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Defining New Traditions


Name: Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS)

No. of Retail Locations: 15

No. of Residential Dining Locations: 13

Campus Population Served:
6,650 undergraduate students
12,500 graduate students
11,900 full-time equivalents

Meals per Year: 5 million

No. of HUDS employees: 650

Total Revenue:
$43.5 million (FY 03)
Undergraduate: $31.6 million
Retail: $5.5 million
Catering: $5.3 million
: $1.1 million

Peering down from the balcony in Harvard University's Annenberg Hall, a Civil War-era building constructed in the 1860s, one is struck by the immense scale of its gothic, arched ceiling and the diffuse, church-like illumination provided by its chandeliers and stained glass windows.

The long lines of wooden tables and chairs on its main floor make it easy to imagine the days when stewards still provided table service and students in jackets and ties filed in to dine at carefully appointed times, looking forward to the following year when they'd move to new quarters in the university's famed "House" system.

Today Annenberg serves as the school's main freshman dining facility; and while dress codes have loosened considerably, the school continues to maintain many of the other traditions that Annenberg's "great hall" ambience suggests.

Building an infrastructure
Still, immense change lies just beneath the surface of the dining program here and elsewhere on the Cambridge campus. Over the last decade, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) has evolved far beyond its earlier role as mainly a provider of campus meals for undergraduate students.

The transition began in the early-90s with a renewed emphasis on food quality and customer service, efforts focused on modernizing dining programs that in some cases had remained unchanged for years. Dining room menus and managers became more responsive to customer requests and food itself became more contemporary.

But with many of those initial goals met, HUDS, over the past half dozen years, has sought to strengthen the infrastructure needed to support its higher service standards and to develop systems that will allow it to take on new retail business.

Doing so has meant far-reaching structural changes to its programs, facilities and capabilities. Among them:

  • development of a long term master plan for renovations, with major dining facility re-builds in 10 of 12 undergraduate houses, (the remaining two are slated for the near future);
  • creation of a Culinary Support Group (CSG) to provide state-of-the-art cook-chill and central production, culinary R&D and value-added meal component manufacturing;
  • re-engineeed culinary programs to include seasonal menus, locally-sourced products and a capable team of executive chefs to oversee menu development.
  • a major expansion of retail services, both on and off the Cambridge campus;
  • implementing a comprehensive system of P&L management to let HUDS oversee operations and financials as if it were an in-house contractor, providing operational benchmarks for itself and its clients;
  • and significant enhancement of HUD's capacity to offer concept development, marketing and catering services to clients within the uniquely independent Harvard community.

A culture of sustainability
"Our culture across campus is very decentralized," says Ted Mayer, HUDS' executive director of dining services. "The universal goal here is to be self-sustaining, whether you're discussing dining services, the various colleges or a particular research facility."

In practical terms, that means Mayer's department is completely dependent on revenues received from its board plans and sales to operate its programs and fund its various initiatives. Each of the 13 residential dining operations runs its own P&L, as does each retail operation.

It also means that with the exception of Harvard College—the original undergraduate school— HUDS has no special advantage when it comes to seeking business elsewhere on the campus.

Some campus clients employ well-known management companies or have brought in local operators to manage onsite foodservices, and HUDS must market its retail and catering programs in direct competition with those provided by the private sector. (Only a decade ago, all retail foodservices other than those in undergraduate facilities were run by outside contractors.)

"How do you create a standard of excellence? The view here is that you do so by creating a competitive environment on campus," Mayer says. "That's why each college operates independently and why we compete for business by positioning ourselves as if we were a regional management company.

"We seek to know our customers better-than the competition and we have structured ourselves to tailor programs specifically for them. When we respond to an RFP, we look to customize our service, rather than offering a laundry list of preestablished programs to choose from."

"We are looking to use more local produce and to emphasize seasonal products and sustainability."
—Rosemary McGahey, director for residential dining

With a background that includes over a dozen years with Seiler's before that firm was acquired by Sodexho, Mayer knows well how outsource providers go to market and compete within the context of the RFP process. That experience has clearly been influential in how has restructured dining services and in the way he has sought to achieve its business-objectives.

When seeking new retail business, HUDS evaluates the project's financial viability and proposes an arrangement that reflects the revenue and cost environment the project represents. Under some circumstances it might involve a straight or split P&L; in others, a management or general service fee to modestly subsidize the account.

If an operation meets or exceeds plan and generates profits, they go into HUDS' reserve account; if an operation doesn't meet budget, it becomes a loss for the department and is eventually resigned.

Undergraduate residential dining operations involve less risk, but have their own challenges in the myriad expectations of Harvard's students, the need to finance regular facility upgrades and the high labor costs of metropolitan Boston. The same philosophy of doing business—and attention to operations and finance—is regularly applied there, under the oversight of Director of Residential Dining-Rosemary McGahey.

Upgrading the house system
Harvard remains one of the few schools that requires students to participate in its meal program for all four years of their undergraduate education. A single, unlimited meal plan remains the cornerstone of the program, but because of Harvard's unique "House" system, "our residential dining programs operate much differently than at most other universities," McGahey says.

Freshmen dine in Annenberg Hall, where 20,000 meals a week are served from a traditional self-serve scatter system. After freshman year, each student is assigned to one of 12 historic campus residences that house between 340 and 500 students each. A student will typically remain in an assigned house for the remainder of his or her undergraduate life, a tradition often credited with the life-long bonds formed by many Harvard students.

"Our challenge is to provide a better value at a lower cost to the customer, in a way that helps the customer perceive the value we offer."
—Cheryl Walker, director for campus restaurants

While operations vary somewhat, depending on the house, the dining rooms have much in common. They are homey and casual, with "mini-marketplace" buffet-style service predominant.

Menus are diverse, with offerings ranging from carvery night displays to international cuisine to comfort food favorites; in addition, each dining room has a pasta bar, salad bar and grill. Vegetarian and vegan choices are offered at every meal. Organic and locally sourced items are frequently available.

The availability of kitchen and prep facilities at each house varies. The original five "river houses"—Eliot, Kirkland, Lowell, Winthrop and Leverett—have only small finishing kitchens. Instead, they are connected by an underground tunnel that leads to what was once the original campus central kitchen, but which now houses the department's Culinary Support Group (CSG) facility.

Until a few years ago, food for the river houses was prepared in the central kitchen, then, while hot, wheeled down a tunnel to elevators and delivered to dining rooms above. It was a situation that did not provide the "mise en place" food quality that students—and HUDS chefs— wanted. Today that system has been modernized, with the CSG moving freshly-made, blast-chilled meal components to the houses, where meals are assembled and finished off in view of customers.

Harvard's seven other undergraduate houses— Dunster, Mather, Quincy, Adams, Cabot, Currier and Pforzheimer—are farther away and have always had full kitchen facilities. While they do more complex food preparation onsite, they also make use of components and cook-chill product provided by the CSG.

To optimize the use of labor and facilities, daily residential menus are balanced to draw from both centrally prepared products and those prepared on site. Recently, the residential program moved to four week seasonal cycle menus, with each cycle usually running for ten weeks.

Healthful choices are a strong undercurrent in the dining program and menus. Transfattyoils have been eliminated from all recipes; nutrition analyses are available online for all meals; and a staff dietitian is available to consult with students who have an interest in better managing their dietary interests.

Those looking for kosher meals can find them at Hillel House, where they are produced under rabbinical supervision. Kosher sandwiches and convenience meals are also blastchilled and stocked in refrigerated cases at all residential facilities.

Recently, HUDSalso launched a Food Literacy Initiative in partnership with well-known author chef and artist Mollie Katzen—a charter member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable. She has for years promoted healthful eating using a fulll range of meal ingredients and now collaborates with HUDS in staff training and recipe development, especially in the context of residential dining.

Meanwhile, each house operates on its own P&L under authority of a general manager; they, along with Kay D'Andria (general manager of freshman dining at Annenberg), report through two assistant residential directors to McGahey.

"Five years ago, we still operated with a cafeteria model," she observes. "We did not have seasonal menus, we never used fresh fish, we didn't use whole potatoes.

"Our concepts have to balance the need for cost effective production and our desire to offer the freshest possible product ."
—James DeZutter, director for business development

"Today, that model is long gone. We have an executive chef for residential dining, Martin Breslin. We serve freshly prepared food to our customers every day and develop menus based on customer requests that we track very closely. The House system remains, but the food we offer—and the way it is prepared— have changed dramatically for the better."

An expanding network of campus restaurants
Such change has not been limited to residential dining. Harvard's retail operations has consistently grown their share of revenue and now represent about 16 percent of HUDS' sales. They range from the highvolume Greenhouse Cafè at the Science Center to a one-cart grab-and-go concept located at the Astrophysical Observatory.

Other operations include the Courtyard Cafè at Harvard's Medical School, Sebastian's Cafè at its School of Public Health, the Elements Cafè at the Medical School's just-completed New Medical Research Building and Conference Center, and a variety of smaller restaurants in locations like the Graduate School of Education and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Today there are 15 operations in all, managed by Cheryl Walker, director for campus restaurants.

One project typifying the department's current retail thinking is the just-opened Buttery 29, at the entrance to a new, graduate-student apartment building just opened at 29 Garden Street.

A cafè-emporium with contemporary seating, Buttery 29 offers casual dining, freshlyprepared carryout meals and a selection of retail snacks and gourmet food products.These may be eaten on the run or can be finished off if necessary in the apartments upstairs, which allow only very limited food prep facilities. Residents are required to participate in a non-refundable, declining balance meal plan that costs $810 a semester.

Each venue is handled individually. For example, Sebastian's Cafè at Harvard's School of Public Health has a menu largely dominated by the Mediterranean diet espoused by Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the School's department of nutrition. The menu emphasizes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, and the elimination of transfatty acids. Typical fare includes savory, stirfried dishes, lean meat, vegetarian deli sandwiches, composed salads and whole-wheat pizzas.

"There was a time when the department saw itself as a caretaker for any retail operations it managed," Walker says. "Today we are proactive about the opportunities retail represents. We are confident—but also realistic—about the results we can achieve when we take on new business."

Catering to the Crimson Crowd
Any description of HUDS programs would be remiss if it did not mention the extensive Crimson Catering program that the department has grown and developed over the last decade. With over $5 million in revenues, Crimson Catering services everything from tailgate parties to the Harvard College president's daily lunch to the thousands who gather for commencement each year.

Under the direction of Catering Director Madeline Meehan, Crimson Catering's "On the Move" program delivers breakfast and lunch buffets, a la carte and fine dining services, tote-bag lunches, tapas and cruditÈ platters, fresh-baked goods, dessert break table displays and thousands of hors d'oeuvres each year via its own dedicated fleet of three delivery vans and trucks.

Many of the division's services are ordered online, with boxed lunches one of the most popular selections. The department has made these a signature item, with custom packaging in compartmentalized clamshell containers that slide into logoed and labeled cardboard sleeves.

Crimson Catering's higher-end catering services have been widely recognized, Meehan says a current emphasis is on promoting some of its lower-cost alternatives via a "Give Your Budget a Break" promotion. "It's important to send a message that catering is not only for high-budget events," she says.

"We want all potential clients across the campus to see us as a resource they can afford to use."

Looking ahead
That idea—of being able to provide clientcentered service across the growing Harvard campus—is one Mayer has made a cornerstone of HUDS marketing philosophy.

"It's a primary reason we created the Director of Business Development position a little over a year ago and hired Jim DeZutter to fill it," he says. "We want clients to see us as experts not only in quality, high-volume production, but also in concept development and execution. We want them to recognize our ability to help develop custom concepts that can be efficiently supported by our production and management systems."

A key objective is to raise HUDS profile as a campus authority on foodservice project viability, Mayer says, able to consult with clients on proposed foodservice operations early in the design process when operating contract criteria is first being developed.

"Even if it is not likely that we will eventually operate a facility, we believe we can help clients plan for operations in ways that will allow them to negotiate more effective RFP arrangements," Mayer says. "Long term, we see ourselves as providing contract management and oversight services if these will be useful to our on-campus clients.

"That doesn't mean we don't see opportunities to open our own new retail operations," he adds. "We haven't saturated the internal marketplace here, and the university is expanding. There are significant opportunities to help clients operate foodservices in new venues now on the drawing boards."

Mayer believes the University's planned expansion of graduate student residential operations as a particular opportunity.

"We were housing about 20 percent of the graduate students when I joined the University, and the goal today is for us to house 40 percent of them. The University is planning those facilities now and Buttery 29 represents our thinking in terms of the kinds of service capabilities they will need.

"Our customers want high-quality, freshly prepared food, offered conveniently and with high perceived value. We have sought to build the internal structures and capabilities to deliver that for them."

Culinary Support " Down Under"

Where HUDS' underground kitchen once operated primarily to cook hot food for its five river houses, it now houses the Culinary Support Group (CSG), a production group and system that supports virtually every platform and venue served by the department.

From CSG comes items as diverse as custommarinated chicken breast and custom-smoked pork butt; seasonal soups from recipes developed in partnership with Mollie Katzen; prepackaged sandwiches and salads for HUDS retail operations; and bulk meal components that are key to efficient operation of concepts like the Catalina Cantina in HUDS' Greenhouse Cafè.

"A lot of what we do here is very interesting from an R&D point of view," says Andy Allen, the executive chef who oversees culinary operations there."We are a full-service commissary but we also have adopted much technology from the industrial food manufacturing world."

Allen, a certified research chef, notes that CSG's approach to process control means food safety regimens are systematically addressed. "The process extends from raw ingredients to the front-of-the-house, rather than to just the insulated container or delivery cart," he says.

"The quality of something as simple as roast turkey for a residential carving station is vastly improved when we cook and blastchill it here, allowing the dining hall to re-therm and finish it off as needed, in view of the customers."

Among other equipment in the CSG, you'll find 250-gallon mixer kettles, a 500-pound vacuum marinator, a tumble chiller and blast chiller, an ice-builder and pump-fill station, and an automated ribbon blender. There is a vacuum packager set up to do modified atmosphere nitrogen flushes, and shrink-and cello-wrapping equipment to package grab-and-go foods.

CSG's production systems are today a far cry from those originally used in the central kitchen. It prepares "pumpable" food used in all the residential and some retail dining facilities; manufactures 80,000 pre-packaged salads and sandwiches a year for the "Dash" line used in retail, catering and vending operations, and provides cost-effective meal component production that helps HUDS reduce labor costs at virtually all of its unit-level dining facilities.

The CSG has developed a portfolio of between 400 and 500 custom-designed and tested recipes for its use over the last three years, according Director of Business Development James DeZutter.

"We've brought a wide range of disciplines to bear in the enormous number of new products we have rolled out since September."
—Andy Allen, executive chef, Culinary Support Group

"We are very pro-active about seeking out types of products we can make here that meet the needs our various chefs have expressed to us," DeZutter adds. "We are a boutique, specialty manufacturer in many ways.

"From the beginning, Ted's vision was to change the way food was served and delivered to the customer, to produce better quality product on the plate every day while also gaining tighter controls over labor and consistency.

The Greenhouse:

A Harvard Dining Case Study

HUDS Greenhouse Cafè renovation is a case study of how the department looks at retail opportunities and the needs of clients, says Cheryl Walker. The restaurant occupied a narrow space next to where a second floor stairwell enters the Science Center—it was a good retail location because of its access to lots of daily traffic and because of its natural lighting from a glass atrium wall on its facing side (hence the name).

On the other hand, its tight, narrow floor footprint has always meant space was limited for seating and production platforms. Its traditional menu options, service throughput and seating were consistently less than customers wanted.

"It became clear that the needs of the community were regularly exceeding what we could serve from its space," Walker says. "It was also clear that much of the physical plant was worn out and needed replacement."

As HUDS considered how it could help its client address these challenges, it also looked at the large amount of facility growth that loomed on the campus horizon. It also knew that many clients using outside operators were experiencing financial and operating challenges with their own retail operations.

"We decided to hire an unbiased third party to evaluate retail service needs across the campus with an eye toward the future and an indepth look at this particular project," Walker says.

It commissioned Envision Strategies to perform that study and to develop modeling tools that could be used both by HUDS and its partner, the Office of Physical Resources for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to evaluate present and future retail operations on the campus.

The consultant met with a wide cross-section of the campus: deans, administrators, support staff, students, those who booked catering events, etc.. The findings filled an appropriately large book when they were released: segmenting Harvard's retail market and customer types, identifying food and spending preferences and evaluating market potential.

A key deliverable was a spreadsheet modeling tool HUDS or clients can use to evaluate the financial viability of a foodservice, taking into account check averages, building populations, expenses, patron counts and other variables.

The report's conclusions were optimistic but also cautionary, suggesting retail opportunities on the campus will remain limited, partly because of competition from public restaurants in nearby Harvard Square and especially if traditional patterns of location continued (sites located within individual colleges rather than in cross-college locations).

The report predicted that successful retail operations will involve modular branded concepts, fast-casual environments, fresh-prepared and healthful food and high perceived-value offerings, the latter achieved via production efficiencies like those made possible by the CSG.

These observations meshed with site-specific Greenhouse recommendations, and when the restaurant was re-opened after major remodeling last September, you could see them implemented front-and-center.

A new concept, Catalina Cantina, has replaced what was a chicken sandwich franchise. It offers a broader menu, an ethnic flavor profile and food portability ("high on everyone's want list," says Walker.) To add flexibility, the prep area includes a fryer and charbroiler, not necessary now, but very likely important if the concept evolves or is replaced in coming years.

Hidden behind the cooler wall is a prep area where pre-cut and pre-prepared component ingredients are stored. The space also contains a warewasher, convection oven, prep tables and sinks and offers access to the back of the refrigerated cooler, which is large enough for bulk storage and allows "invisible" cooler door area retocking with ingredients, bottled beverages and other items from behind the scenes.

Pizza, the restaurant's most popular offering, now is finished off in full view in a Woodstone oven at Bella Boca and offered in more varieties from a long, narrow island that fits efficiently into the center of the Greenhouse footprint.

(click here to view video)

A new salad bar concept, Global Greens, faces the lobby and uses fresh produce as a"front of store" merchandising aid and is faced by seating-dense counter areas with high-boy stools. Tucked into an alcove-like area by the entrance is a high-inventory grab-and-go, offering bottled beverages and pre-packaged DASH salads and sandwiches.

Overall, the total number of seats in the Greenhouse has not really changed, but their configuration and utilization has. Two-seat tables and single seats now predominate, with the rest situated in ways that encourage group use and sharing. Average receipts at the Greenhouse are up 10 percent.

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