After 25 years with a contract service provider, Westfield State University, in Massachusetts, has transitioned to self-op with the help of its nearby neighbor, the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Over the past few months, the two universities have collaborated to create a unique new campus dining program dubbed Westfield State Dining.
Supported by a $250,000 grant from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, Westfield State plans to adopt UMass Dining’s decade-long, model program that has successfully provided healthy and sustainable meal options for campus diners while purchasing from local and regional providers.
“We are helping Westfield State Dining create a memorable experience for their students, faculty and staff,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises for UMass. “This is not an extension of UMass Dining. They have their own unique program.”
Previously, Westfield had a little more than 5,000 students on meal plans and did about $10 million in revenue. Students used the program as required, but retention was low and missed meals were high.
“When Westfield State approached us in the early stages of exploring what it would take for them to go self-op, we saw a unique opportunity to support our community and help another excellent state university elevate its foodservice operation,” Toong says. “It took years for UMass Dining to become what it is. But we started somewhere, and now Westfield will, too.”
That start began with a complete overhaul of the menus, purchasing processes and recipes.
“We started with the food,” says Garett DiStefano, director of residential dining at UMass. “We wanted to make sure the concept of simple food prepared with really good ingredients was the foundation for the program.”
Building on that, Westfield State students, faculty and staff now have access to healthier, more seasonable menu offerings made with local and sustainable ingredients. They’ve increased dining hours at cafes and retail options, too, where there are also more and better choices.
“Westfield State Dining has established a students-first mentality with both customer service as well as with food,” DiStefano says. “They are now more consistent with their hours, opening the operation daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the school year.”
The next leg of the process involved marketing and branding Westfield State’s new dining culture. This included creating a logo, branding elements and even purchasing new uniforms for the staff.
“Together, we’ve developed and begun implementing marketing programs and social media accounts to connect with the campus and local community,” says DiStefano, who is doubly invested in the success of Westfield’s new dining program since it’s located a quick 10 minutes from his home. “We want the campus and local community to know Westfield is here and that we’re listening to them and responding.”
To lead the program from the inside, Westfield State hired a foodservice director name Andrew Mankus who was previously one of UMass’ best managers.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for [Mankus],” says Toong. “He’s incredibly talented and the perfect fit for this position.”
Once all the people were in place, training was next on the to-do list.
UMass needed to teach and train Westfield staff on proper cooking and executing techniques. To do this, UMass invited 15 of its culinary champions from its operation to come to Westfield and train the staff.
“Peer-to-peer mentorship has been a critical part of this process,” says Toong. “Our champions were deeply proud to share their knowledge and skill with the professionals at Westfield State. They worked with them, hand-in-hand, on everything from pastry through stir-fry.”
“The biggest hurdle for all of us was overcoming the fear of the unknown,” says DiStefano. “But with open lines of communication and that peer-to-peer support, we’ve been able to sort out any challenges or issues that come up to continue to move the operation forward.”
Fortunately, Westfield owned all of its equipment, so there weren’t any major capital expenses or hiring at the front end. (Some minor equipment was purchased since Westfield had previously relied fairly heavily on processed and packaged foods.)
The program kicked off July 4th weekend.
“We’re only in the beginning stages,” says Toong. “But the program now centers on engaging the campus community on dining. We want it to be collaborative. We are now asking them what they want. Westfield is getting to know its community better.”
“It’s doable,” DiStefano says of the insights learned from transitioning to self-op. “It is not as ominous as one might think. It takes the willingness of the campus to say they want to make the change. And all the key stakeholders have been with us the whole way. There is a new sense of flexibility and possibility. And while there are some unknowns, the endgame will be outstanding.”
While UMass, which acts as a consultant for Westfield and collects a small percentage of the sales, plans to use the money it collects to fund future renovations on its own campus, the real value is in elevating the state’s collegiate dining programs.
“Better dining helps us all attract top students,” says Toong. “In a 2015 study of 1,200 UMass students, 70 percent said that dining was an important decision to come to UMass. We want that same environment for Westfield.”
This partnership will also help UMass with special programs like guest chefs.
“Westfield is only 45 minutes from us, so it’s easy for us to collaborate on programs that will directly benefit both schools,” says Toong.
This isn’t the only consultancy project for UMass. According to Toong, UMass is also working with Boston Public Schools as well as a Chicopee elementary school to create a permaculture garden and related educational activities.
“We’re honored to be able to share what we know to better students of all ages,” says Toong.
Updated 8/29: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Westfield's dining employees were employed by the university and not Sodexo.