Ted Mayer

Ted Mayer

Ted Mayer
Executive Director
Harvard University Dining Services
Cambridge, MA

What's on Mayer's Plate?

Name: Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS)

Foodservice Employees: 522

# of meals served/day: 25,000

Annual Revenues: $47 million

Retail Locations: 17

Residential dining locations: 13

Accomplishing the goals of an ambitious, 10-year strategic plan two years early and under budget takes some serious business acumen. And that's just what Ted Mayer was tapped for, when, in 1997, he took over as head of Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS).

Bringing a strong, corporate-style management model, the know-how to restructure a department to drive efficiencies, and a keen sense of how to develop onthemoney retail and meal program concepts, Mayer made the move to HUDS after spending a successful decade at Middlebury College in Vermont. There, he oversaw the renovation of five foodservice facilities, built up a thriving prime vendor program, established an onsite test kitchen, and launched a certified continuing education program.

The key to continually pulling off such efforts, often ahead of schedule and on budget? Managing college foodservice as a business. It's a good thing Mayer already had that operating style, since he doesn't have any other choice at HUDS.

"We have to run the department like a business, because it is completely self-sustaining," he explains. With two different contract management companies also operating retail locations and dining services for graduate programs on campus, " nothing is guaranteed," Mayer adds.

The constant, competitive environment necessitates smart business practices, but Mayer notes they must be carefully weighed alongside personal touches crucial to the foodservice tradition in Harvard's historic "House System" (which includes a separate dining facility at each of the 12 dormitories撲r houses紡nd one common freshman dining hall, each with its own P&L ).

"The house system is structured like a group of small communities, and foodservice is an important component of them," he says. "So to balance the relationships that keep our foodservice top notch with the cost drivers that all departments face, we have to make sure we're as efficient as possible."

That's where overhauling 12 dining facilities and one retail unit in the space of eight years comes in. "By doing the renovations quickly and in succession, we were able to keep the same team, which got more efficient as time went on. The renovations were all completed during our tenanda-half week summer breaks, even though they were basically complete 'gut jobs'."

Along with the reconstruction, Mayer's plan also called for upgrading food quality in all HUDS facilities. The biggest boost to that strategy came with the development of the Culinary Support Group (CSG), a cook/blast chill facility he opened in 2001.

Designed to provide prepared food and prepped ingredients to all the department's venues, the CSG also brought greater control over labor costs and product consistency. In fact, as a result of savings from savvier purchasing, contracting practices and labor management, the center realized its ROI in 24 months, a full year earlier than estimated.

But it takes more than efficiency and consistency from a central production kitchen to ensure top quality food. Mayer's other secret weapons include his Council of Chefs, made up of HUDS' five executive and sous chefs, who, as a group, have won seven American Culinary Federation medals within the last two years. He also tapped Mollie Katzen, famed vegetarian cuisine guru, to help enhance the department's vegan and vegetarian items.

Mayer continues to introduce a variety of dining hall and retail concepts to meet the specific needs of his customers. For instance, the recent debut of Fly-By, a centrallylocated unit that's an extension of the meal program, provides a grab- and- go alternative for students who can't make it back to one of the houses at lunch or are unable to pre-order a bag lunch at their house.

"Now, they just come in, select various components from the line, and put together a bag lunch for themselves," Mayer explains.

To fortify late-night studiers, Mayer recently implemented a meal program extra dubbed Brain Break, a self-serve setup that offers snacks and light bites along with the occasional nacho bar. Additionally, fair trade products, seasonal menus with organic and local ingredients, whole, roasted carved meats in each dining hall, plus increased ethnic food choices all contribute to the highest satisfaction ratings (3.89 out of 5) ever reported on HUDS' customer surveys.

As a member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable, Mayer works with acclaimed nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett to ensure HUDS is operating with the latest approaches to and understanding of good nutrition (such as eliminating trans fats and increasing whole grain consumption). But because students continue to arrive at college with widely varying knowledge levels about nutrition, including many misconceptions, Mayer saw the need to develop a full program to address all conceivable food-related issues.

What he came up with is the Food Literacy Project (FLP), a wide-ranging, twoyearold program that draws on the strengths of HUDS and its partners, the School of Public Health and University Health Services, to better educate the Harvard community about nutrition, agriculture, food preparation and local hunger issues.

"The FLP is my way of dealing with, in a comprehensive manner, all the food and nutrition concerns college students bring with them," he says. "There are certain hot buttons surrounding food that differ among groups. So instead of responding individually to different student groups, the FLP attempts to get out information based on solid nutrition findings [and community implications], allowing students to think about it in terms of life planning."

"FLP has just gotten off the ground, but in the next year we'll begin gathering data to see what kind of a difference it's making in student awareness," Mayer says.

"If we spend the time to comprehensively educate them about food and nutrition, we hope we can avoid the pitfalls that come when you're in the position of always simply reacting to concerns. We're trying to anticipate the questions."

Exceeding Expectations

Maintaining credibility among students, trying to anticipate their needs, and staying current—given the increasingly higher expectations of customers—are constant challenges facing college foodservice directors. Here are some of Mayer's strategies:
Switch to web-based market research.
Today's students live by the internet. Moving from paper surveys to web-based allows HUDS customers to answer at their convenience, 24/7, and speeds up the department's response time. Mayer notes HUDS acts on responses in 75% less time now, e.g., introducing requested items like chicken tikka masala, pad thai noodles and sushi within three weeks after surveys indicated customers wanted them.
Keep marketing efforts well-focused and stylish. "We don't want students to have the sense they're a captive audience," says Mayer, "so we do a lot of marketing to make them aware of the extent of our program components.You have to do it well when there are so many things competing for their attention." Mayer's three-person, award-winning marketing team is in-house, so "they can respond quickly."
Accommodate all needs.
"With a mandatory meal program, you can't opt out—you have to accommodate everyone, from athletes to vegetarians to those with special needs," Mayer notes. In an extreme example, when twins with rare, severe food allergies matriculated to Harvard, Mayer brought the mother in a week ahead to work with two cooks assigned to prepare their meals, purchased separate pots and pans, and secured separate refrigerator space and food lockers to ensure their safety.
Pre-sell your story when planning program changes. When making the challenging switch four years ago from offering seven different kinds of fries to only one, straightcut, trans-fat free style, Mayer knew "we really had to sell it." The HUDS marketing team so effectively educated their customers about the dangers of trans fat that when the change came, Mayer says,"We hardly got a peep of protest - out of 6,500 students!