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How Columbia Dining keeps staff engaged

CU Dining Staff
Photograph: Columbia University

FoodService Director recently spoke with operators across the U.S. to see how they’re handling today’s tough labor market. One was Justine Sacks, director of dining at Columbia University in New York City. Here are her thoughts. 

FSD: Have you established a mantra or mission statement as a reminder to provide optimal service?

JS: We developed an employee initiative called “The Power of EveryONE.” The idea behind this sentiment is that one small gesture or one smile can have a big impact, especially for our student community. Each employee is valued and encouraged to go the extra mile in terms of hospitality and recognized when they exceed expectations. Our goal at the beginning of every academic year is to elevate our program from the year before and deliver an even better guest experience, and this begins with our people.

What’s one employee training event that has helped to drive success at Columbia Dining?

During spring break, we host an annual culinary training session during which employees are educated on the basics of cooking. We cover topics such as how to read a recipe, knife skills, the importance of sanitation and allergens, as well as common cooking methods: braising, stewing, grilling, boiling, etc. This program allows all levels of staff, from porters (a custodial role) to chef managers, to participate, learn new techniques and ultimately work toward a promotion. The training is a combination of classroom learning coupled with hands-on practice. Our associates are then challenged to apply what they learned in their day-to-day roles. The training concludes with a graduation ceremony, and associates are awarded a certificate of achievement along with a personalized knife kit or cookbook.

In addition to the spring culinary event, do you establish a continuum of team-oriented events that ensure the program continues to be elevated?

Every August, we host an employee orientation to welcome back our staff and kick off the new academic year on a positive note. The atmosphere is celebratory and festive. We deck out an auditorium, hand out swag bags and serve a delicious menu influenced by our employees’ preferences and backgrounds. My favorite part of the orientation program is presenting anniversary awards to our longtime staff. This year, we recognized an employee who has worked with us for 50 years. We also schedule two to three manager field trips throughout the year at various food halls and restaurants for menu and presentation inspiration. This helps us to stay on-trend while also building comradery among our leadership team.

What is the ‘state of the staff’ at Columbia from a sustained-tenure standpoint, and how do you engage staff to keep them engaged in going about their responsibilities?

The majority of people who leave our organization do so to retire. Much of our staff stays with us for years. In addition to our 50-year employee, we have also celebrated staff for 20-plus years of service. We even named one of our stations in John Jay Dining Hall after a beloved employee who was a student favorite for 20 years. The culture we create is fun and inclusive. I view my team as an extension of my family. In addition to an official staff appreciation week that we host, we also celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries and host events, such as a pre-holiday meal, to continuously show gratitude and keep our employees engaged. The result of these efforts is that 32% of our staff are promoted more than once (during their time on the team) and 68% promoted at least once over the past five years.

What’s your impression of artificial intelligence, and how do you think it will affect staffing in the future? 

While it’s important to keep up with the times, we never want to lose sight of the human touch that is so vital to our success. Columbia is home away from home for many of our students and we want to offer a welcoming campus experience. We make it a point to humanize our program through our staff members.

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