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Dining Enters a New Era At Princeton

Dining Enters a New Era At Princeton

Change does not come easily to an institution that is more than 260 years old. Nevertheless, Princeton University — which was chartered in 1746 when the American head of state was a George from England, not Texas — has boldly embarked on a fundamental restructuring of its residential college system, a change with deep implications for many campus departments, not the least dining services.

This past fall, Princeton kicked off an ambitious program that will establish a series of four-year residential colleges, a first for a campus where two-year colleges have been the norm. The change is designed to keep more third- and fourth-year students in the same residential facilities as freshmen and sophomores, where the different classes could socialize and take many of their meals together in the residential dining facilities. If successful, it would represent a dramatic change from Princeton's current culture, in which most students leave the residences and stop frequenting dining halls following sophomore year.

At A Glance

Name: Princeton University Dining Services
Annual Revenues: $23 million
Meals Served: 2 million/yr.; 13,000/day
Staff: 200 hourly full-time; 60 management; 50-75 temp/part-time; 150-175 students
Top Management: Stuart Orefice, director; Fred Pierson, ass't director-retail; Susan Pierson, ass't director-residential; Robert Harbison, culinary concept coordinator

Princeton's Department of Dining Services (DDS) is responding to the challenge by completely overhauling the way it operates residential dining, both physically and philosophically.

The physical changes are most dramatically reflected in a capital improvement program that unveiled its first fruits last fall — two new dining halls (one actually a renovated consolidation of two previous facilities) bristling with fresh food stations, to-order meal choices and front-of-the-customer food preparation.

But as transforming as the physical changes are, it is the way the department has changed its approach to residential dining that is most striking.

Gone is a top-down approach where the dining halls were cookie-cutter reflections of menus determined centrally. In its place is a system in which the onsite chefs are in charge.

“When I started in 1992, we had one chef; now we have 14, with as many as three in one dining hall, depending on its size,” proudly notes Dining Director Stu Orefice. “And those chefs are in charge of the menu, so that instead of five dining halls all serving the same thing at the same time, the chefs in each determine what they will serve each day.”

In the process, the role of Executive Chef Rob Harbison has evolved. As culinary concept coordinator, he now concentrates on retail and catering operations, oversees all construction projects and has authority over all equipment purchases.

The Big Idea

Fostering Competition With Fiscal Responsibility

AN EXPANDING ROSTER OF CHEFS. (seated, l. to r.) Chef Doug Stehle, Sous Chef Christeen Griffiths, Chef Rob Harbison, Chef Brad Ortega. (back, l. to r.) Chef Michael Gattis, Chef Larry Frazer, Sous Chef Manny Sierra, Chef Alex Trimble, Chef Manager Dan Slobodien, Chef Gary Bowlsbey, Pastry Chef Heather Minnich.

The key to Princeton University's new approach to residential dining lies in encouraging a spirit of competition among the dining halls, says Stu Orefice, director of dining services. Orefice took as his model the retail-style dining environment implemented some years ago at the University of Washington in Seattle, where individual dining outlets were managed by chefs who determined daily menus based on what they perceived their customers wanting. In effect, the chef managers run their own “restaurants” and compete for business in a quasi-commercial business environment.

“We took the Washington model and added not one but up to three chefs, per unit,” says Orefice. “I feel it gives us better balance, more checks and balances. For example, I think it's a good idea to have separate managers doing the inventory and checking the food in at the dock. If you don't separate the person doing the ordering from the one checking it in, you can end up repeating the same mistake. I think this is one reason why we not only are doing well with food quality but financially as well.”

The chef empowerment approach does have its pitfalls, and Orefice was determined to minimize them while retaining the advantages. One major issue was purchasing. At UW, chefs initially got considerable freedom to buy the products they wanted, sometimes resulting in cost overruns.

At Princeton, Orefice says that purchasing freedom is curtailed somewhat so that the department can still leverage its considerable volume to get favorable pricing.

“We've come up with lists of approved vendors and approved products,” he explains. “If a chef wants to add a product not on the list, he can, but he has to let us know so that we can meet our auditing policies for the campus. We give them freedom, but also want to make sure we have some structure. We tell the chef, ‘You can write your own menus and be entrepreneurial, but there are some standards you have to maintain.' So far it's worked. The first semester we are performing extremely well financially in the residential college program.”

Orefice has emphasized hiring chefs with commercial business experience to run the new-style dining halls, and is incenting them by offering bonuses that the chefs can invest in their operations.

The bonus is based on the operation meeting a series of target numbers like food cost percentage, customer counts and overtime expenses. There are also numbers promoting department goals like sustainability — the amount of paper goods used, for example. The target numbers are tailored to each operation, taking into account its resources and location. Operations with greater potential have steeper targets to meet (Orefice compares it to a “handicap” number in golf that evens out the different skill levels of a group of players).

“We consider only numbers they can control,” says Orefice. “If they meet their targets they can get $10,000-20,0000 a year to spend on equipment they'd prefer to have but that we wouldn't necessarily purchase for them. A chef might decide to purchase a new immersion blender, while another one might go with a shawarma machine to make gyro sandwiches.”

The spending latitude even extends to aesthetic areas like uniforms and servingware that can distinguish dining halls from each other even further. “Chefs are free to spend their bonuses on new uniform designs for their staff, though we would have to approve it,” Orefice notes. “Once it's approved, we'll maintain it for them in their regular budgets.”

As for servingware like plates, “they can pick out a pattern as if they were opening a restaurant. We want it to look and feel like a restaurant service in an all-you-can-eat environment.”

A Slow Process of Culture Change

BOARD BUT NOT BORING. The emphasis of the new Princeton dining halls is on fresh food and customer choice, illustrated by the array of pizzas and the fully stocked salad bar in the newly renovated Rockey- Mathey Dining Hall, a consolidation of two older facilities, which opened last fall.

The cultural change in residential dining is something Orefice had been advocating and slowly implementing even before the residential college conversion initiative made upgrading campus dining a major priority.

“When I arrived here in 1992, they had the ingredients and I brought the recipe,” Orefice says. “We had five college dining halls with snakeline counters and one cash cafeteria that closed at 5 pm. When we put in the first grill and soft serve machine in a dining hall at Princeton, we were heroes. We also empowered grill cooks to come up with one special a day and that was groundbreaking because before, each dining hall served the same menu and there were no variations.”

By 1998, all the dining halls were equipped with grills and dessert machines, and Orefice turned his attention to extending their culinary autonomy. To do that he had to place culinary direction and expertise in each, de-emphasizing the top-down control that had determined menus in all dining halls to date.

“I suggested we create entry-level chef positions in each unit to replace the senior cooks as they retired — basically eliminating a union position to create a management position.”

The path to an agreement was eased with a commitment to open some new managerial positions to hourly employees once they completed the necessary education.

“As we were adding chefs across the campus as the senior cooks retired, we came up with a program for the union where we would put unit chefs in place with a sous chef who came up from the dining ranks. We now have four hourly employees who've been promoted to management positions as sous chefs and may add one more. Eventually, in the larger operations, there would be a chef-manager, a unit chef and a sous chef — three chefs in one operation!”

Orefice also contended with the union on the issue of job descriptions. “We created a position called residential foodservice worker, something we had previously put in place in our retail operations when Frist opened in 2000 (see sidebar on p. 26) where we now have retail foodservice workers. That description lets us move someone from the deli to the pizza station, for example. We negotiated a higher rate with the union since the position is a combination of tasks, but it now provides us the flexibility we need.”

The Retail and Catering Picture
(from top) Chancellor Green Cafe worker staffer
Kathy Mikos and two views of the Food For Thought
station in the Frist Campus Center food court.

While residential dining is the main focus of the changes currently underway at Princeton University, retail and catering foodservice also continues to get attention.

The heart of Princeton's retail dining is the food court in the Frist Campus Center, which opened in 2000 “and became the highlight of the campus,” says Dining Director Stu Orefice.

Princeton had been among the few Ivy colleges in the country without a campus center up to that time, and the complex was an immediate hit with students. “We had projected doubling our retail but ended up tripling it,” Orefice recalls.

The station mix has changed somewhat in the past eight years. A Mongolian grill concept that was part of the initial set of offerings “lasted about 5 years before it died,” says Orefice. “We may go back to it at some point, but we do have our own Asian concept, Stix, in there now, as well as a Mexican concept we call Olé.”

The only street brand in Frist is Villa Pizza, a local favorite that specializes in deep dish selections. However, Villa's menu mix outside of the pizza selections has been customized, with Italian selections freshly made by Princeton Dining replacing Villa's proprietary items. This results in a more upscale selection than one would find in a commercial Villa Pizza outlet.

Another station offers custom-made salads and sandwiches, with customers able to select specific items from a list of ingedients. A grill and an entree/vegetarian station (Food for Thought) round out the mix.

The rest of Frist's retail mix is in flux. The c-store has been moved into a space formerly occupied by a healthful foods outlet called the Healthy Eating Laboratory that provides much more storage space. It also features an expanded mix that includes fountain beverages and an automated smoothie machine. Meanwhile, the old c-store space will reopen in April as a coffee/ice cream bar called Witherspoons. Then in September, another Frist retail space, Café Vivian, will be reinvented as a “green café.”

Sales for Princeton Catering have jumped from about $400,000 when Orefice began his tenure, to $1.5 million today, but that figure substantially underestimates the size of the actual catering operation. Another $500,000 is generated by a dropoff catering service (Paper Tiger) that operates out of the Frist kitchens and delivers party platters.>

In addition, the individual college kitchens generate an estimated $1 milllion in annual sales through in-house catering services that are not run through Princeton Catering, though they use the department's price list. About half of this is generated during reunion weekend, when the colleges essentially become catering houses, says Orefice.

Princeton Catering operates out of graduate college's kitchen, which only serves dinner, leaving the facilities free most of the day, especially for the department's bedrock breakfast and lunch catering business.

A New Challenge

Princeton's new era kicked off in 2001, when its board of trustees approved plans to increase the size of the undergraduate enrollment from 4,700 to 5,200 by 2013, add a sixth college and establish three four-year residential colleges that would be paired with three two-year colleges.

The university had functioned since 1982 with five two-year residential colleges that gave students academic and social support during their first two years in school. However, juniors and seniors have tended to gravitate away from the life of the university, many choosing to live in upperclass housing and either make their own dining arrangements off campus or join either a food co-op or one of Princeton's traditional “eating clubs” (for more on the eating clubs, see below).

The Dining Underground

Upperclassmen who shun campus dining halls and decline to participate in meal plans are a problem that plagues most university dining departments. But at Princeton, the natural desire to be more independent of campus constraints following sophomore year is given greater momentum by the presence of a highly desirable alternative: eating clubs.

Similar to traditional fraternities and sororities (except that members, other than a few officers, do not live onsite), Princeton's eating clubs provide juniors and seniors with a social and dining alternative that is not affiliated with the university or its dining program.

The clubs trace their roots back to 1860s when dissatisfaction with on-campus dining prompted students to seek off-campus options. Informal dining groups gradually coalesced into formal “eating clubs” that had their own membership restrictions, rules, dues requirements and facilities. Eventually, they set up shop in a row of mansions along Prospect Street, just adjacent to the Princeton campus. At its peak, there were as many as 18 eating clubs operating at Princeton; today there are 10 (an eleventh was expected to be reactivated this spring).

The clubs have evolved over the decades, changing with the times. Originally all-male, they began admitting women after the university went co-ed in 1969 (though it took a gender distrimination suit to open up the last few holdouts). Charges of “elitism” over the years have also opened up admission policies, with sign-ups, lotteries and waiting lists now used alongside the traditional “bicker” system (a kind of fraternity “rush” process).

While dining is technically at the core of the eating club system, it's generally conceded that the associated social activities (especially parties featuring alcohol, primarily beer) are the real draw and the reason that eating clubs remain extremely popular despite membership fees that exceed even the priciest university meal plan by about a thousand dolllars a year.

Recently, about three quarters of Princeton's third- and fourth-year students have been eating club members.

“This is probably the most significant change to the campus since we became co-ed back in the late 60s,” says Chad Klaus, Princeton's general manager for services. “The university is making a very substantial endowment investment to make it happen in terms of reconstruction, renovation, added staff and added programs. The goal is that every junior and senior feel connected to a college, and dining and food have to play a significant part in making it happen.”

The ball was in Orefice's court, and he honed in on the antiquated and inflexible facilities that had hampered his previous attempts to modernize. The first target was two adjacent colleges — Rockefeller Hall and Mathey Hall — that had been operating with identical dining facilities, neither of which was particularly customer friendly.

“The first thing I said we should do is to break the walls down between the dual colleges where you had a salad bar, a grill and three daily entrees on one side and the same food on the other side,” Orefice says.

The consolidated “Rocky-Mathey” dining hall opened last fall. Together with the new Whitman Hall complex, opened at the same time, it showed what the full flowering of Orefice's vision would look like: modern cafés with multiple stations, extensive menu choice and dishes made in front of customers using quality ingredients, all overseen by onsite chefs who run the operation as they see fit.

Calling Juniors and Seniors…

The openings caused a mild controversy in the early going when crowds of diners threatened to overwhelm the new dining halls, straining their capacities to the maximum. The crowds were swelled by upperclassmen who were taking advantage of a new university initiative that gives all juniors and seniors two free dining hall meals each week.

Klaus estimates that about half the meals have been cashed in, and almost every upperclassman has taken advantage of at least one free meal in the first half of the school year. The goals of the free meal program are to promote the new-look dining halls to upperclassmen thinking of moving into one of the new four-year colleges, as well as to give those determined to live away from the colleges opportunities to intermingle with the residential campus community.

The initiative ran into early opposition from the eating clubs, which understandably saw a threat to their membership numbers. That conflict seems to have been avoided with a compromise through which the university has increased its financial aid for board costs to $6,300 to meet the higher cost of eating club membership — which is over a thousand dollars a year more than the most expensive board plan. It also introduced “shared meal plans” that give students access to both residential dining halls and an eating club.

According to the agreement, which has been accepted by all 10 active eating clubs, juniors and seniors who choose to live in a four-year college can purchase a meal plan of at least 95 meals per semester, join an eating club or purchase a shared plan.

Those who choose a shared plan will pay the full membership rate at the eating club for which they sign up, and this will include access to a 95-meal plan. The split in revenues between the eating club and DDS was negotiated separately with each club.

To date, the experiment has met its objectives as 300 upperclassmen (most of them juniors, as might be expected) have chosen to reside in the new four-year colleges, a “full-fill” of the school's target quota, says Klaus. Of these, about a third have signed on to a shared meal plan, and Klaus cites the existence of that option as a reason eating club membership jumped from about 75 percent of third- and fourth-year students to around 80 percent in the new school year.

Some of the financial impact of the free meal program and the shared plans on dining services is being offset with funds from the school's endowment, though Klaus declines to reveal actual figures.

For dining services, the next capital project is another facility consolidation, the combining of the Wu and Wilcox dining halls in a manner similar to what was done with Rockefeller and Mathey. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009, along with a renovated Butler Dining Hall (which was closed last fall).

Orefice also wants to enhance what he sees as one of DDS's ancillary responsibilities: culinary education. He already has two successful visiting chef programs, the Garden State and Greatest Chefs of Chicago series. Each brings a high-profile chef to Princeton each year.

“We're trying to educate our students on cuisine so that, later in life, if they run into a situation where such knowledge is useful, they'll be prepared,” he says.

“We have good problems now. Before, the complaint was, ‘Can you let me use my dining plan off campus?' Now it's ‘Can you let me use it in Frist?' So we have this healthy competition that has created increased awareness of the culinary arts.”

FOOD SHOW. Food preparation in front of customers is one of the priorities of the new dining hall philosophy at Princeton.
A Princeton Icon
Orefice (c.) confers with labor union president Tom Parker and secretary Sally Kornegay

Stuart Orefice was born to run onsite foodservice. He's been doing it in one form or another since high school, when he managed concession stands during sporting events.

He attended Cornell University's school of hospitality management because, while he loved cooking, “I liked management as well as food.” Starting as a potwasher in the campus dining operation, he was a student coordinator by the time he was a senior, and he knew he had found what he wanted to do, and where he wanted to do it — in a college environment.

Still, Cornell did not have a place for him immediately, so he sought another job in the onsite foodservice industry of the early 1980s. He ended up in New York City where he spent six months in B&I foodservice before Cornell called with an assistant manager position.

He was on the fast track at Cornell, being named assistant director within three years and serving in that position for six years under director Peg Lacey.

“I applied for few director positions over that time, and turned down some that I didn't feel were right,” he says.

When Princeton came calling in 1992, Orefice was ready. “In my high schhool yearbook, I had written that I would like to be a restaurant owner and live in New Jersey,” he laughs. “I guess you could say I achieved both.”

He also recalls another coincidence. “The day I signed to work at Princeton was 10 years to the day (September 28) that I signed with Cornell.” Needless to say, he felt no compulsion to make any further career moves on September 28, 2002.

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