Successful college foodservice operations hinge on cost controls. They rely on smart ordering, clever cross-utilization, and strong culinary leadership.
Many operators control costs by getting the most use out of their pantry and relying on economical products like TABASCO® brand’s kitchen-friendly half-gallon plastic bottles, for example, which can be used in both the back and front of house to incorporate big flavors into a variety of dishes.
Scratch-cooking also plays a big part. Ditto for strongly structured meal plans that drive usage and help balance labor costs.
At Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., all of these strategies are at play and the school has reduced its food cost by a little more than 10% since 2007. Director of Dining Services, Garry Griffith, shared with us the secrets to their success.
Q: How long have you been at Augustana?
A: Eight years, but I’ve been in college foodservice for far more than that.
Q: What brought you here?
A: Augustana’s president and I worked together at the University of Montana (Missoula, Mont.) and when he came here he recognized that there was a need to improve the foodservice program. He invited me to check it out and I immediately saw the same opportunity and that I could have a big impact. It was a really exciting prospect and challenge I didn’t want to pass up.
Q: Tell us about the foodservice operation at Augustana.
A: We are a four-year, private, liberal-arts school with about 2,500 students. We have 1,200 residents on meal plans and another 600 off-campus meal plans. We do about $7.5 million annually with one dining hall and a handful of retail operations.
Q: What were your cost percentages when you first came on board?
A: In 2007, our food costs were 34.1%, salary and benefits were 35.5%, other expenses were 8.2%, and our profit was 22.2%.
Q: You reduced those costs considerably over the past eight years and increased profits, too, right?
A: Yes. Last year, our food costs were 23.4%, salary and benefits were 24.3%, other expenses were 6% and our profit was 44.1%.
Q: That’s a big leap. How did you do it?
A: When I first arrived, we had two dining halls and a lot of retail operations. Our meal plan was also 100% retail, with a refund given for any unused points at the end of the year. We served almost all convenience products, too.
We had to change everything about the way we were operating to improve those numbers. And we did.
Q: Where did you start?
A: First, we had to change our approach to food. We shifted to scratch cooking and we did a lot of training with our staff. We rewrote all of our menus and rebuilt the program one dish at a time.
Today, we are extremely food-focused. Everything is fresh. Our staff is passionate about food and presentation. We partner with local farmers for a number of products and those relationships have actually helped us to reduce our food costs in some ways. We’ll frequently have farmers call us when they have an abundance of product and they’ll sell it to us at a discount. They know we will use it and it’s better than the product going to waste. Plus, it helps us to be able to purchase it at a lower cost.
We also look carefully at our ingredients and our menus so that we can cross-utilize and repurpose items not only in safe, but delicious ways.
Q: Can you put a percentage on how much scratch cooking you do?
A: We are 85% scratch. (We even opened up our own bakery and we make our own breads. This year, we’re looking to make our own pizza dough and bake breads for the deli counter, too.)
Q: How does reusing product help control costs?
A: When you reduce waste, you reduce cost. We have very little that goes to waste here at Augustana. Between our homemade soups, salads and other dishes like stir-fries, it’s easy to reuse product and maintain culinary quality.
Q: What about with production? Do you have staff in the front of house communicating with the back of house so that you don’t overproduce?
A: Absolutely. The communication between our managers is a pivotal part of our success. We always have managers on the floor, cleaning tables, looking at different parts of the operation and making sure the back of house knows what we need, when and when it’s slowing down.
Q: You also built a brand new dining hall three years ago and centralized a number of other outlets. How has that affected costs?
A: We had two dining halls and many retail outlets when I first started. The students were spending their meal plan points in our lowest labor spaces, like the coffee shops and c-stores. Our highest labor outlets weren’t seeing the traffic they needed, so we centralized many of the retail spaces, opened a larger, better c-store and built a brand new all you care to eat dining hall. We closed the other hall and restructured the meal plan to go from 100% retail to a meal-based program with flex dollars.
Q: How did that affect costs and satisfaction?
A: Students don’t run out of dining points before the end of the semester anymore. (That makes parents very happy!) Some students run out of flex dollars, but they don’t run out of meals, which has helped us to keep costs in line and balance traffic and production. Plus, when they run out of flex dollars, they use cash, which has helped increase our retail cash sales. We’ve also increased the number of off-campus meal plans substantially. That was one of our goals and we’ve far exceeded the number we expected to sell, which speaks to the quality of our food and our program.
Q: How do grab-and-go and to-go meals play into your strategy?
A: With the new hall, we went trayless. That alone saved us $70,000 in paper costs. Today, we give each student a reusable container at the beginning of the year. They come to the dining hall, we swipe their card, and they have ten minutes to fill their container.
We’ve actually seen the number of to-go meals decrease substantially since we opened the new hall. Students want to be here, sharing a dining experience, and enjoying the abundance and variety of food we serve.
In our retail spaces, we offer meal equivalency to students. That has helped us in a sense because it gives students the ability to purchase a meal without having to come to the dining hall. So there’s value in it for them, but we price those meals so that it’s not a negative for us. We cover our margins, while satisfying students.
Q: So what’s next?
A: We would love to start a composting program and further that part of our mission.