Dave Prentkowski knew what he wanted. Back in 1997, the director of food services at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, was charged with updating the venerable campus’s foodservice facilities. After talking to colleagues, researching options with a foodservice consultant and visiting numerous other sites—including some outside of the higher education segment— Prentkowski concluded that what Notre Dame needed was a centralized production operation.
Centralized production on the scale he was envisioning was a radical departure from Notre Dame’s traditional foodservice operations, but Prentkowski had enough experience— and certainly a better knowledge than anyone else of what was best for Notre Dame’s dining operation— to proceed with confidence and determination.
Ultimately, what Notre Dame ended up with “was pretty close to what I originally envisioned,” he says. That vision—still one of the segment’s showcase operations— would not have been possible but for Prentkowski’s determination, involvement and credibility with the university, which of course had to approve the plans and the budget.
Similarly, at Fairfax (VA) County Schools, the system’s kitchen designs and equipment specs for its new and renovated school cafeterias all bear the indelible stamp of Penny McConnell’s influence. McConnell, director of food & nutrition services for the system, works closely with the district’s Design & Construction department and its architect. However, as a veteran of school foodservice operations, she won’t compromise what her experience tells her are the best design and equipment options for her units.
Take sinks. All the new and renovated kitchens have a certain model because McConnell decided that is the best option and “I convinced Design & Construction that that’s the way to go.” Flooring? “I require that we use ceramic tile under sinks—it took me three years for that one, but I finally convinced them,” McConnell says matter-of-factly.
Today, she is battling for windows in kitchens and testing combi-ovens without broilers. If she decided that’s what’s best for Fairfax Schools, don’t bet against her getting it.
“If I need an X and the dealer says Y, I’ll say, ‘No, I want an X!’” she says in summing up her idea of supplier relationships. “We are so specific because equipment is a very costly item.”
Prentkowski and McConnell are excellent examples of the aggressively involved foodservice director in the areas of facility design and equipment specification. But they are hardly exceptions.
As pressures to boost efficiencies while producing ever higher quality dining solutions mount, FSDs in all segments are insisting on greater control over their means of production. And that includes more detailed involvement with blueprints and equipment specs than many would have imagined only a decade or so ago.
Planning for the long-term
Call it a necessary survival strategy.
“At the end of the day, the director and the department will be there working with the equipment, long after the consultant and the architect are gone,” says Lynne Ometer, director of food & nutrition services for Emory Hospitals in Atlanta, in explaining the motivation for the increased attention. “That being the case, we need to have a critical role in deciding what that equipment is.”
The alternative is not always pretty. “When I first came here, the district didn’t understand why foodservice directors need to be involved in the design and specifying process,” says Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of food and nutrition services for Hillsborough (FL) County School District.
“People were making decisions based on what they thought we should have. As a result we ended up with things like coolers and freezers that were way too small for our needs.”
And whose record ultimately reflects the resulting drag on productivity that such amateur involvement produces? Every director knows the answer to that question.
All this was much less of an issue in the past, when manpower was plentiful, menus simple and subsidies generous. Under such conditions, FSDs understandably tended to keep a distance from design and equipment decisions, preferring to put their energies where their core expertise lay—in producing food. If equipment went underutilized or even unused, there were enough redundant systems in place to make it largely irrelevant.
No more. Today, few foodservice directors can afford not to be involved, though many are still living with the legacies of past disengagement— inadequate storage, convoluted ergonomics, cramped production spaces and fancy electronic whiz-bangs that are about as practical in an institutional kitchen as a catcher’s mitt in a sewing circle. Some of the worst offenders are so-called experts who are beyond their expertise when they take on foodservice spaces. “One thing you never want is an architect designing a kitchen,” opines Patty Guist, director of associate services for Humana, Inc., in Louisville, KY. “Nothing against architects, but they don’t know kitchens, and certainly not commercial kitchens. The best person to design a kitchen is someone who has managed or worked in one.”
Big bucks, carefully spent
The trend of FSDs taking a larger role in facility design and equipment specifying issues has emerged recently for a variety of reasons. Certainly, control over production infrastructure is a major factor— perhaps the major factor—as Ometer notes. After all, few things are more crucial to how well an operation ultimately functions than the way space is allocated, how systems are set up and what equipment is specified and installed.
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There are also budget considerations. Major projects and equipment are practically permanent, something the FSD (or his or her successors) and staff will have to live with, perhaps for decades, as capital funds for major foodservice projects don’t come around very often. Money that is unwisely spent is money lost and likely not to be seen again.
So it’s no wonder that many FSDs insist on interjecting themselves into the design and specification process at virtually every level, often with increasingly close involvement as their experience grows. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, for instance, Director of Dining Operations Julaine Kiehn has overseen a complete revamping of all campus foodservice facilities in the past decade, so she knows her way around blueprints.
“The first few times, the consultant’s role was very important but has become less so as I gained experience with these projects,” she says. Today, Kiehn routinely goes over architectural plans thoroughly. Recently, she spent three days over spring break reviewing drawings for one project. Six more are opening next year, and she will be just as closely involved with them.
It’s a serious commitment, but Kiehn says she lives by one credo: “If you don’t put in the time up front, you’ll pay later.” That goes for both design and equipment: “If a walk-in will be here for 30 or 40 years,” she says, “I want to be satisfied that it is quality.”
At Humana, Guist says she and a select team put together from her staff take architectural floorplans “and start cutting and pasting.” The team for Humana’s recent redesign project in Jacksonville, FL, included personnel like the head cook and the kitchen manager. “These are people who must function in that designed space, and they’re the ones in the best position to provide key input on what will work best,” Guist explains.
Details that involve technical knowledge are worked out later with the architect and consultant, but the overall design and vision is that of Guist and her team.
While many FSDs believe architects are too far removed from operational considerations to understand many of their design issues, the directors we spoke to for this article generally acknowledged that foodservice consultants are often key players in the facility design and equipment specifying processes.
However, most FSDs are also quick to emphasize that consultants ultimately work for directors and that their input is part of a complex groundwork process that shouldn’t be shortcut by simply deferring to recommendations without bringing one’s own experience to bear.
“Never stray too far from the renovation project director,” says Larry Riff, director of food & nutrition at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, KY. “We as directors need to be involved in design issues and equipment specifying because we have a responsibility to spend the dollars we get wisely.”
A list of frustrations
The dollars Riff refers to can be huge, much more than the typical commercial restaurant operator wields, and bigger even than many regional chains. That being the case, onsite FSDs are at a loss as to why they continue to get short shrift from some equipment manufacturers.
“Sometimes we’re not taken very seriously, and that surprises me,” says Jon Lewis, director of dining at Iowa State University. “Frankly, I can’t imagine what they’re thinking. If they don’t understand that directors have a major influence over what is purchased, then they are not functioning in the real world and are risking losing serious revenues. As an industry, we’re in a significant renovation and construction period right now, not just in colleges but other segments as well, and with the capital to put toward those projects. We’re talking millions and millions of dollars. There isn’t a mom and pop restaurant out there with the same buying power, yet they seem to get the attention.”
Directors also get frustrated with the equipment options they have to work with. “The school industry is a treasure waiting to be discovered, but manufacturers tend to pigeonhole us like we were a chain that they can just sell their standard burger or Mexican or casual dining products to,” declares John Peukert, who recently was named assistant to the superintendent in charge of business operations at San Bernadino City (CA) USD after almost 20 years as the district’s director of food services.
“We have specialized needs that aren’t being met, so if anyone is willing to put in the R&D dollars, they can probably end up earning a lot of money,” Peukert adds.
Though such benign neglect may appear counterproductive to manufacturers’ best interests, many FSDs have an understandable reluctance to take the issue on directly with suppliers.
But not always.
Take Maria DeNicola, director of nutrition & foodservice at Lakeland (FL) Regional Medical Center. DeNicola spent time working for a foodservice design firm earlier in her career and came away with a knowledge of that side of the business rare in the field.
She got a golden opportunity to lay out the onsite equipment user’s case when she addressed assembled supplier representatives at a recent MAFSI (Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Food Service Industry) conference during a panel discussion on equipment issues.
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“Many equipment manufacturers gear their products to the fast food market,” she told the group. “To be competitive, they cheapen the equipment because most of these restaurants are not in business for a long time. So the stove that used to last 20 years, where you can take depreciation on it for 15 years, doesn’t last you more than five.”
She went on to tabulate a list of frustrations most onsite FSDs are very familiar with: reliability issues, service response times, breakdowns, service coverage, depreciation schedules, ease of maintenance, and so forth.
“Afterward, people told me, ‘Boy, you really hit home,’” DeNicola adds.
Her advice to other directors who may not have her specialized knowledge: though you may not know the details about equipment options, “what you’re dealing with on the operational side is what happens in the kitchen, and you need to learn from your exposure there.”
In other words, bring your real-world experience to the table and make that the issue. Equipment suppliers tend to frame the discussion in a technical vein, so directors should bring a “reality-check” perspective that they are in the best position to articulate in the discussion.
Another frustration noted by some female directors is that the foodservice equipment world, with its industrial BTUsand- steel-gauges culture, retains more than a few vestiges of its guys-with-big-machines cultural antecedents. Obviously, that is changing fast, but some say women still have a steeper hill to climb to gain credibility as serious, knowledgeable buyers when compared to their male colleagues.
Just because some directors are reluctant to deal directly with manufacturers doesn’t mean they defer their purchase decisions to others. Indeed, most indicate that they ultimately make the choice themselves on what to purchase based on a few key factors.
Certainly, a consultant’s recommendation is one, but FSDs bring a dose of skepticism to that process, citing relationships some consultants have with certain suppliers that can dilute the objectivity of the equipment specifying process.
Buying what they know
But beyond such issues, FSDs note that, being outsiders, consultants ultimately can’t be expected to appreciate all of the nuances that can have major influences on individual operations. While consultants’ broader external experience certainly brings value and a fresh perspective to each project, that perspective needs to be leavened with the director’s familiarity and experience with the specific operation.
“Consultants have certain ways of doing things,” offers Guist. “That’s fine, but you have to make sure that their way is the best for your particular situation.”
Directors generally agree that personal experience with particular manufacturer brands, along with peer input about the relative merits of different brands, are key factors in equipment purchasing decisions.
“If I have experience with a brand, that carries a lot of weight,” offers Mona Milius, associate director of residence/dining at the University of Northern Iowa. “I also like to sit down with colleagues from other schools before I start a big project to see what experiences they’ve had with the kinds of things we’ll be looking at.”
Ometer says she also considers the history of the equipment in the industry and the “long-term outlook of the manufacturer— will it be around tomorrow? Customer service and support are big issues for me, as are whether the equipment will meet the needs of today as well as how adaptable it will be to the needs of the future.”
“Supplier relationships are key,” she adds, something several directors noted. Manufacturers who have a presence in the onsite segments—especially those with visibility and involvement in onsite industry activities— get a considerable boost in respect, as well as a better chance to get their products before important purchasing influences.
“One real key to my decision to go with a particular brand was the manufacturer’s involvement with NACUFS,” says Lewis. “That made it possible for me to talk with them and establish a relationship.”
“I don’t buy something just because it’s in a catalog,” Prentkowski adds. “I want to see it work in a real context. When we purchase equipment like ovens, grills and fryers, we bring them in and evaluate them thoroughly in operation.”
“It’s a definite mistake not to kick the tires,” agrees DeNicola. “Always check the references. We’re currently buying about $3.5 million in new equipment for a new kitchen and we’ve painstakingly gone over every piece that is going in there.”
Harrison, whose system opened a dozen new schools last year and eight more this year, says personal evaluation of equipment is key. “We bring in everything for 90 days and let the employees and maintenance people go at them. I would not buy anything until they had a chance to test them because they are the ones who will need to use them and care for them.”
The vetting process can yield key findings that would escape more conventional evaluations. For example, Harrison says she found that double combi-ovens weren’t being used as much as anticipated because shorter employees had trouble reaching the top compartments.
“I need to renovate 75 schools,” Harrison says. “The last thing I want to do is buy a piece of equipment that will just sit there.”
The Service Snag
One issue of particular concern to directors across the onsite spectrum when it comes to evaluating equipment is the quality of service and maintenance that can be expected once equipment is installed. Several directors noted that some brands are ultimately rejected due not so much to the equipment’s quality as to their prior experience with local service organizations.
The issue is of particular relevance to operators located in areas where service networks break down or are stretched too thin. Horror stories about long delays in getting attention and sometimes less-than-expert work once crews do arrive are staples of peer-to-peer chatter at industry gatherings and on informal networking grapevines. On the other hand, strong service networks enhance a brand’s “spec-ability,” directors say.