Tim Dietzler is a modest man. But modesty is no barrier to effectiveness, as Dietzler has compiled a record of achievement at Villanova University that in its quiet way has become an impressive model for others in the campus dining segment (for more on Dietzler and the Villanova dining program, see the cover story in the June 2004 FM).
It is also a record that has earned Dietzler the 2010 Silver Plate Award in the Higher Education category.
Among his achievements:
• the development of a campus dining service that offers a diverse mix of retail and board options and cuisine choices,
• a flexible meal plan strategy that can accommodate different needs, from those of resident students to commuters, resulting in a robust meal plan revenue stream,
• an unwavering commitment to support the university mission by working with academic and administrative departments,
• an ability to maintain and refine a sophisticated modern university dining service while respecting the traditions of the Villanova campus.
Dietzler began his career in private club dining and commercial restaurants before he landed back at his alma mater, Villanova, in 1987. There, he worked his way up from an entry level dining manager's position to become an associate director and then, in 2002, the sole director (previously, separate directors had overseen residential dining, the student union cash operations and vending).
What's on Dietzler's Plate?
Annual Sales: $24 million
Over his tenure, Dietzler assisted with — and then oversaw — the transformation of Villanova's campus dining service from a single meal plan offering board meals at traditional residence dining halls to one with multiple retail options and a wide range of meal plans designed to fit different student needs. One result has been a boom in meal plan sales to students not required to purchase one.
An especially popular component of the Villanova meal plans is Meal Plan Express, a kind of meal equivalency (though Dietzler resists the term since it invites price and value comparisons) option that lets students substitute retail purchases for dining hall meals during designated hours at select retail outlets. Introduced in 1993, it opened meal plan dining to later hours.
Dietzler has used Meal Plan Express, along with a points cash component, to design a flexible array of plans. Even resident freshmen, who are required to purchase a meal plan, now have a choice of a half dozen different iterations.
One innovative option is the SGA Inflation Fighter, which locks in a set meal plan price for four years if a student commits in his or her first year. The “SGA” prefix emphasizes the approval and cooperation of the Student Government Association in developing the plan, and that in turn reflects Dietzler's commitment to working with different campus groups and departments.
That mindset has resulted in some noteworthy cooperative ventures, from a chef exchange with East China Normal University in Shanghai through the Modern Languages Department, to bringing a master sushi chef to the campus as part of a course on Japanese culinary traditions. Villanova Dining also is the university's largest campus sponsor of the Special Olympics and a major partner in pulling off the event.
Most recently, Dietzler's department catered a special dinner for visiting Iranian writer Mahbod Seraji by recreating every dish mentioned in his novel Rooftops of Tehran, including a particularly difficult ice cream recipe. “The extent of their genuine kindness and the lengths they had gone to open their hearts, minds and lives to Rooftops was simply awe-inspiring,” Seraji effused in his online essay about the visit (www.iranian.com/main/print/99150)
Dietzler has also overseen a renovation boom that has modernized the traditional campus' dining locations while putting new outlets in buildings with underserved populations incremental sales opportunities. Recent additions include replications of the department's whimsically named Holy Grounds coffee bar concept in the School of Nursing, in an engineering lab building and in the new School of Law.
Continuing a longstanding project to modernize the traditional board dining halls, the venerable Dougherty Hall recently got an upgrade, including the removal of a winding entrance ramp that some considered a sacred tradition and many others an inconvenient anachronism.
The facilities may be traditional, but Dietzler has made sure the food is up to date as well as socially responsible and in harmony with Villanova's Augustinian values. Organic and local produce are emphasized, as is composting and recycling.
First Person Singular...
I always had an interest in food because of a connection with my mother’s mother. She had a challenging way of asking us about our ambitions. I would spend time in the kitchen when we would visit and I think she saw I had an interest in cooking and preparing, but especially in entertaining, in social gathering.
I started very young in the food business by working for Sinclair’s Food Market, which was just at the top of our street. After I got my driver’s license, the owner would allow me to drive his car to make deliveries of his meats, so I found myself at 16 being very independent. A few years later, I was working in a small mom and pop delicatessen where they allowed me to run the operation by myself on the weekends. I’ve always found that in the food business you can get some very rewarding responsibilities at a young age, and I’ve always loved that aspect of it.
My degree is in accounting and that has helped me all along the way in understanding budget reporting, understanding food costs and things of that nature.
I had attended Villanova because we had a very strong family connection. My father had worked here for 34 years and my grandfather worked in the library after he retired. Also, several of my brothers and sisters went to school here—I’m one of nine children!
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First Person Singular...
About halfway through college I got a job at Overbrook Golf Club as a waiter and then as kind of a part time host on the weekends. That job carried me through to graduation, and afterwards they gave me the opportunity to work as maitre d’ there. I was in charge of coordinating weddings and managing the front of the house staff. One time, Howard Cosell visited and I was in charge of the special golf outing. And I was only 22 years old!
I felt very comfortable with the service aspect of my job at Overbrook, but I didn’t think I had the expertise for things like buying and introducing wines—not at 22. So I wanted to see if there were other areas that could give me more experience and practical training. I did a lot of interviewing and ended up with Bennigans, a Norman Brinker concept owned by Pillsbury at the time. They had a very good training program, up to three months plus two weeks at the headquarters in Dallas. It was very different from what I was doing at Overbrook but it took me through every aspect of the restaurant business, from the kitchen manager’s perspective to the front of the house manager’s service perspective. I really enjoyed that.
With Bennigans I got a wonderful introduction to the operational aspects of managing a restaurant, but what I didn’t like was the intense hours. So, being young I decided to look for jobs in the industry that didn’t have the same kind of hours. I found out through my father that there was an opening in Villanova’s dining department. When I was a student, I didn’t stay on campus so I didn’t eat there, but I was certainly aware of the dining operation.
When I first started, we had the single meal plan and our focus was really just serving students in the resident dining halls. It was a wonderful program but we were closing at 6:30 at night and there was nothing available past then. Beginning in 1993, we made a big push, taking advantage of the retail outlets, expanding our serving hours, expanding our meal plan options and focus, and giving students a lot of exibility.
Basically, we try to find ways to partner with the different schools on retail operations in a way that gives them an identity of their own but that doesn’t require a lot of staffing or an intense menu. Over those past several years we’ve opened the Commons in the School of Nursing, a coffee bar called CEER in our engineering building—that’s been a great addition to the west side of the campus—and a cafe and another coffee bar called Legal Grounds in our new law school building.
We’ve really branched out into some special needs staffing. We have four different programs in which we bring in special staff who help us in the facilities, usually in the dining rooms. They generally come with a support staff that allows them to be placed in an operation where they can test their abilities to interact with other people and to perform a job function. We’ve had several who had worked with us and went on to get their own jobs. So it’s really a great program that’s been developed under the leadership of [Director of Administration for Dining Services] Tina Cellucci, and something I’m particularly proud of.