Tulane: Through Hell and High Water

Tulane: Through Hell and High Water

LAND AND SEA. New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Tulane University during the flood; students returning to campus in January as officials directed them to their former residences; students sorting through what remained of their belongings.


THEN: Tulane President Scott Cowen directs workers on the campus to survey damage as flood waters recede; Tulane students pitch in during community service efforts; Dining Services passing out boxed meals to remediation workers.


AND NOW: Tulane University has looked to reinvent itself as a more focused institution; a re-opened Bruff Commons, Tulane's all-you-care-to-eat dining hall; and Le Gourmet, a new, made-to-order retail outlet that is part of a planned expansion of the school's retail programs.


TOMORROW. The new University Center slated to open next year will house the retail foodservices now in the Pavilion. It will feature an expanded food court, outdoor seating and a faculty/staff dining room.


DINING IN THE BUBBLE. The Pavilion currently serves as the temporary home for the bulk of Tulane's retail foodservice outlets.


COMING IN 2007. Construction is ongoing to complete the Lavin-Bernick Center, which will house retail foodservices starting next year.


KEEPING IT REAL. To recruit workers, Sodexho launched a marketing campaign geared to attracting students and local New Orleanians with higher pay, flexible schedules and free meals.


Facing a situation many will never know—one that no amount of contingency planning could prepare for—Tulane University one year ago watched its city fall in to despair, desperation and lawlessness when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city of New Orleans.

Arriving only days after Tulane's freshman move-in day, the storm flooded classrooms and residence halls, and submerged two thirds of the campus beneath several feet of water. It wiped out fully-stocked larders, coolers and freezers. It put an abrupt stop to the ongoing $38 million renovation of Tulane's Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, which was to house a new state-of-the-art food court and it nearly destroyed Tulane's Pavilion, which had temporarily housed most of the school's retail food operations and bookstore.

Overnight, the school's students, faculty members and administrators were displaced for what would be months, and its enrollment of 13,200 evaporated.

For the rest of the country, much of Katrina's impact is now old news. But for Tulane—which survived against the odds, repaired what at first seemed irreparable, worked to overcome staggering financial losses and moved forward as a newer, more focused institution—the story is a continuing one, with new chapters added every day.

Now, a year later, Tulane has recovered in both impressive and proactive ways. At the same time, its foodservice department continues to cope with the host of long term operational, labor and environmental challenges that face every business in the region.

A closer look at those challenges, and how the school's dining services department has dealt with them, offers a case study every foodservice director can learn from.

Hope is Not a Plan
Pre-Katrina, the emergency plan Tulane had in place was relatively sound and called for a campus-wide evacuation out of New Orleans until a threat passed.

Until Katrina, the threat had always passed. Few considered the possibility of catastrophic damage on a scale that would prevent the university from resuming operations for an indeterminate period of time.

"It is not unrealistic to say that one option would have been for us to close the university and give up after Katrina," says Robert Hailey, Tulane's associate vice president and the administrator whose responsibilities include the university's outsourced services.

"Or, we could have reopened in January, sat back and hoped for a bailout miracle. But hope is not a plan—that kind of approach would have clearly jeopardized Tulane's survival, both academically and financially.

"Tulane chose to rethink the University's mission in terms of what it should be in a post-Katrina world," says Tulane University President Scott Cowen. "We developed a Renewal Plan that would leave us a smaller but stronger—and more focused— institution."

Beyond the need for immediate reconstruction, the Renewal Plan called for major changes in the university's organization. These included a complete re-structuring of its academic organization. Tulane also committed to seeking deeper co-operative partnerships with a consortium that included nearby Dillard, Xavier and Loyola universities.

(Loyola, Xavier, Dillard and Tulane all employ Sodexho to provide campus dining services in separate programs. Although recovery efforts at these institutions all proceeded independently, Sodexho was able to achieve some synergies in its disaster support efforts because of the critical mass these accounts—and others in the region— represented.)

Much of the Tulane renewal plan is long term, addressing issues like the loss of laboratory and engineering facilities and—for the time being—of the school has secured approval from the NCAA and Conference USA to reduce the number of intercollegiate teams.

At the same time, it faced over $250 million in recovery costs and was forecasting significant budget shortfalls for the 2006-07 academic year. The road ahead would be difficult under even the best of circumstances. In supporting the larger institution, and as one of the few revenue-generating departments on the campus, Dining Services would have to shoulder its share of the burden. "We've been a Sodexho campus for almost 20 years and we have a long-term agreement with them," says Hailey. "The company was an integral part of our recovery, feeding our workers in this period from a local hospital it operates, bringing in new equipment and supplying the labor needed to get dining services back up and running."

All Hands On Deck
To deal with the larger facilities issues, Tulane turned to Belfor, USA, an international restoration and reconstruction company.

"Belfor specializes in disaster recovery," Hailey notes. "The company has remediated and repaired sites all over the world, including many of the buildings surrounding the World Trade Center after 9-11. It came highly recommended by the University of Miami based on the earlier work it had done to repair that campus after Hurricane Andrew."

By December, Tulane's primary facilities were up and running. Managers, who themselves had been evacuated from their homes in the area, began "commuting" to New Orleans in mid-October, dealing with the impact the hurricane had wreaked on their personal lives and homes as well as beginning to participate in preparations to re-open Tulane.

Sodexho had been intimately involved in feeding evacuees and rescue workers in the hurricane's aftermath, and now had only weeks to be ready to provide full dining services to those students who would be returning in January for the spring semester.

"Our task was basically to re-open our operations so that the impact of the hurricane would be invisible to anyone on the outside," says Jeanne Charlebois,district marketing manager for Sodexho Campus Services in New Orleans.

"Tulane was intent on addressing the uncertainty many parents had about sending their kids back to school here and an important part of our job was to help instill a sense of confidence. Our standards were not to be compromised and our offerings were not to be cut."

With a goal like that, things looked pretty bleak to the department in early January, when only 55 of the original 180 dining staff employees returned to apply for work.

"Some were ready to return; others were still looking for housing. Many were no where to be found," says Charlebois.

Ads in the local paper produced fewer than 20 applicants and came nowhere near filling the gap.

"When we try to explain the impact this has to those on the outside, the best analogy I can offer is that nationwide chains like Mc-Donald's or Walgreens, known for 24-hour/day operation, in most cases are now open here only from 7a.m. to 2 p.m.," says Lisa Norris, associate director of dining services at Tulane.

"The issue of labor is generally our's— and the city's—biggest operational challenge."

Meanwhile, the Sodexho management team was also hustling to get the campus food production facilities cleaned up and sanitized to meet code and pass local health inspections. Much equipment needed outright replacement. It also began meeting on overtime as it planned menus, forecasted food purchases and worked out production and serving systems, even as it had no idea how much customer demand there would really be once the semester began in earnest.

(The freshman class enrollment, at 1650 before Katrina, would only be 950 in January. As it turned out, however, that difference had no correlation with the amount of demand there would be for meals in Bruff Commons, the traditional freshman dining hall).

As the first day of spring semester classes approached and Dining Services readied to open with its skeleton crew, it launched an aggressive campaign looking desperately to recruit additional student workers, using any promotional medium available. Sodexho also hosted a job fair that looked to recruit staff not only for Tulane, but also for nearby Loyola and Xavier universities.

The recruitment effort offered students a $3 bump in the hourly pay rate, a signing bonus, flexible hours and free food. And the improved package proved irresistible.

"Suddenly, students wanted to work in the dining halls," says Charlebois. "That had never been the case before. We had more students applying than we had positions available."

While this influx eased the labor shortage, it wasn't a cure-all. Class schedule conflicts meant students couldn't always replace full time employees at critical times and "turnover among workers in this group is much higher than usual because of competitive offers in the area," says Charlebois. The employment numbers tell the story. Even as foodservice sales have now come to equal the level they were at in pre-Katrina days, "we are only employing 166," says Charlebois. "Our previous staffing level was 190-210.

"The New Orleans job market has absolutely exploded, and it is very hard to compete for workers in this environment. Plus, the situation demands far more training and supervision time from managers because there is so much less continuity in the work force. It takes away from the time that needs to be spent on day-to-day operations."

The Best Meal Deal in Town
Undergraduate enrollment at Tulane is about 70 percent from out of state. Traditionally there have been about 3400 residents on campus, about 1500 of them freshmen with many upperclass students maintaining off-campus housing. All freshmen are required to live on campus and purchase meal plans; after that, it is optional.

The school's traditional "Carte Blanche" plans range from $1645 to $1970 per semester and entitle students to as many all-you-care-to-eat meals as they want at the Bruff Commons Dining Room. Meal plans vary mainly in the number of flex-dollars provided for food purchases in retail locations around campus.

Dining Services also offers a retail-only "Super Pelican" semester plan with $600-$750 in flex dollars credit and "Meal Deal" packages in which 25 lunch meals in Bruff Commons are sold for $150.

Following Katrina, the sudden lack of low-priced street foodservice caused a resurgence in demand for campus dining among upperclass students and others who traditionally had shunned the dining hall experience as being "only for freshmen." And those city restaurants that did re-open did so with much higher pricing than they had in the past because of their own increases in labor and other costs.

"Overnight, our missed meal factor went to zero," recalls Hailey. "No one was missing a meal. And despite the reduced enrollment, we suddenly found ourselves with the largest number of students on meal plans we'd ever had—over 2450.

"Today, Bruff is the by far the best meal deal in town," he adds.

Dining Services responded to the increased demand by designing a new meal plan option, dubbed The Wavebucks Plan. It differs from the traditional plan in that instead of allowing unlimited access to the all-you-care-to-eat dining room, a student receives 55 visits to Bruff, with an additional $800 dollars in a declining balance account.

"We created Wavebucks to provide a low-cost alternative to eating in today's New Orleans economy," says Norris. "Due to labor issues, the price of eating at a restaurant— if you could find one that was open—had sky-rocketed."

The school weighted the Wavebucks plan heavily to retail and set pricing there "to help make the whole program work," says Hailey.

Wavebucks proved to be and has remained popular with returning students. So much so that it has pushed meal plan participation back to pre-Katrina levels, despite reduced enrollment, Norris adds.

Bursting the Bubble
Meanwhile, Tulane's retail food court, where demand was also increasing, was still housed in its temporary "Pavilion" facility (a building referred to by Tulane students as "The Bubble.") Its core station concepts include New Generation Freshens, Classics Entrees, Noodles, Etc., Sandaella's, Patissier, Taco Bell Express, Smart Market, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Sushi Nori.

The food court's new home, the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, had been slated to open in early 2006, but that date was set back to January 2007 from damage caused by Katrina. Since then, all the retail stations have been re-established in the Pavilion, with plans underway now for their migration, and several additional concepts to be added, when the new student center opens.

Hailey expects the center to become a crossroads for the campus and to play a key role as Tulane Dining Services evolves into a program that is more retail-oriented and diverse than it has been in the past. "We want to stop thinking of meal plans as a 'board plan' and to think more broadly in terms of dining services available to our larger community," he says.

Hailey also believes that significant opportunities exist for Tulane and neighboring-Loyola University—as well as Xavier and Dillard, located in areas that experienced some of the worst damage—to develop shared dining programs in which students can take advantage of the larger mix of dining opportunities available on all four campuses.

"This is New Orleans, the food capital of the world," he adds. "The partnership we've formed with Dillard, Xavier and Loyola can play a key role in helping to restore the New Orleans community.

Acknowledging that the student demographics, dining programs and payment systems of these schools are all different, Hailey says one of the post-Katrina realities is that "none of us have all the assets we need to rebuild. The financial realities have made all of us more open to new operational models."

Looking back, Tulane lost some of its former students as a result of the relocations, but now has an enrollment close to 11,000.

'The students who returned to campus have chosen to be here," says Hailey. "To them, New Orleans offers a better education—in all its respects—than anywhere else in the world.

Dunbar's Creole Cooking

Dunbar's Creole Cooking, an iconic restaurant on New Orleans' Freret Street, saw its longstanding location shuttered permanently after the floods. When insurance wouldn't cover the cost of rebuilding, Mrs. Dunbar approached Tulane Dining Services about opening up on campus in a potential partnership.

Because Tulane's retail operations were already shoe-horned into a temporary facility,"we didn't have space to accommodate Dunbar's on our campus," says Rob Hailey. "Fortunately, there was space next door at Loyola."

Dunbar's determination to reopen led to a partnership in which her celebrated soul food has become a new brand offering for the Loyola campus community.

With its reasonable prices and famous Creole dishes, the new venture has been very successful, notes Jeanne Charlebois. Former customers and foodies from around New Orleans regularly drop in for red beans and rice, Po-boys, fried chicken and bread pudding.


The Lessons of Disaster Recovery

"Katrina taught us some valuable lessons," says Jeanne Charlebois, Sodexho's district marketing manager for New Orleans."The most significant one is the importance of your people and how you all have to help take care of each other." Here are some other lessons Diane Picard, Sodexho Production Manager offers:

Appreciate what you have. "Katrina took way all our systems.We literally went back in time 20 years.With our computer systems destroyed, we had to use calculators to add invoices. Paper time cards were the order of the day. There was no phone, no fax and no email. Mail wasn't delivered to our unit for more than 4 months.You don't realize how much you depend on such things and how little you notice them until they are gone."

People rise to the occasion. "Our employees made us successful. Some of whom might have been considered marginal rose to the occasion when challenged and our superstars rose to new heights.You find out quickly how much your people are the backbone of your operation."

Failure is not an option. "Each of us realized the management team was just that. A team. Katrina just made the bonds stronger.We would have to succeed together. Failure was never an option. When we re-opened in January, we held the Jazz Brunch that had been cancelled in August.The message was: 'The show must go on.'"

Your staff has many of the answers. "You find out quickly there is no way management can solve all of the problems you face. Our employees offered many suggestions on ways to get our business back to normal. Through job sharing, car pools and countless cooperative efforts they solved many of the daily challenges we encountered."

Sometimes luck is more important than knowledge. "Too many times our schedules had gaping holes in them. Out of nowhere people with the needed skills would sometimes walk through the door the next day, applying for work. But you also make your own luck.We learned to look beyond the last job position, to probe more deeply to find out the different job skills and experiences people had had before."

Ask for help. "Our lack of employees forced us to do away with some positions, like that of dining room attendant. Liza, one of our cashiers, told me to not worry about our dining room, she would take care of it.' Count on it,' she said. If you let your employees know you need them, they will come through."

Realize that there has been a complete paradigm shift. "There is no longer an endless stream of applicants looking for employment. Our focus has been on finding the one job that a potential employee can do best."

Enthusiasm is contagious."Our jobs as managers include the role of cheerleader, something we came to appreciate more than ever before. If you want to be a cheerleader for your team, you need to learn to celebrate the days you have together."

Partnerships are key. "Working with our clients, staff, company resources and suppliers produced many unexpected synergies. The phrase,'Thank you,' became a much bigger part of our vocabulary.And again, we learned the real value of being able to rely on one another."


"Only at Tulane, Only in New Orleans"

Tulane's students have played an important role in helping the city of New Orleans to recover. At the school, there is a newly added public health degree in disaster management and a new Center for Public Service to organize and encourage student involvement in the city's recovery efforts. In just the last year, its undergraduates have devoted more than 60,000 service hours to the city.

"At a cafè on the way out of town the evening before Katrina hit, I had a waitress ask me very solemnly if I realized how significantly the storm could impact my education," said graduating senior Casey Haugner during her 2006 commencement speech at Tulane University.

"Now that I'm here, nine months after that cafè conversation, I can honestly say it was not the effects of the storm that have had the most significant impact on my education. It was the culture, the spirit and the strength of the city and the institution that endured the storm that have had the most impact on me and the things I've learned.What has mattered most have not been the classes or the books, but the experiences that only Tulane, and only New Orleans, could have given me, including the experience of such a profound and tragic event as Hurricane Katrina.

"On our graduation day, it's important to note that even though the past year has changed all of our lives, it has not changed them nearly as much as our having made the original decision to attend Tulane," said Haugner."Today I am proud to say that my education was earned, experienced and enriched in a way that could have occurred only at Tulane, only in New Orleans."