Director, Food Services
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana
Once he'd decided on his college major -restaurant and hotel management- David Prentkowski set about doing all the logical things that would serve him well toward carving out a career path in the commercial hospitality industry.
He tackled the nitty-gritty, behind-thescenes jobs at his residence hall cafeteria and worked his way up the ranks in the campus catering department while attending classes. Upon graduation in 1979, he landed a managerial position with Stouffer's Hotel in St. Louis, then pursued a master's degree in his chosen field. The plan was to re-enter the world of hotels armed with credentials for the upper-management track.
But as his last year of graduate school wound down, Prentkowski happened upon a job notice for the foodservice director's post at the University of Utah.
Sporting a resume admittedly short on higher level experience, he nevertheless decided to throw his name into the hat. "I ended up really hitting it off with them," he recalls. "They took a chance and hired me."
And he's never looked back, continuing on in college foodservice with successful stints at Purdue University (his alma mater) and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before taking over the helm at Notre Dame in 1990.
Throughout, Prentkowski has actively participated in NACUFS (National Association of College and University Foodservices), serving as president in the late 90's, and chairing numerous committees and teams since then.
That same commitment is obvious on the job. From day one at Notre Dame, Prentkowski determined his focus would be market-driven, and set about accomplishing that goal by "bringing in good people and allowing them to contribute, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes," he says.
"We now have a department staffed with people doing what's right for the customer from the customer's perspective."
With a market-driven, customer-service oriented culture firmly entrenched, Prentkowski set his sights on upgrading facilities and productivity. The Foodservice Support Facility, a 38,000-sq. ft. central production kitchen, opened in 1997, complete with onsite bakery, butcher shop, vegetable processing area, cook chill operations and storage for all foodservice outlets on campus.
The change allowed Prentkowski to take production "out of the dining halls and 'high rent' districts of campus" and relocate it to an outlying, support-services area on universityowned property.
"We were then able to expand and build more retail sites," he explains. "The central production facility let us focus more of the square footage at retail locations on the customers, and less on the back of the house."
Prentkowski also convinced the administration to let him renovate the campus' two steeped-in-tradition dining halls, introducing a food market concept with multiple cooked-to-order options.
The effect was not only to immediately balloon the entrèe choices from two or three a day to over 50 possible combinations at any given meal, but also to create a servery that retains the traditional arched ceiling and classic Notre Dame dining hall community atmosphere.
He and his department quickly earned a national reputation for providing the kind of variety, choice and customization in foodservice many operations can only dream about.
"One of the most gratifying things about my job is to overhear students proudly talking to their parents or visiting friends about the good aspects of campus foodservice and how we respond to their needs," Prentkowski says.
"It's nice to be in a position in which I don't fear there will be negative comments during student tours. Visitors end their visits here impressed by the variety and customization we offer."
Beyond the food and exemplary customer service, however, Prentkowski's department shines in other areas as well. Its extensive catering services are frequently tapped to handle big-ticket events; a seven-phase food safety initiative goes beyond HACCP regulations; the department sports a well-appointed and much-used website designed by an in-house team; and the foodservice department bopasts model employee retention rates.
Establishing a particularly chef-friendly back-of-the-house environment also serves Prentkowski well. His culinary education program, developed over several years by renowned-and now retired-Notre Dame Chef Denis Ellis, nurtures up-and-coming cooks and provides education, development and consultation functions for in-house culinarians. The program also serves the dual role of teaching managers basic kitchen skills while on the flip side, exposing the kitchen staff to fundamental supervisory training.
"It's all a matter of looking for that 'gap' in someone's training and trying to fill it," Prentkowski explains. "This way, both chefs and managers become stronger in their positions."
And in turn, the successful program adds yet another building block to Prentkowski's ever-more cohesive foodservice community.
What's on Prentkowski's Plate?
Meal plan participation: 8,000
Leveraging the Franchise Option
Prentkowski can boast of an enviable success level with onsite franchise operations at Notre Dame. With each of the four nationally branded concepts he invited onto campus (Starbucks, Sbarro, Subway and Burger King), he's consistently managed to exceed expectations and operation standards as measured through each company's routine inspections. What's the secret?
First, he advises, take the time to survey and work with student focus groups to make sure you're bringing in the kinds of retail operations your customers want. Then, before choosing the specific branded concepts, keep in mind such factors as:
• SQUARE FOOTAGE. Look at what you have to work with. One of the reasons Burger King was tapped to provide the quickservice burger option was that "they were cooperative and flexible in fitting in with our footprint." The result is a "completely efficient design; there are no wasted steps in the back for workers, and it easily allows for expanding or contracting labor." On the other hand, a large basement area with plenty of square footage called for a "magnet" concept such as Sbarro, which could provide a quick pizza slice at lunch or a hangout spot for a whole pie at late night.
• LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Pick an area that gets good foot traffic, near a mix of both classrooms and administrative offices. But also think about situating the concept within the "global" context, to attain a balanced mixture of both destination and convenience restaurants all throughout campus.
• THEME AND DAYPARTS. Examine the theme of the concept ("we picked Subway since it offered perceived value and healthfulness, plus customization"), and evaluate its daypart allure. Although lunch will probably be the busiest time, look for a franchise that can also take advantage of betweenmeal periods. "Starbucks was the choice for the between-meal dayparts, since we saw that they were developing more cold and dessert beverages. The company told us to expect our busiest time to be between 7 am and 11 am, but we knew it would be 10 pm and 2 am, given our traffic patterns."
• SPEED.. Work with the companies to maximize the in-and-out time experienced by the customer. Another reason Subway seemed a good fit was its assembly-line procedure."We anticipated the volume and could sufficiently staff the site, so the brand reps were willing to help us work with their system, customizing it for our demand patterns and for speed and team effort."