by school administrators. At one point, when Denton mulled retiring his Chef Jeff sessions, which he has been doing for more than a decade, administrators quickly told him, “No you can’t stop. You have to keep doing this,” he says.

Chef Jeff has become a fixture, and it’s not uncommon for students to recognize him outside of school. Sometimes they will spot Denton at the grocery store and wheel their family’s shopping cart over to show him what’s inside. “Yeah, that’s a neat thing,”
he says. 

—Katie Fanuko

lisa poggas

Lisa Poggas

Nutrition and Environmental Services Director
Parker Adventist and Castle Rock Hospitals

The issue

How do you ensure consistency while allowing for creativity and customization?

The innovation

Steal ideas from chain restaurants’ books.

Borrowing inspiration from other industries has proven successful for Lisa Poggas. Her creation of Manna, a $100,000-a-month restaurant frequented by both visitors and the public at large, within Castle Rock Adventist Hospital, helped earn her the FoodService Director magazine FSD of the Year award in March.

Her latest project, at Parker Adventist Hospital, once again takes its cue from restaurants. This time, it’s in fast-casual restaurants that inspired Poggas to not only do something “out of the box” but to solve an operational problem as well.

Normally giving chefs carte blanche to come up with specials and add their own touches to dishes is an asset. However, when her well-liked executive chef was transferred to a position in another hospital within the Centura Health network, Poggas found herself with a dilemma. Though the remaining chefs still were cooking the same recipes, guests perceived a change in quality because their beloved staffer wasn’t the one preparing the meals.

So Poggas looked to chain restaurants for answers. Seeing an opportunity to offer both customizable and signature menu options, she modeled a new station in the hospital’s Peakview Café after Panda Express offering four weekly entrees along with guests’ choice of brown or white rice, fried rice or noodles. A second station now offers customizable sandwiches, Quiznos-style.

Following the chain model injected a sense of consistency guests missed when the executive chef departed, Poggas says.  And while the new concepts only have been open a couple of months, she says guests have been very happy with the new choices across the board.

To further ensure consistency, the culinary team meets weekly to discuss preparations and the  lead chef regularly checks to ensure flavors and presentations are as expected. “We like to give our chefs free rein, and they can come up with their own specials,” she says. “But then we [still] have to monitor that what they are preparing is good.”

—Katie Fanuko

linette dodson

Linette Dodson

Director of School Nutrition
Carrollton City Schools
Carrollton, Ga.

The issue

How can operations adjust to meet restrictive regulations?

The innovation

Don’t just join ’em, beat ’em.

Instead of fretting about tighter federal sodium restrictions set to take effect in 2017, Linette Dodson is softening the blow by getting ahead of them—a move that’s famously worked for her in the past. Staff at the five schools she oversees already have removed salt as a seasoning from the tables and the kitchen.

But Dodson admits she’s concerned that the 2017 target levels could restrict many key foods and limit variety. So she’s already testing ideas such as setting up a flavor bar, an assortment of spices and low-sodium sauces that students can add to dishes themselves to boost the flavor profile. She’s also planning to host testing sessions and “engaging [students] in the process,” she says.

They’re tactics that worked well for Dodson in 2008, when she began incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain items four years before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s nutrition guidelines went into effect. Once the regulations were in place, her district and students were used to the changes. “I always try to encourage folks that it is a gradual process. When you try to change too much, too fast, it’s more evident to everybody,” she says.

mark freeman

Mark Freeman

Senior Manager of Global Employee Services
Redmond, Wash.

The issue

How can operators predict what customers will order?

The innovation

Aggregate customer data to find patterns and determine menus

Does sweater weather mean Microsoft should be serving more soup, or will people get that weird craving for ice cream? That’s what Mark Freeman is trying to find out. Using Microsoft’s own software, Freeman’s team is collecting data from badge swipes at 71 Microsoft campus eateries, including food trucks and espresso stands, and pairing it with weather stats. The result: Eventually, Freeman hopes he will be able to see the future. “You’re using the data to start to predict how many of something you should do on the menu or how many people you should hire or have on staff at that particular time,” he says.

Foodservice isn’t necessarily the application Microsoft’s developers had in mind for their innovations. But Freeman makes it a priority to enhance his own department by attending events where scientists and developers share their projects.

“When I see what they are doing and put it in context with what we’re doing, sometimes there’s a match,” he says. “That’s what really inspires me, because [technology] is around us all the time.” 

—Dana Moran

arthur bretton

Arthur Bretton

Corporate Director of Food Services
Catholic Health Services of Long Island
Rockville Centre, N.Y.

The issue

How can nursing facilities help residents feel more at home during mealtime?

The innovation

Restructure the dining program to foster community between residents and staffers.

Residents at Catholic Health Services’ Our Lady of Consolation Nursing and Rehabilitative Care Center saw dining staff on a daily basis, but Arthur Bretton wanted to turn the two groups into something more like a family.

“When I first started, we had tray-line service ... and  no one really gets to know who they’re taking care of,” Bretton says. So he began a quest to improve social engagement by adding sit-down service and changing staffers’ titles from dietary aides to culinary ambassadors.

Over the course of a year, Bretton held weekly meetings with his staff, preparing them to interact not only with residents, but also certified nursing assistants and nursing staff. They were, he admits, nervous about the transition—especially those whose first language isn’t English.

Turns out the ambassadors began working better together, which resulted both in resident satisfaction and team-building, Bretton says.

“About three months into the program, one of the team members came up to me and said, ‘Artie, why didn’t we do this sooner?’” he recalls. “She was someone that was there for 40 years and fought me tooth and nail, but she was so excited about the fact that she loved and was able to get to know the residents.” 

—Dana Moran

dan henroid

Dan Henroid

Director of Nutrition and Food Services and Sustainability Officer
University of California
San Francisco Medical Center

The issue

How can a hospital system provide more than healthcare?

The innovation

Increase community sustainability by partnering with other hospitals.

Traditionally, it’s not considered good business to team up with the competition. But the way Dan Henroid sees his role never has been traditional. Though he’s been recognized for his forward-thinking approach to foodservice, winning the 2014 National Restaurant Association’s Operator Innovation of the Year award for integrating technology throughout UCSF Medical Center’s dining program, some of Henroid’s latest innovations return to a more human element.

Henroid has found that working with local vendors toward sustainability, rather than through statewide or national programs, often makes the most sense—and he wants to help smaller operators get on board, too. So last February, the medical center partnered with several area hospitals to launch a program to source “never-ever” ground beef and stew meat (beef that’s entirely hormone- and antibiotic-free). Because of the shared volume, Henroid was able to help get never-ever beef on the table in hospitals that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

“We get the aggregated benefit of their volume going in with our volume,” he says. “And then they get some money back to help defray some of the cost of the program.” The plan was so successful that Henroid is expanding it to other proteins. “We’re hot and heavy on poultry right now,” he says, and he plans to use the same model with other California hospitals and school districts.

Next up for Henroid: creating a greater community among the five University of California health systems, which presently operate independently. Four of the directors recently met in San Diego for the first time to talk about collaboration.

“We’ve got to start working more laterally,” he says. “How can we be better than a national GPO [group purchasing organization] with those UC health systems put together?”

—Dana Moran

Amy Beckstrom

Amy Beckstrom

Director of Auxiliary and Dining Services
University of Colorado-Boulder

The issue

How can schools serve a globally diverse audience, while keeping costs under control?

The innovation

Educate students while making everyone feel welcome.

It was groundbreaking in 2010 when Amy Beckstrom rolled out Persian Ghaza, University of Colorado Boulder's Mediterranean dining concept to meet the dietary needs of Muslim students who practice halal. The initiative exposed other students to global cuisines, and today students can find halal-friendly foods throughout the campus. Beckstrom also accommodates students who keep a kosher diet with a station in the Center for Community's dining center. It's a model that's been copied by others such as the University of California, San Diego.

As a follow-up, Beckstrom is broadening students' culinary experiences through a monthly Street Food Week, when students try samples and learn about regional ingredients. "We try to educate students on other cultures, but also make other cultures feel more welcome," she says.

To handle the range of items, Beckstrom paared back portions and labor, increasing meals per labor hour by 26 percent and keeping costs in check. "These strategies allowed us to introduce high-quality foods and cultural preferences ... without impacting cost of room and board," she says.

—Katie Fanuko

chris burkhardt

Chris Burkhardt

Director of Child Nutrition and Wellness
Lakota Local School District
Liberty Township, Ohio

The issue

How to deliver on students’ high expectations for quality and service?

The innovation

Develop on-campus concepts that deliver customization that rivals Chipotle.

An epiphany during an airport layover led Chris Burkhardt to shift his approach in serving students at his schools. Returning home from an industry conference last year, he noticed customers at Chipotle were willing to wait in a 50-person line just to order a customized meal.

“It got me thinking, it’s one of the most popular items these days, so we’re infusing that into how we operate on a daily basis,” he says.

So Burkhardt adapted Chipotle’s customization and serving model into noodle bars at the district’s middle and high schools. Custom proteins, vegetables and sauces are added  in front of students.

The stations have become so popular that students may wait 15 minutes, even though they only have 30 minutes for lunch. As a result, it’s possible not all students can get served. When this happens, Burkhardt’s team points kids to other customizable options, such as burgers, sandwiches or salads.

“The days of having a standard menu and a server in the line just putting things on a tray are gone in most of our secondary schools,” Burkhardt says. 

—Katie Fanuko

kathy sanders

Kathy Sanders

Vice President of Supplier Management
Wells Fargo
Charlotte, N.C.

The issue

How to combine efficiency with environmentalism?

The innovation

Open up the conversation to include suppliers and employees

"Wherever you have people, you’re going to have waste, you’re going to consume water, you’re going to consume energy,” says Kathy Sanders. So if you think a financial institution can’t be a leader in the environmental sector, start taking notes.

In addition to foodservice, Sanders’ team juggles janitorial, landscaping, pest control and snow removal duties. There’s something to be examined in every step of every process, she says, and conversations with suppliers are an important step.

“We look for ways that we can achieve better energy savings and water reduction, whether that’s putting flow resistors in the faucets in the kitchens to help reduce the flow of water [or] encouraging our suppliers to not come in the morning and turn all the equipment on,” says Sanders, a past president of the Society for Hospitality and Food Service Management. “Do you really need a fryer turned on at 5:30 in the morning when you’re not going to be frying anything until 10 or 10:30?”

Wells Fargo’s  2014 annual report shows a 38 percent increase in water efficiency since 2012 and a 62 percent increase in waste diversion during  the same period. “We’ve got dedicated leadership that’s really trying to move that needle,” she says.  

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