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Sooner Showcase

University of Oklahoma's newly-renovated dining hall reflects the continuing evolution of its foodservice program and operating philosophy.


No. of Students: 27,000 FS

Employees: 146 FTEs, 500+ students

Total Sales: $17.5 million

Catering Sales: $2.1 million

Meal Plan Sales: $10.7 million Cash / Credit cards: $3.6 million Summer Camp Programs: $650,000

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Key Employees: Chuck Weaver, Shirleta Benfield, Frank Henry, Kevin Barker, Ali Shafaie, David Annis.

Last August, when the University of Oklahoma first opened the doors to newly-renovated Couch Dining Hall, underclassmen waiting outside quickly lived up to the school's “Sooners” nickname, overrunning the facility with the same enthusiasm Oklahoma settlers showed in the state's 19th century land rushes.

“It was just crazy,” recalls Frank Henry, OU's director of board operations.

“We would have loved a week for a soft opening, but there just wasn't time for that. The largest part of our construction work had been squeezed into 10 weeks between graduation and August 19th, when new students arrived for orientation.

“We'd torn down walls, moved drains, put in new equipment and relocated most of the stations. It would have been hectic under any circumstances. On top of everything else, we'd changed all the existing work flows, so we were testing new ones out as we began serving customers.”

Hectic or not, the opening was a huge success. Meal plan usage in Couch increased and cash sales at the all-you care-to-eat facility were up 44 percent in 2010 when compared to pre-renovation 2008 numbers. And after a year of operation, Henry, who coordinated much of the construction, staffing and menu development for Couch, was recently honored by the OU Board of Regents with its Superior Staff award.

Couch, formerly described by students as “like a giant airport,” now offers more than a dozen unique restaurant-style concepts and food choices spanning the gamut of quickservice and fast casual dining. There are “neighborhood” seating options to match, from bistro style enclaves to restaurant booths to counter stools to traditional communal tables. Just as significant are changes in the hall's service style, which by design is now more interactive, customer focused and choice-driven.

A multi-year initiative

Among its stations, Couch sports both national restaurant brands like Chick fil-A (the only one in the country in an all-you-care-to-eat facility) and carefully-developed self branded concepts. These include its Sooner Smokehouse, Cafe del Sol, Shanghai Stir-Fry, LaRoma Pasta & Pizza and Athens Café, among others.

Several of these concepts, as well as The Laughing Tomato, a natural foods concept located at OU's Cate Center, will play a key role in plans the department has to brand and expand its campus catering services in the future (more on that later).

On the functional side, Couch retained its semi-circular layout, with a spacious front of the house surrounding a core kitchen. While most finishing work takes place out front, its display cooking stations and free-standing bars have convenient access to the common kitchen for storage, behind the scenes component prep and volume production operations.

The Couch renovation is one of many changes to OU's dining operations that have taken place in a multi-year initiative to enhance the contribution dining makes to OU's culture while also satisfying demands for greater choice, quality and convenience.

At the same time, OU is a good example of how campus dining programs across the country have sought to drive more value and efficiency in an era in which tighter cost management has taken on greater significance.

Under its former dining director, David Annis, the department made steady strides on both fronts over the past two decades. Under its new director, Chuck Weaver, it is in the process of advancing this transition in some new directions. Among Weaver's top initiatives: a focus on weekly unit manager P&L reporting, strategic brand extensions and enhancement and the re-positioning of key retail outlets to grow extended hour sales while keeping labor costs under control.

Financing cage free eggs

Annis first came to OU in 1986, when total campus foodservice sales were about $5 million and enrollment was about 18,000. There was virtually no retail service at that time, and almost all meals on campus were taken at the dining halls.

He became the director in 1993 and assembled the core management team that is still with the department today: Shirleta Benfield, Frank Henry, Kevin Barker and Ali Shafaie. Through the 1990s, the group introduced national brands, declining balance and meal plan equivalency options. As the campus grew, points of service proliferated, each with its own identity.

vegetarian farevegetarian fare

MANY OPTIONS, MANY NEIGHBORHOODS. Students who prefer vegetarian fare have many options at Couch and elsewhere on the campus. After its renovation, Couch was transformed from “a giant airport lounge” to a contemporary food court with numerous seating options.

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Fresh made tartFlying Cow Café

SOONER SWEETS & FLYING COWS. Left, a fresh made tart, one of many upscale desserts offered in the Sooner Sweets station at Couch; at right, the Flying Cow Café at the National Weather Station on the South end of campus.

OU Dining was a pioneer in areas like all-night dining, room service delivery and local sourcing. It introduced cage-free eggs over a decade ago, convincing the school to invest in a local chicken farm to get the program off the ground. Today it buys 750dozen eggs a week from the same farm.

This year, total campus foodservice sales were close to $18 million. Almost $11 million of that came from meal plans, with more than half of those dollars spent using equivalency credits outside of the all-you-care-to-eat environment.

A past NACUFS president and long an active regional Boy Scout leader (early in his career, he managed the foodservices at BSA's Philmont camp facilities), Annis is known for his volunteer work as well as his people skills and ability to inspire others.

In 2008, he accepted a promotion to become OU's director of housing and food services. After a national search he selected Chuck Weaver to become his successor. Weaver brought experience earned on the contract side of campus dining and also had held an executive position with a commercial c-store store chain.

Knowing the numbers

During his years on the contract side, Weaver had been a troubleshooter and ran operations on a number of campuses.

“I'd always seen OU as having one of the best dining operations in higher education,” he says. With family in nearby Texas, “this was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

CAFE DEL SOL offers a wide variety of Mesxican entrees with authentic sauces and fresh-made tortialls (right shows the tortilla-making machine).

At the operating level, one of the things Weaver brought to the department was a more focused approach to evaluating the financial performance of individual operations, a philosophy honed during his years in contract foodservice.

“Our organization has always been very focused on a service culture, and we have tried to pair that with a complementary focus on the business performance side,” he says. “Discipline there will help provide the resources we need in order to maintain those high service levels.”

To that end, the department has begun sharing almost all its operational numbers with its managers.

“But I also expect them to know the numbers for their own units before I do,” Weaver adds, ticking off examples.

“Food and labor costs as a percentage of sales. Direct costs as percentage of sales. The cost of goods in each major food category. The value of inventory on hand.

“A good manager has a sense of his operation and its daily sales in real time — whether the day is heavy in labor or not, whether adjustments need to be made to bring things into line. To forecast that the Friday before spring break will be a light day and to schedule student labor accordingly.”

Striving for labor flexibility

In the past year, the department has introduced a weekly reporting model in lieu of what was formerly a monthly system. Assistant Director-Board Operations Frank Henry and Assistant Director-Retail Operations Kevin Barker each have their respective managers report results in group meetings that let each presenter do a self review “in a teaching and learning session,” says Weaver.

When hiring new managers, Weaver says the department looks for individuals who want to take this kind of ownership of their operations and are “ready to take the operation the next step up — perhaps to be the one to suggest what that step is or where it should go.”

If a manager has a good idea but doesn't have the unit resources to pursue it, “we have to learn as a team to look at the larger operational picture and see if there are resources elsewhere that can help us go to that next level. It may mean tapping chefs from another operation, but it can also mean having some of the resources in your own unit tapped in that same way.”

Weaver admits this kind of labor flexibility is not always easy to achieve, but says it is essential if the group is to control its costs as it upgrades the quality of its offerings and services.

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Developing brand extensions

“There's a natural tendency to feel that an employee is associated with a single unit. But no team should feel it is a one-store shop,” he adds. “Just as you have to tap different people for a big catered event, people need to see that it is sometimes necessary to shift labor from one part of the campus foodservice to another on a daily basis in order to make the entire operation run more effectively.”

As retail offerings have continued to become a bigger part of the foodservice mix on campus, it has become more difficult for the department to support operations that might be termed “loss leaders,” Weaver says.

Retail style service is more satisfying for employees and customers, “but it means we have to manage the margins and goals more carefully, and adjust when we don't meet those goals. That will become critical as we continue to offer more retail style food in our all-you-care-to-eat operations.”

Looking to the future, Weaver wants to first finish fine tuning of station brands in Couch, with menu, signage and other enhancements that create more “depth” to the story each brand brings to the customer base.

“We see the Smokehouse and some of the other concepts offering customized meals comparable to those you'd find at a commercially-themed casual restaurant. Our catering, which right now is fairly traditional, will offer menu options keyed to those enhanced concepts, so that if a department meeting of 20 heads wants to order five pounds of Sooner Smokehouse brisket, with sides to match, they can.”

Weaver also plans to create lines of grab and go sandwiches and salads based on other station brands, perhaps making some of them available in campus vending machines. He also is planning to expand OU's convenience retailing options from the one c-store that operates in Cate to other locations over the next few years. The product mix will use a hybrid model, he says, including both retail pack product and grab-and-go items produced elsewhere on the campus, in some cases based on brand extensions from concepts like the Laughing Tomato.

A gradual transition to retail

Kevin Barker, director of retail operations, has been instrumental in overseeing the operational side of OU's retail activities and has been involved in them since the department first opened The Baker's Dozen, its first foray into retail, back in 1986.

The transition to retail was gradual at OU, but it accelerated in 1994, when former Oklahoma Governor and Senator David Boren became the university's president. Among many other objectives, Boren wanted to re-invigorate the school's Student Union, which at the time offered foodservice independently operated by a few local entrepreneurs. By and large, those operations did not contribute financially to the Union and weren't attracting much in the way of campus traffic.

In contrast, Boren wanted the union to become a robust hub for campus activity, and saw foodservice as an important catalyst in making that happen. He charged dining services with overseeing the union's foodservices and developing them for the longer term.

One of the department's first decisions was to migrate its Chick-fil-A franchise to the Union, a move that was initially unpopular with the local operators, but which soon began to significantly increase traffic to the facility. It added other retail operations as attrition of the local operators made that possible.

Chuck Weavermenu from The Laughing Tomato

At left, OU’s new director of foodservices, Chuck Weaver. At right: a menu from The Laughing Tomato, a retail concept located at Cate Center.

In 1999, when President Boren expressed his desire to see 24-hour foodservice in the Union, so that it could serve as a gathering place for late-night student activity, the department acquired some space in the Union's lower level and developed Crossroads Restaurant.

“We were pretty concerned that a 24-hour operation would operate at a loss, but from the beginning we were able to make it work financially,” Barker recalls. “David really got behind the idea and we just kept massaging the menu and the service model until it proved itself.” The operation, which rang up about $350 a day in sales in the beginning, regularly posts $6000 a day now.

Besides Crossroads Restaurant, The Oklahoma Memorial Union's retail mix also includes both self-developed and department-operated franchise concepts. Its self-branded retail concepts include The Laughing Tomato (an all natural/produce-oriented concept) and Wong Key (an Asian Concept). Franchises includee Freshens, Wendy's, Quizno's, Sbarro, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A.

Across campus in the student residential area is Cate Center, an older cafeteria that has been converted to a food court/emporium type operation. In Cate Center students can find Oliver's (all day breakfast and hot bar) Roscoe's Coffee Shop, O'Henry's Soups & Sandwiches, Cinnabon, and Taco Mayo.

The Xcetera c-store in Walker Center; Couch Express in Couch Center, and Burger King in Adam's Center round out the food service options in the residence hall.

Spread across campus are other individualized cafes such as “Bedrock Café at Sarkey's Energy Center, Bookmark Café in the Bizzell Memorial Libarary, Amicus Café in the OU College of Law, Redbud Café in the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, and the Flying Cow Café in the National Weather Center.

Looking forward, “We know we can self-brand and do it well,” Barker says. “The emphasis will be on achieving a balance between doing that, and leveraging the commercial brands where they make the most sense.”

Barker also expects that in the longer term, even Couch will probably operate largely as a retail operation. “Ultimately, students shouldn't see a difference between a board plan operation and a retail one. For now, because of the financial model and the way meal plans work, there still is a distinction, but it is blurring. Eventually, students will just pick the place where they feel like eating based on the concept, the convenience, the perceived value, the menu.

“If Crossroads has shown us anything, it is that students want service 24 hours a day. We just have to find a way to make it work, even if that means operating mobile food trucks to take the service where the students are.”

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