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Dining That's Out of This World

Dining That's Out of This World

It may not be rocket science, but feeding the staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab is still challenging.

Space may be the “final frontier” but rocket scientists still have down-to-earth appetites. Maybe that's why, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, the responsibility for feeding some 5,000 scientists, engineers, academics, administrators and other professionals — plus another thousand or so support personnel — falls to a department historically attuned to the down-to-earth dining habits of college students.

That department is the campus dining services of JPL's next-door neighbor and parent organization, the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech. JPL is operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under contract with Caltech.

For JPL, whose main complex sits directly adjacent to the Caltech campus, Caltech Dining Services (CDS) manages four cafes (one offsite) and a pair of kiosks, and also provides onsite catering. It's a different kind of operation for CDS, one that is managed as a distinct operation from the campus dining activities. Dining at JPL has its own P&L, facilities, personnel and menus.

The relationship gives CDS advantages in economies of scale, especially in the area of purchasing. On the other hand, it requires the department to develop and maintain a dining program that can meet the needs of a somewhat different customer base, one with different perspectives than the young adults at its university venues.

To meet that challenge, CDS has responded recently with a menu reinvention program designed to better appeal to JPL customers. Early returns on the revamp have been positive even in the face of the economic slowdown that has JPL staffers as concerned as those at any other B&I location.

Organizational Symmetry

JPL engaged CDS to manage its onsite foodservice seven years ago, replacing a traditional contract management company.


What: Caltech Dining at JPL
Locations: 4 cafes, 2 kiosks
Onsite Population: 6,000
Meal Count: 7,500/week
Revenues: $4.5 million, incl. JPL Store
Dining Staff: 50, incl. 4 managers

Management: Bonnie Gerszt, dining & JPL Store liaison; Marvin Greenberg, general manager, Caltech Dining Services; Ralph Gonzales, Joel Miranda, Patty Robles, cafe managers; Martha De La Torre, catering/operations supervisor

“It's a kind of a hybrid of contract relationship,” explains Bonnie Gerszt, Dining & JPL Store liaison. “We work for the same people, the same organization. We are all Caltech employees. My paycheck says California Institute of Technology.”

“JPL's management is very committed to partnership with the university,” she adds. “Caltech is one of the finest science/engineering institutes in the world and we are one of the finest science and engineering facilities in the world, so there's always been lots of collaboration between campus and the lab on many, many different levels.”

Despite that, the JPL environment poses cultural and operational challenges for CDS.

There's no meal plan, for one thing, to provide a guaranteed revenue base. It's all retail and, like most B&Is, primarily a lunch business. And, unlike many college students, JPL's adult staff is very sensitive to economic conditions. When times are hard, onsite dining is affected.

To keep up customer counts and improve satisfaction, CDS initiated a major redesign of its program in the past year. The reinvention includes upgrades of many of the ingredients used, more fresh preparation onsite and a greater attention to menu variety.

“You can't have the attitude that the customer is a prisoner,” says Marvin Greenberg, CDS's general manager at JPL. “He can go elsewhere. We're only a few miles out of a community that has a fair number of restaurants, so we have to fight for our customers as if we were out in the real world.”

Part of the campaign to keep those customers onsite involves substituting higher-end products like all-breast meat turkey, premium burger patties and eye of round pork cuts in some of the offerings. Of course, these products come with higher price tags, but CDS mitigates that with aggressive use of its volume clout, combining purchases for the campus and JPL programs. It has consolidated around a limited number of vendors that can supply product for both operations.

“We use many of the same products at both sites, but they have a much more diversified menu there than we have here,” Greenberg says. Where menu items overlap, the same ingredients are used. The operations share the volume discounts, since they are part of the same buying program.

Economies of Scale

Another strategy to increase menu appeal is more onsite production. While CDS traditionally offered two freshly made entrée choices each day in each cafe, many others — soups, grab-and-go salads and sandwiches — were bought premade.

Now, the sandwiches and salads are made onsite from fresh ingredients, many also freshly prepared. For instance, instead of buying pre-cooked turkey, CDS now bakes breasts in its own kitchens.

CDS operates three cafes on the JPL main campus. While the daily menu is 85-90% uniform — all cafes have grill, deli, pizza and Chef's Choice (entrees of the day) stations — there are variations to accommodate different customer bases.

For example, Cafe 190 is in an area of the campus with a large concentration of support and contract workers, more of a meat-and-potatoes crowd that prefers more traditional foods. So Cafe 190 emphasizes sandwiches made with hand-carved roasted meats, and its salad bar has a Mexican emphasis to meet customer preferences. It sells more desserts than the other locations.

Cafe 167, near the main offices, draws more upper management and administrative personnel. Its signature centerpiece is a Mongolian grill that allows customers to create their own starch/vegetable/protein rice and noodle bowls.

Cafe 303, in the science/engineering part of the campus where many ethnic Asian professionals work, offers bento boxes, udon noodles, rice bowls and made-to-order sushi.

The standard menu items (delis, pizzas, grilled items, entrees of the day) across all cafes give CDS economies of scale in purchasing even though production is done at each site kitchen. Meanwhile, the unique offerings — the Mongolian grill, the bento boxes, the carved roasted meats — give each location a “branded” touch of exclusivity, a feeling of being in a distinct “restaurant.”

The cafes open at 6:30 each morning and serve full breakfast. Two stay open until 3:30. Cafe 190 only operates until 2 pm.

Besides the three cafes, CDS also operates two kiosk carts at JPL. One is in the center of an open outdoor seating terrace to take advantage of Southern California's year-round mild weather, and the other at the entrance to the JPL Store gift shop. The kiosks serve specialty coffee drinks, ice cream, pastries and grab-and-go sandwiches and salads made in one of the cafe kitchens.

CDS also operates Cafe 602 for JPL is at a business complex several miles from the main campus. With only about 500 employees, the location would ordinarily not merit onsite foodservice, but JPL wanted those working there to get the same amenities the main complex enjoys.

Cafe 602 has no production kitchen, so CDS simply transported food there from the main complex until recently. Now, the emphasis is on more onsite to-order production, with a Chef's Choice station offering a tostada/burrito bar, Asian rice/noodle bar, American favorites, Italian favorites and Southwest favorites on different days of the week to complement its fresh baked pizza, udon noodle bowl and deli stations.

Cooking is done with basic equipment like induction stoves and a hoodless convection oven. CDS also began purchasing ingredients like precut vegetables directly for Cafe 602's made-to-order dishes.

Room for Growth

Greenberg believes the customer counts across the cafes have room to grow. So far, CDS has concentrated on building variety and boosting quality and consistency. It hasn't yet done much in the way of promotion and marketing. When it does, Greenberg believes, meal counts will tick further up. “You want to have your house in order before you invite new folks in,” he says.

Catering is also getting an upgrade. Previously, food was prepared in the university kitchens and brought over, but that tended to degraded quality. So, “about a year and a half ago we brought some of the catering production over here with plans to bring the rest over eventually,” says Gerszt.

CDS recently shut down Caltech Catering at the university in a cost-saving measure, accelerating the conversion on the JPL campus, where catering continues to be a robust activity.

As part of the upgrade, the catering menu is being overhauled. “We're now providing what we think is a good cross-section of foods,” Greenberg says. “They range from ‘drop-and-go’ type fast food/pizza/chicken wing kinds of items to buffet items. We can handle anything that is under a hundred folks and doesn't require captains and wine stewards.”

The capabilities have also expanded, he adds. “It's more than just sending sandwiches to one location for a group of six businessmen. We're now able to bring people in and do birthday cakes and set up rooms for them or areas of our cafes. It's exciting for us because we have an opportunity to provide a product and service that is going to be new and one I think will be well received.”

Giving customers what they want is ingrained in Greenberg, a veteran of large volume retail foodservice environments like racetracks, hotels and casinos.

“You need to learn the customer and the idiosyncrasies of a particular location,” he says. “The foodservice here is not that much different than at a country club, where you're dealing with the same folks on a regular basis and the customers themselves have a proprietary ownership of the operation and they feel it's their restaurant.

“While you always have the desire to take care of your customers, because that's how you build business, here it's like dealing with your neighbors. You see them every day. From that standpoint, you want good relations with the guy across the fence from you.”

Big Idea: Upgrading a Key Menu Category

Soups at JPL are now made fresh instead of bought premade.

The soup program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is at the forefront of an active campaign to upgrade the quality of the choices and offer more perceived value to customers.

Traditionally, the dining department had simply purchased a series of 20 different pre-made soups and rotated them on its six-week cycle menu. However, that seemingly smooth process had a major problem: customers would deplete the soup ingredients, leaving mostly broth for those coming later. To avoid that, the dining department would regularly replenish the broth with additional vegetables, meat and noodles.

“Then we figured that if were going to doctor it anyway, why don't we just make it ourselves,” says Marvin Greenberg, JPL's general manager of dining.

The conversion process is currently underway. The department is testing various recipes and formulations developed by the cafe staffs. The managers and cooks get together regularly to evaluate the choices and tweak the recipes.

It was during one of these tasting sessions that the department found it had a diamond in the rough in its midst.

“We were doing a tasting of six or seven soups at one cafe and found that they were all superb,” Greenberg recalls. “Usually, you get one or two that you like, so we wondered, ‘Who made the soup?’”

It turned out that one of the staff cooks “is absolutely incredible on soups,” Greenberg says. “So until we get other people trained at the other cafes, we're going to utilize his talents at all the locations.”

His creations include broccoli and cheese, Thai coconut curry and a minestrone “that was just to die for,” Greenberg says.

The in-house soup recipes are now in the process of being integrated into the cycle, replacing the previous premade selections. By the end of the current cycle, Greenberg estimates half the soup selections will be in-house recipes. The cafes offer two soups a day (not counting a miso that is part of the Asian food selection at some of the locations).

Exploring the Final Frontier

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, was founded by scientists and engineers from the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1940 as a test site for their early rocket experiments, which were getting too dangerous (and noisy) to remain on the campus. World War II and the subsequent Cold War funneled defense funds to the site, where work turned to producing practical jet engines for military uses in the 1940s and 1950s.

When the Soviets launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, it was the JPL that developed and launched America's response, Explorer 1. That led to an affiliation with the new National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), which remains in place to this day. Technically, JPL is a NASA facility but is managed by Caltech.

In the 60s and 70s, JPL was at the forefront of the Mariner missions that sent back the first pictures of the surfaces of Venus and Mars, and the Ranger and Surveyor missions that first landed on the moon. Since the 70s, JPL has continued to explore “the final frontier” with a series of missions (Voyager, Cassini-Huygens, the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, etc.) that have regularly transmitted valuable information and breathtaking pictures from the different planets in our solar system and beyond. JPL has also allowed scientists to get a better understanding of our own planet with a series of topographic and oceanographic missions.

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