Institute Dining Review
Best Practices Research

Revision Date: 12/18/96

The following is information the Food Service Working Group found out about other university's food services over the past few months. Note that the fact that a school's programs are listed does not mean that the Working Group endorses them; it just means that the Group found them interesting and worth consideration. (Indeed, some of the programs on this list are at cross puproses, and the Group probably would oppose some of the programs.)

The programs on this list come from two sources. The first is a study of "peer schools'" dining programs (Ivy League, Stanford, CalTech, etc.) to see how they run dining services. At this point, this study has been limited to web searches; we plan to send these schools a brief questionnaire as well. The second is information one of our members received when he went to a July conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS). He found that many schools were able to operate profitable food services within a variety of institutional and locational constraints. He also observed that there were many best practice standards within the industry, many of which did not appear to be in place at MIT. Several schools with innovative programs were identified for further examination in the committee's work.

Ball State University:
Student focus groups test all new recipes produced by Ball State's kitchens, and these focus groups decide if the recipes will be used. In addition, the assistant food service director visits house meetings continually to get studentevaluations. Source: NACUFS
Boston College:
Boston College is a self-op that recently redesigned its facilities to offer a wide variety of dining services. Facilities include both small and large dining halls. The larger dining halls are food courts with both gourmet offerings (Shrimp pad thai, chicken marsala, etc.) and regular offerings. The system includes some brands, but these are not emphasized. BC's dining services make a profit for the college of roughly $1 million per year. Source: Web
California Institute of Technology:
System is a self-op: runs a central cafeteria and dining rooms in the undergraduate houses. Cafeteria prices seem reasonable. Undergraduates are on a mandatory meal plan. Source: Web
Columbia University:
System is a self-op. The university has one main dining hall (cafeteria style), plus a few "fast food" facilities. Has a mandatory meal plan only for freshmen, which requires 5 meals per week. Each meal has a meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetarian entree. Source: Web
Cornell University:
The university known for having good food, its system is a self-op run associated with the School of Hotel Management. Students are required to purchase one of a number of meal plans, the smallest of which requires 7 meals per week. Source: Web
In addition, Cornell recently went through a reengineering process that combined Residence Life, Unions and Activities, Conference Services, and Cornell Dining into a single agency called Campus Life, which is designed to enchance communication among the formerly independent groups. The reengineered organization saves Cornell $280,000 per year. Source: NACUFS
Dartmouth College:
System is a self-op. Meals are prepaid in advance with punches (all you can eat; prices are $4, $4.25, and $5.25 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner respectively). It has a "Food Court"-like cafeteria with a grill, pizza counter, and deli. It also has an all-you can eat cafeteria (which is very expensive if you don't have punches; dinner is $9). It even has a special "nutrition-driven" cafeteria, and an "exotic foods" cafeteria that serves a variety of teas. Note that these are only dining halls on campus. The page does not specify whether meal plans are mandatory. Source: Web

In addition, Dartmouth's dining services was recently recognized for its wellness programs, including organizing a walking club, training employees to recognize signs of eating and exercise disorders, and developing social programs to combat alcohol abuse. Source: NACUFS

Duke University:
Appears to be a self-op with a number of "name-brand" facilities. Has 17 dining locations ranging from Lobdell-style facilities to big cafeterias to quasi-gourmet restaurants. All accept meal "punches", DDB accounts, and cash. All on-campus residents must purchase a meal plan; minimum plan is $1085 per semester.
Harvard University:
Harvard has one of the biggest self-operated systems in the country, which has $35 million in receipts per year. ($23 million of those receipts come from its meal plan system.) They operate all the house dining halls and 6 of the 10 cash-operated graduate school dining facilities. The latter are a la carte services that are run like restaurants. For these restaurants, each graduate school takes the overrall profit or loss, with Harvard Dining Services receiving 16.75% of sales as a management fee. (6.75% goes to the central Harvard Administration, 5% goes to Dining Services to pay for managing the facility, and another 5% goes into a fund to pay for dining facility renovation costs.) In general, Harvard Dining Services works as a "contractor" in that any of these operations can decide to bring in an outside contractor to run the dining service. Dining Service likes this arrangement since: (1) it forces them to remain competitve, and (2) they don't have to take any assignment they feel they can't handle. Quote: "Exclusivity is a noose rather than a boon."

For residential dining, Harvard sells a single board plan (21 meals per week) which must be purchased by all residential undergraduates; its food service assumes that students eat 13.7 meals per week on average. Price of the board plan is $3326, which covers a total of about 700 meals (this works out to about $4.75 per meal). All meals are full meals that include salad, entree, side dishes, drinks, desserts, etc. All meals are all-you-can-eat as well. For standard meals, the menus are set centrally, so that all dining halls serve the same fare. Dining Services sees this as its biggest advantage in that it allows students to "feel comfortable everywhere they go" and establish a "family atmosphere," but also sees it as a major disadvantage since it gives the dining halls little flexibility to be creative.

The residential houses (especially housemasters and tutors) run the programmatic aspects of their dining halls, which include academic programs, social programs, and community service programs. Each house has a "meal pool"; these are faculty and other "guests" who are allowed to eat in a house dining hall for free. The individual houses pay for this program. Currently, about 2500 people are members of meal pools.

Concerning student involvement, Havard relies heavily on focus groups and comment cards. (When a comment card is received, the facility's manager must reply to the person who submitted the card within 12 hours.) They also ask the students for direct votes on some issues, and have an advisory board. One of the goals of Dining Services is to take care of as many special requests as possible; it tells its employees to "Say YES!" to everything. Most frequently asked question of students: "I usually like ______ except for the way Dining Services prepares it."

Direct food and labor costs are roughly $2.55 per student per meal. They achieve this low cost even though they have a union, which requires cooks to earn a minimum of over $15 per hour. Harvard is very happy with the union arrangement; they believe that it causes their well-paid employees to work very hard for the students, so they get their money's worth. The food system is required to break even and to pay for all facilities renovations (they do). Source: NACUFS and Site Visit (Dec. 3, 1996).

Johns Hopkins:
System is a self-op. Requires on-campus freshmen and sophomores to purchase either 19 meal or 14 meal a week plans: there is no requirement for juniors, seniors, and commuting students. Source: Web
Millersville University:
Has an on-line, take-out program. Source: NACUFS
Rice University:
System is a self-op. Dining is by residential colleges; students eat with their fellow residents in their college's dining hall.
San Diego State University
System is a self-op that sucessfully dealt with a one-third decline in student enrollment over the past three years. Did so by setting up a system based upon branded offerings (Arby's, Sbarro's, Taco Bell, etc.), and by saving operating costs through a "Point of Sale" computer system that determines how much labor is needed in the food service system at all times. Source: NACUFS
University of California - Santa Barbara:
System is a self-op, but also has two independent on-campus restaurants (a Panda Express and a local eatery). The restaurants pay 3% margins to the university. The arrangements have worked well, so UCSD is bringing in more independent restaurants.

In dealing with customers, UCSB's food service relies on two maxims: (1) Don't focus on bad experiences (irate customers), but on the common ones. (2) The little things ARE the big things. To get input, UCSB sponsors focus groups of students, faculty, and staff to discuss menus and operational issues. They also have a "make a suggestion that gets implemented, and win a free lunch" program, and a shopper program where they pay people to come in and buy items while rating the service according to a survey.

In getting feedback, UCSB takes into account the following "iceberg of ignorance": in an extensive survey of companies, it was found that: (1) 74% of all problems were identified by supervisors. (2) 9% were identified by general supervisors. (3) 4% were identified by people at the top. Moral: talk to lower level employees on a regular basis. Source: NACUFS

University of Georgia:
System is a self-op that recently introduced a number of financial services and reforms. These include: Visa / MasterCard payments for its board plans; using scanning devices to read students' hand prints in place of meal cards; and hiring employees on nine-month per year contracts. Source: NACUFS
University of Missouri-Columbia:
System is a self-op. Changes its restaurant "concepts" every three years to stay current. Food Service has started a balloon delivery service based on student input. Also experimenting with a "no fried or fast food" restaurant and a "no leftovers" restaurant. Has also brought in a Subway, Pizza Hut, and a Taco Bell; these are run entirely by outside companies with the university getting a commission on sales. (This is one of the few examples of true on-campus competition.) The Food Service apparently is fairly popular; for example, they recently renovated an aging cafeteria, which resulted in a doubling of traffic through the facility.

Some strategies for improving fod service: "Find out what people want, not what's wrong with the system. Do it not only through surveys, but by finding out where students eat -- even off campus -- and then emulating if you think you can do it well. If you can't, then don't try. When talking to students, emphasize both costs and desires: 'We can do anything you want, BUT you'll have to pay for it.' Beware that in these discussions, most students' only frame of reference is what they already know. Experiment with extended hours, take out service, etc. but start small in order to prove your competence." Source: NACUFS

University of Nebraska-Lincoln:
University runs a self-operated system, but also has several off-campus contractors that run indvidual operations on campus (more "competition"). The university gets 1-3% of the gross receipts from these facilities. The food service estimates it costs $3.50 per meal per student.

The food service meets with students frequently and in various settings. For example, they met with students in computer labs at 2 am to find out what they wanted; the answer was strong coffee, so now there are coffee machines outside the computer clusters. They also call students and ask them what they don't like about the food service. Source: NACUFS

University of North Carolina:
Run by Marriott. Only mandatory fee is a $10 semester charge; sponsors voluntary declining balance accounts (similar to what is currently at MIT) and x-meal per week plans. However, it appears that students must have a meal plan to eat in a UNC facility. Source: Web
University of Pennsylvania:
System is a self-op. Meal plans are not mandatory, even though "most students have one." Interestingly, Penn's Dining Services include a page of endorsements from satisfied customers. Menus are typical rotating cafeteria fare. Source: Web
University of Western Ontario:
System is a self-op. Residential students are on a mandatory meal plan; nonresidential students (most of them) have a voluntary declining balance meal plan. (This is similar to what MIT had before 1992.) Major focus of the program is to get nonresidential students to buy meal plans.

In the past four years, the system has increased its revenues by $1 million and improved its bottom line by $700,000 (from a $600,000 deficit). Reform began by adjusting the menus, laying off layers of managers, talking to customers, adjusting hours of operation, meeting weekly with its union, and meeting regularly with faculty. The redesigned food service is very heavily into branding. They are also pushing very heavily into using meal cards at off-campus establishments; the university provides card readers, and the restaurants and delivery services agree to pay a 20% cut. Also suggested that all renovations pay for themselves in 3-4 years, since that is the longest a facility will be around in a changing market.

The Working Group was interested in some of Western Ontario's ideas. However, the Group is also concerned that the overriding goal of Ontario's food service is to make money, and that in doing so they have forgotten some of the basic purposes of running a university food service. Source: NACUFS

Virginia Tech:
Virginia Tech is a self-op; they recently went through a successful reengineering program. The redesign is supposed to "focus on quality of student life." As a result, program went from $12.5 million in sales in 1988-89 to $18.9 million in 1995-96; the overall satisfaction rate in Fall 1995 (excellent, very good, and good) was 74%. The program made substantial changes to facilities, meal plans, and programs.

For facilities, Virginia Tech replaced cafeterias (all of which served the same menu) with the following array of facilities: an upscale restaurant (students can eat there free twice a semester), a chargrill, a ten-eatery food court, a coffee and ice cream shop, a take-out meal service, and "healthy" eateries, along with keeping a few "standard" cafeterias. (Facilities feature a lot of brands.) For meal plans, Virginia Tech changed from a single 19-meal per week plan to offering ten different meal plans; students can use their "meals" in cash facilities and receive $3 credits towards lunch or dinner. Source: Re-Engineering a Dining Program: The Virginia Tech Story, ACUHO report.

Yale University:
System is a self-op; students can participate in a meal plan or purchase single meals. Most of its facilities are commons; students pay to eat there by meal and off of their meal plans. The fact that most of Yale's facilities are commons implies that meal plans are mandatory. However, Yale apparently may soon open a food court with a Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway. Sources: Web and New York Times, 4/30/96.

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Institute Dining Review /
Last Revised 1/13/97