The Stanford Way

(l. to r.) Stanford Dining’s Dennis White, Eric Montell, Karen Andrews and Rafi Taherian onsite at Branner Hall.
The courtyard by Memorial Church is one of many Stanford campus venues that regularly host elaborate catered events.

The assumption is often that schools in this league have generous revenue or subsidy streams that facilitate running their top-tier operations. At Stanford, that assumption is illusory.

Here, Stanford Dining (SD) operates as a selfsustaining auxiliary and competes on its “open campus” against a slew of alternate providers for catering, retail and some residential opportunities. At the same time, it also complies with Stanford policies regarding bargaining unit and “living wage” rates and benefits that outsource providers often do not offer. (This fall, the minimum wage on campus for part-time, non-union workers went up to $12.59 per hour!)

The complexities of operating in this environment can be just as challenging as Stanford’s admissions process is for prospective Stanford students. Further, Executive Director Rafi Taherian sees the department’s role as extending significantly beyond managing financially sound operations that exceed expectations for quality and value.

“We are also charged with supporting and maintaining the larger cultural and philosophical traditions of the Stanford community,” he says. “Decentralized residential housing is one of those traditions; so is the idea that there is no monopoly in terms of who can bid on foodservice business.

“We are passionate about providing our students with the best value for their food dollars. At times that means we are the operator of choice, and at times that means services are best run by others. Our goal is to achieve a sustainable balance while still providing that value.”

Achieving Sustainable Balance
In fact, one finds that Sodexho, Bon Appetit and Guckenheimer all operate various retail operations on the campus. So do nearly 20 local entrepreneurs, ranging from restaurants to mobile vending trucks to mom-and-pop operations selling soft drinks and sandwiches from folding tables along the access roads entering campus.

Outside catering firms are free to compete for event business as well, although Stanford Catering’s impressive resources and consistent track record have allowed it to retain the school’s big-ticket, traditional events and functions over the years. Dining also does a high volume of mid-range catering from some of its retail operations like Olives and The Café. Finally, when it comes to concessions at the new stadium, SD again has no guaranteed in, but must bid anew each contract period. (On the other hand, per capita concessions sales in the new stadium skyrocketed to $7.50 from $3.00 under Dining’s management, another mark of achievement).

Refining Sustainability

Above: Stanford students operate a produce stand at which they sell the bounty from residential hall gardens.
Stanford students with an interest in sustainability on a field trip to one of SD’s suppliers, Alba Organics, an organic farm collective.

The concept of sustainability has received so much attention in the college segment that it has almost become a cliché over the past year. On closer inspection, though, there’s sustainability and there’s serious sustainability. At Stanford, it’s the latter.

Stanford Dining focused on environmentally sound campus policies long before it became hip to do so and lays claim to some of the most prestigious awards for efforts in this area: · An “A” rating for food and recycling from the Sustainable Endowment Institute’s 2007 College Sustainability Report Card;

· The 2007 Acterra Business Environmental Award for sustainability and green business practices (beating out some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley);

· A 2007 Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from the U.S. Congress;

· The 2006 Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s award for Leadership in Applying Green Building Design; and

· Santa Clara County’s Green Business Certification in 2004 (believed to be the first university in the country to be certified green in every unit of the entire foodservice department).

“Sustainability is a business strategy,” says Executive Director Taherian matter-of-factly. “It is good social policy, but done right, it also reduces costs. If you have to spend additional money to support the program, it isn’t truly sustainable,” he says.

Taherian, who originally studied architecture and urban planning, later graduating with top honors from the Culinary Institute of America, initiated early efforts along these lines when he first joined Stanford Dining as executive chef in 1996. Then, he focused on ways to make the kitchen work more efficiently, switching out equipment to reduce energy usage and installing infrared cooking equipment, velocity- controlled hoods and combi ovens.

“The number one issue in sustainability is not the procurement of the food itself, but the energy you use to prepare the food,” he says.

“Energy-wise, maintaining efficient dishroom, ice production and steam operations has a much greater impact than policies like buying locally-produced food.” (But Stanford also does plenty of that, he quickly adds.)

Working with an outside consultant, Taherian customized the washing stations five years ago to improve their efficiency and their ergonomics. (After all, what’s more sustainable than saving wear and tear on employees?) That effort minimized the number of movements required for tray clearing, got the process down to 35 seconds per tray, eliminated three staff positions, increased speed and reduced the fatigue factor.

Only “gray” recycled water is used to initially spray off dishes; most refuse goes to a pulper, and the slurry is then composted. With the system in place in every dining hall, the department generated 1.5 million pounds of compost last year. (Each of the nine residence halls and the educational/experimental, two-acre mini-farm on campus also create and make use of their own compost.)

Dining put systems in place to sort out all recyclable materials from trash in the course of normal operations; as a result, Taherian pays a much lower rate to the campus recycling center. Another initiative includes a partnership with student entrepreneurs to turn fryer grease into biodiesel fuel.

Procurement policy gets its share of attention as well. The department buys as much of its fresh produce, eggs, dairy, meat, poultry and other products as possible from within a 250- mile radius. All beef patties served onsite are certified humane, organic and grass-fed; the chickens are organic and the eggs cage-free; the milk is rBST hormone-free; and fair trade, organic, and local products proliferate.

Dining takes extensive measures to ensure that the companies it buys from are sustainable in their own business practices. Its bid process includes a variety of straightforward and “stealth” questions to assess a company’s commitment to the concept. The goal is to identify suppliers with the smallest carbon footprint and the best practices for treating and compensating workers.

“Standard” green business practices are in use throughout dining facilities. These include efforts to minimize the need for electric lights by designing facilities with daylighting; using ceiling fans instead of airconditioning when possible; providing compostible “spudware” utensils when disposables are necessary; and purchasing recycled wood furniture and building materials.

The residential program, a financial mainstay at many universities, also faces unique challenges. In keeping with one long-held convention, each of the nine residence halls that SD operates maintains a separate kitchen and dining room despite the fact that some halls only house about 200 students each and are in close proximity to one other.

Chopstix, a noodle and rice bowl station, is another in-house retail brand concept Stanford Dining operates at Union Square in Tresidder.

What’s more, only the 3,600 students who live in those particular residence halls are required to purchase a meal plan. Although 95 percent of the school’s undergraduates reside on campus, the rest elect to live in campus apartments or in one of many small, independent houses that hold 50 to 55 students, where foodservices are self-managed or contracted out, typically to a private chef.

Still, you don’t find Taherian complaining. He has earned the support of the Stanford administration and in particular that of Shirley Everett, Stanford’s vice provost for R&DE. Everett, a past Silver Plate winner who at one time operated SD herself, was the one who originally hired him away from the Culinary Institute’s Greystone campus back in the mid 1990s.

“Her vision was to change Stanford Dining to ensure that it produced restaurant quality food at an entirely different level than what was offered at the time,” Taherian recalls.

“In those days, we did not operate any retail venues on campus. It was Shirley’s leadership that enabled us to extend our residential program to include enough critical mass on the retail side so we are able to provide the full range of meal options students want for their dining program dollars.”

Taherian also relies on an able management team. This includes Eric Montell, senior associate director; Karen Andrews, associate director of student dining; Irit Tadelis, the department’s chief financial officer; and Dennis White, its dedicated construction and project manager.

Executive Pampering

An elaborate themed event typical of those catered at Stanford’s Schwab Center.
A chef prepares a special course for a Schwab event.

Getting good press about one’s executive dining services is always nice. But when that press comes in the form of a number one ranking from the Financial Times (in the 2007 “Food and Accommodations for Executive Education” category), you know you’re doing something right.

“The Schwab Center, part of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is the university’s flagship operation, the most elaborate example of high level customer service on campus,” explains Senior Associate Director Eric Montell, who oversees executive services.

General Manager and Executive Chef Raul Lacara heads up the dining facility and catering there, where he’s been dazzling customers since being lured back to Stanford six years ago, after running high profile food operations for cruise lines and major hotels and swanky facilities in the Middle East.

One of Lacara’s many jobs is to wow some of the world’s top CEOs for six weeks, three meals a day, every summer when they gather to attend the exclusive Stanford Executive Program at the Schwab Center.

“These clients are accustomed to five-star hotels and the best international dining around the globe,” he says. “Their expectations are high. You basically never say no, ever, to any request.”

Lacara seems to thrive on the pressure and passion of the position. And wow them he does, with carefully constructed meals that offer the height of culinary accomplishments well as a variety of service styles that range from formal dinners to outdoor barbecues, providing guests with a new surprise at each meal occasion.

On every Friday night of the program’s duration, he stages a different theme party to celebrate one of the countries from which a participating executive hails. And these are not travel-posters-on-the-wall theme dinners.

In the combined venue of the gorgeous Schwab dining room and its stunning outdoor courtyard, Lacara and his staff deliver top-notch food that is at once authentic and inventive, served in the midst of live music and entertainment and a sophisticated and creative decor, along with the best beverages and spirits from that land.

For a Down Under Australian party this past summer, there were 18 different choices for passed hors d’oeuvres. Sides and entrees included a whole lamb roasted on an outdoor spit, carved to order; spicy alligator skewers; roasted barramundi with lemon caper sauce; baked green lip mussels; plus four different desserts, including lamingtons, the traditional Australian mini cakes.

During the academic year, the dining facility at Schwab hosts a variety of university events, from president’s dinners to parties for visiting VIPs and departmental functions. At these, Lacara frequently prepares inspired and artistic 11-course tasting menus.

A recent example typifies his imaginative platings: thin slices of Kobe or Wagyu beef served in an at-table presentation in which they are gently placed over searing, hot (and sanitized) black sea rocks brushed with Tibetan salt. The meat instantly sizzled and caramelized before his guests’ eyes.

Institutional Statesmanship
Taherian’s approach has focused on creating top quality food concepts and presentations while at the same time “staying lean and working smart.” The decentralized nature of the residential dining program means the department can not easily turn to a central production model to achieve efficiencies, as many universities do.

“We do not have and probably could not develop the infrastructure on campus to take that route,” says Taherian.

“Instead, we have turned to tightly controlled purchasing and distribution contracts, the use of technology and operational benchmarking to achieve our results.” He notes that, over a 10-year period, two years saw no rate increase in board charges and the others always bore an increase less than the rise in the Consumer Price Index.

Top: the contemporary elegance of Branner Dining Hall. A Cinco de Mayo event at Florence Moore. Nijo Joseph, chef de cuisine at Florence Moore, harvests daily herb needs from the hall’s community garden.

It’s an environment where institutional statesmanship is essential, especially when operating realities make it necessary to “adjust” longstanding traditions without generating protest.

Residential Ownership
”You’ve got to enlist students as partners in your endeavors,” Taherian observes. “You go to your harshest critics and get them to be stakeholders. You need to bring them into the process and challenge them to help you find solutions. Then they have partial ownership when the solutions are put in place.”

Such was the case when students began clamoring for more late-night meal options. “We talked with students to say, ‘OK, we can provide more late night options without raising costs if we can reduce morning service.’”

Traditional breakfast service is now offered in just two dining halls, with continental fare available at the others. On weekends, one facility closes down. In exchange, two late-night, meal plan-accessible options offering fresh organic salads and fruit, pizza, grab-and-go snacks, smoothies and desserts stay open until 2 AM, five nights a week.

When sustainability (see sidebar) became a student cause célèbre, Taherian organized them to plant and maintain organic, community herb and vegetable gardens at each residence hall. Now, Dining Services uses many of the fresh herbs in its own culinary efforts, while students, under the department’s supervision, sell other bounty at an on-campus, outdoor Produce Stand every Friday.

Karen Andrews, associate director of residential dining, joined the department two years ago after working for many years with a large management company where she specialized in B&I accounts. She observes that “the fast pace of today’s students makes a very challenging customer base. They expect more variety in the menu cycle than the B&I community.

Despite the fact that it’s in a basement, has no kitchen (cooking is done outside on a grill), and operates in a small, 10x20 space, Olives, a Mediterranean-themed retail outlet, is one of Stanford’s most popular lunch spots. It averages 500 transactions between 11 am and 1 pm daily and also serves as a a very successful catering brand.
Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Tresidder’s Union Square and The Café in the Stanford Alumni Center, two of the retail operations managed by Dining Services.

“There is also a strong educational component you don’t find in business dining. When we introduced our ‘Eat Local’ program as an extension of our sustainability efforts, it gave us the chance to introduce farmers and fishermen and other food producers to students and to celebrate their achievements in our dining experience.

“They visited dining halls for a week to talk about the source of food and its connection to the environment. Sometimes their interests were in conflict—it helped students see that, even among environmentally-concerned individuals, the answers are not simple.”

Transaction-based Benchmarking
Engaging and motivating staff is crucial to managing productivity, too. The department employs a wide-ranging system of metrics and weekly benchmarking reports to keep unit managers aware of their performance and to guide operational strategies.

“We have a wide variety of benchmarks for both residential and retail operations” says CFO Tadelis. A majority of them are transaction-based and focus on everything from food and labor costs per transaction to transactions per productive employee hour to inventory turnover at the unit level.

“These numbers are shared with every manager, individually and as a group, and we work with them on how to effectively use them in managing their operations,” she adds. “We encourage competition among them, much as if they were unit managers operating in a contract environment.”

Tadelis also oversees procurement and notes that the department has benefited both from participation in purchasing cooperatives as well as through its negotiation of direct purchases with a number of manufacturers.

Destination Dining
“The term ‘Meal Plan’ is a terrible one—it emphasizes the process of feeding rather than the dining experience,” Taherian says. “In some ways, ‘Retail Dining’ is just as limiting—it suggests that retail operations are somehow separate.

“The financials may be different, but we look at dining as taking place in a continuum of venues that operate in a symbiotic way. A resident student should see the retail operations as an extension of the board program and we try to manage all of our operations in that larger context.”

On the residential side, Taherian instituted a new tradition about two years ago. Instead of offering as-similar-aspossible meals among the nine dining halls, he decided to create a unique signature anchor at each site, an approach that became known as Destination Dining.

As a result, no two dining halls are alike. Most have an established cultural focus, and in that case, dining centers on that theme. At the Stern complex, for example, a focus on Latin culture is complemented by Casa Zapata.

At Wilbur, another complex, a focus on Asian studies is matched by the authentic Asian meal platforms and fromscratch cuisine of The Golden Dragon, prepared by an experienced Chinese restaurant chef recruited specifically for that location. A broader palette of Southeast Asian cuisines can be had at Tao Now in Branner and a variety of other cuisines extend this breadth at other serveries.

A Functional Web Strategy

Many college dining web sites serve primarily as a promotional media for their programs, directing site visitors to various dining locations on a campus, describing available meal and catering plans and menus and featuring lots of pictures of enthusiastic students taking part in theme meals and promotions.

Stanford Dining’s site followed that model as well—until last year. Taherian wanted it to do much more, and oversaw a major redesign to ensure that it would. One key indicator: the site went from an average 2,000 hits per month in its old format to 25,000 a month after the redesign.

“First-generation web sites tend to be primarily sources of information, and that’s important,” he says. “But we also wanted ours to provide true functionality so that students could manage their meal plan and Cardinal Dollar accounts, track their dining patterns and access nutritional data about their meals on a real-time basis.”

The site also is structured so that when a visitor identifies him or herself as a student, parent or guest on the home page, the navigation options change to provide a more intuitive interface for the visitor based on that information.

Taherian employed two highly effective business partnerships to get the job done. In one, the department established key design criteria based on student wants and needs—e.g., a way to change meal plans, determine flex fund balances, access all meal plan functions, etc. Then, it worked with the Stanford Student Enterprise Group in a joint project to write new code to build this functionality into the site itself.

Concurrently, dining also negotiated a business partnership with Computrition, the vendor of the software used to manage its food production and inventory. The vendor developed a data export mechanism it calls a “Universal Gateway” that let Stanford’s student programmers pull data dynamically from its real time master database.

That’s important, because the decentralized structure of the Stanford dining program means each dining hall has its own chef, and each chef can have his or her own version of a recipe. Because that specific recipe will be in the database for menu production planning, its nutritional and ingredient information is always available, even if it is modified on the day of production.

In practice, students can thus obtain live, detailed nutritional information about any meal in the residential program. They can also buy Cardinal “flex” dollars at a discount (which eliminates administrative costs of doing it in person) or take advantage of Stanford’s “Dining on the Run” program, which lets them pre-order a boxed meal for pickup in lieu of a standard dining hall meal. Other options let them check their own dining and purchase histories, provide feedback to the department or take virtual tours of almost any foodservice venue SD operates on the campus.

“The real-time nature of the menu postings also helps drive chef accountability,” says Taherian. “Students immediately know if there is a discrepancy between the meal plan schedule and the actual menu and provide feedback when foods they are looking for are not available.”

Operationally, the new website also enabled the department to eliminate a full time position that was dedicated to changing meal plans and dealing with student account issues.

Each hall also offers abundant choices outside these themes, with grill stations, salad bars, express bars, pizza, and extensive vegetarian and vegan foods as well. “But if students get a craving for a particular type of ethnic food, there’s an onsite venue where they can find authentic fare every day—they don’t have to go off campus to get it,” Taherian says.

Balancing a combination of in-house and national brands, the department also offers a range of retail options (nine in all) that run the gamut from Peet’s Coffee and Tea and Subway to such in-house concepts as Olives, a Mediterranean-influence restaurant, and The Café, an airy, sophisticated venue that offers quick-serve sandwiches, salads and barbecue items.

Rafi Taherian, Eric Montell and Dennis White lead a meeting with representatives from an architectural/engineering firm working on a Stanford Dining project.
Junior’s BBQ Joint is one of several selfbranded retail concepts operated by Stanford Dining.

Retail as a Linchpin
The department also operates a variety of quick-stop sites at Union Square in Tresidder Memorial Union, where selfbranded stations round out the mix. Three new concepts, slated to open this fall, include the Axe & Palm diner and Tomatillo’s, a Mexican-themed taqueria, along with Energy Zone, a smoothie and juice bar concept from Freshens.

Besides making the most of his retail outlets’ appealing concepts, decor and tempting food choices, Taherian exercises the advantage of Cardinal Dollars, students’ flex funds that can be used only in SD-affiliated retail sites, and not at those of competing providers on campus. Students receive varying amounts of Cardinal Dollar credit depending on the meal plan chosen and can also purchase them directly online. Last year, the department generated over $250,000 in additional revenue from such add-on Cardinal Dollar purchases.

Another advantage SD wields is the coordination between its retail sites and catering services.

“All of our retail operations—from the Schwab Center to Stanford Catering to the individual retail sites—work closely with each other,” says Senior Associate Director Eric Montell. “That means we can provide a one-stop shop program for any client, and move them up or down the ladder of service offerings as it is appropriate.”

For instance, if a client requests Schwab Center, but it’s booked or doesn’t match the event requirements, managers from each retail operation consult and determine which facility would best suit those needs; then the appropriate manager contacts the prospective client. There are a variety of other high-end venues on the campus where foodservice is overseen by Catering Executive Chef Andrew Mayne. He regularly—and seemingly effortlessly— plans and executes everything from a 10-course tasting menu to a BBQ event for 10,000. For less elaborate needs, other catering options are available from outlets like Olives or The Café.

“Tiered catering gives us the best opportunity to keep catering dollars in our system,” Montell says. In fact, catering makes up a substantial percentage of many retail outlets’ revenues. Says Montell: “In our retail settings, there’s basically one meal period—lunch. Margins are harder to achieve when you must rely primarily on store transactions. Having multiple levels of catering allows us to increase sales by using existing staff.”

“Whereas a single person can handle a catered event for 100 people, it takes many more hands to feed 100 coming through a retail store.”

A Peanut-Free Dining Hall

Increased parent and student concerns about food allergies has become a big challenge for colleges across the country. Taherian introduced what he believes was the first entirely peanut-free dining facility on a campus five years ago.

“Initially, when students with serious food allergies came to us, we’d suggest they live in a controlled environment, such as a studio apartment, so they could closely monitor their own food preparation,” he says. That was until the family of a student with a severe peanut allergy asked if dining services could set up a program so students with such allergies could live in a residence hall and enjoy the full college experience.

With financial support from the family, Taherian and his staff spent nine months in a “huge effort” that required converting the foodservice facilities at Ricker Hall into a completely peanut-free site. It involved sterilizing the entire kitchen and servery; re-engineering recipes and menus; educating students and workers; and obtaining vendor certifications to make sure there were no peanut trace products in the entire line of distribution.

Although the student who inspired the program has since graduated, Ricker Hall continues to operate in this way, simultaneously enticing non-allergic students with its healthful, Mediterranean- themed meal options. It reopened this fall with a dramatic, new Tuscan-style look, including rustic tiled floors, arched doorways with brick borders and a soaring ceiling with skylights.