Thursday, August 5, 2010

Green up Your Campus Dining Service

With the start of the fall semester nearly on us, college dining service directors need to look to "greening" their healthy dining and sustainability credentials. Students, far more than other groups, are keenly aware of environmental issues and expect their college or university -- especially the dining services -- to be at the leading edge of sustainability and wellness trends.

Independently-managed and contractor-operated campus dining services generally reflect the most popular environmental trends: fresh food, recycling and waste reduction. But students, as well as faculty members and administrators, will expect more this academic year.

In the past, many dining services provided organic and/or vegetarian foods is a separate ghetto-like section of the dining facility's servery, saving the best locations for the more popular pizza, sub sandwiches, burgers and the like. Today, however, students expect environmentally-favorable foods and features to be center stage, including pizzas with whole-grain crusts, vegetarian subs and burgers made from hormone-free beef, as well as other healthy and meat-free options that are organic and locally-sourced.

One of the most successful ways to say "fresh," "wholesome" and "nutritious" to diners is the "action station." Here a chef prepares the diner's meal to order on a countertop cooking unit on the serving line, adding or omitting ingredients to the customer's order.

To-order cooking is cost-effective as well as customer-pleasing. Ingredients are cooked only when the customer orders a dish. The only leftover are raw products that, if properly kept at a safe temperature (40 to 35 degrees F) will remain fresh and safe for reuse in another, different dish at the next meal or the next day. Food cost is significantly lower than for food prepared in large batches that may not all be served right away, creating leftovers of minimal or no value.

Students and many other people are aware of the nutrition and environmental values of locally-sourced foods and now expect to see them in the dining center. Buying from local farmers may take more effort than calling a wholesale distributor, but the end product, delivered just a day or a few days after being harvested is worth the effort.

Many states now have programs to support institutional purchasing from local farms, making it easier than traveling the countryside to search out farmer-suppliers. Many distributors now also offer local farm products as par of their lines.

The other half of an environmentally-friendly dining service, a sustainable operation, requires more thought and effort and it includes waster reduction (helped by to-order cooking) and the conservation of water, electrical and other utilities.

Waste reduction begins with more careful menu and purchasing planning to reduce over- production and a plan to properly dispose of the waste that does occur. Food waste can be composted and used to enrich a campus vegetable garden -- which can sell fresh product back to the dining service.

Paper products made from recycled materials and plastic eating utensils from corn- or soy-based materials that degrade more quickly than conventional plastics in a landfill can be used. A better option is to reduce or eliminate disposable tableware, replacing it with real china, glasses and stainless steel knives, forks and spoons.

Reducing water and utility consumption takes a two-pronged approach: Turning off equipment, like ventilation systems, ovens and electrical appliances when not in use is one important approach that costs nothing and saves a lot. The second prong is the replacement of old, inefficient equipment with new units, such as dishwashing machines that use less water amid cooking equipment that requires less power.

A good resources for the improvement of a dining service's sustainability is the Green Restaurant Association, whose website,, offers a comprehensive listing of steps any restaurant or on-sit dining service operator can take to improve its environmental standards.

The GRA also offers a Green Restaurant Certification program, similar to the LEED certification for buildings. There's no better way to show the campus community that you are doing your best for the planet than to gain this certification.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bringing Healthy Meals and Sustainability to Food Service

For far too long, the operators of company and campus dining services have focused on the popularity of the foods they offer, with no concern for their nutritional value," says Angela Phelan, senior vice president of Clarion Group. "Now it's time to reverse that trend. Customers are asking for better, healthier foods and expect their at-work or on-campus cafes will provide it."
Under the new federal health care legislation, all food service operators of 20 or more locations will be required to post calorie counts next to food items on their menus. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will determine whether more information will be required.

Operators also must make written data about dishes' nutritional content available to diners on request. The U.S. Food and Drung Administration is empowered to determine whether the information was developed "on a reasonable basis." The requirements will be expanded in the future, Ms Phelan predicts.

The increasing demand for healthier foods dovetails with the need to improve the sustainability of our environment, according to Ms Phelan. "The use of fresh, organic foods, grown locally, and efficient food preparation and operating practices are key elements of an effective sustainability program, she said.

Clarion Group's
Fresh & Natural program may be a solution for companies and institutions seeking to improve the value of their on-site food services. The program was developed by Clarion Group under Ms Phelan's leadership to constructively respond to these issues for on-site food service operations. The program includes imaginative, nutritious meals prepared "from scratch" using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients; elimination of junk foods; promotion of nutrition information and education, complementing the company's or college's own wellness initiatives.

The Fresh & Natural approach includes enhancing sustainability and reducing operating costs by incorporating efficient operating practices; employing energy-efficient "Energy Star" equipment; conservation of utilities, water and energy, and waste reduction through recycling, pulping, composting and other ecologically-beneficial practices.

Fresh & Natural currently is in development or under discussion at three Clarion clients, Ms Phelan reports.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Dining Center as an Oasis

By Angela Phelan
Senior Vice President
Clarion Group

The business of hospitality, running a food service operation, rests on its core mandate: To offer good, healthy food to customers, whether they are students in a large university or the staff of a high-powered law or financial firm -- or to the very youngest customers trying to get through their day in fifth grade.

But hospitality connotes food and rest.

This central goal of providing good, healthy food costs time, money and above all, the good will of the team designated to run it. But note that I suggest food and rest. This is a novel concept. I rarely hear anyone talking about rest when discussing what food service has to offer its customers.

Interestingly, the only client I ever had that considered the rest that its dining service could offer to its customers was one of the Swiss banks who, from their main headquarters abroad carefully guided the U.S. designers in the art and science of caring for its employees. They insisted on a separate area for dessert and coffee, a few yards away from the main servery and seating area. Chairs are softer, lower, set around coffee tables (literally). The floors in that area are carpeted, the lighting lower.

The Swiss concept was that the downtime offered by dessert and coffee was a better way to transition back to work at a desk, telephone and any number of competing computer screens. This novel concept -- at least for the hard-charging Americans -- seemed almost quaint. To consider the psychological as well as the basic nutritional needs of employees (or students) was partically off the scale.

Restaurateurs, of course, are well aware that the time devoted to dessert and coffee can add many dollars to their bottom line. To be sure, one must make a choice between "turning the table" and the benefits of adding dollars to the check by selling the customer another hour's worth of food and drink. The downtime tends to enhance the customer's mood; tips are more generous.

Now we should consider the news reported in The New York Times recently. There is new data being assembled in some school districts in Texas and other states. Educators have discovered that simply by reversing the order of lunch with recess, the students were more relaxed, ate their meals more slowly, drank more milk or water and were generally in a better frame of mind to resume their classes and focus more readilly on their work.

This uptick in productivity, arrived at by such a simple and "old fashioned" notion of allowing students to take a full half-hour for lunch after their recess period was enormously revealing. All those time-and-motion studies designed to increase productivity have been turned on their heads by this simple, timeless notion. Let them rest before taking up the balance of their workday.

This could be an important way to give the employee a quiet time to "reset and recharge."

For those of us who design dining facilities for our clients, this is a very interesting and satisfying study. Americans traveling to Italy and France return with newfound respect for the leisurely meal, noting that the temperment of the diners appears to be more relaxed.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time in the world. Stress is the word on the lips of just about everyone over the age of seven: Too much homework, too much overtime, too much and too little of everything.

Serving the needs of one's employees, stressed as they are, requires some thought. Perhaps we should think about providing not only excellent food, but offering a quarter-hour of restful time before returning to work. Suppose we consider carpeting a quarter of the seating space, taking out the lunch tables and arranging some comfortable chairs and coffee tables. Sounds a little familiar? A little like your neighborhood Starbucks?

This could clear the dining area for others and subtly move them to the coffee and conversation area fo a little rest and recharge. A lawyer at one of our client firms, where we were in the throes of redesigning the cafe made this suggestion. Clearly, his travels abroad or a good deal of time in a Starbucks influenced his thinking.

So the firm created an "Oasis" for their associates, complete with foosball tables, a big coffee bar and some comfortable armchairs. It's actually on another floor from the cafe and it's a great success.

We would like to see the good will that could come from giving employees a restful, healthy break at lunch, encourage the R&R concept by moving some tables out and bringing in some comfortable chairs.

Do you have some room in your cafe or in an adjacent space? If you would like some help in putting it together, give us a call. Clarion can make it work.

After all, an Oasis shouldn't be a mirage.

Contact Angela Phelan at 973/544-6223 or e-mail us at

PS: Do you have an arrangement like this that works for you? Write and let us know, either by leaving a comment or by e-mail to

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Survey Finds Opportunities for Campus Dining Services

"On the whole, [college] students exhibit relatively erratic dining behavior and tend to include a fair amount of snacks in their diet each day," says Technomic, a consumer research company, in reporting the results of its 2009 survey of college students.

While this observation may not be news to college dining service managers, the details of Technomic's survey results are worth noting. Ignoring these data may result in reduced patronage and meal plan participation as students find more satisfying off-campus alternatives.

The survey confirms that today's students have a casual approach to meals and consider them occasions to be as much social occasions as necessary "refueling" activities. They want to eat, or at least nibble, whenever and where ever the mood strikes them, typically while studying, with friends in a social setting or in their dorms.

Some key findings reported by Technomic:
  • More than a third of men and 48% of women surveyed said they replace one or more meals per day with snacks.
  • Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they eat three meals a day and snack in between.
  • Fifty-one percent of men and 35% of women said they want later dining hours on campusand 32% of men and 22% of women would like to have campus delivery service.
"These findings, paired with the high importance students place on convenience, can lead to a number of opportunities for college dining programs," Technomic said.
Students have cars to reach off-campus eating spots and telephones to order from off-campus delis, Chinese restaurants and pizza parlors that deliver. They are providing services and conveniences that the campus dining service can offer and are taking in dollars that could be in the dining service's coffers.
Actions campus dining service operators can take to increase customer counts and revenue include:
  • Increase the choice of snack-type foods in the dining center, including packaged "grab-and-go" items.
  • Make meal plans more flexible to accomodate the new, more casual meal preferences.
  • Extend dining center hours.
  • Keep at least one campus coffee bar, deli or similar facility open into the wee hours, at least Monday through Thursaday and Sunday night. Only one or two attendants would be needed.
  • Offer snack options that reflect the tastes and preferences of the campus. Pizza isn't the only food students like.
  • Offer dorm delivery service at night. Weekend days also may be a profitable time to offer this service for those who don't feel like coming to the dining hall.
  • Adapt the meal plan so that meal cards can be used at any campus dining facility and to pay for deliveries.
Technomic surveyed 1,500 students who are "representative of the current college population as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, the firm said. Survey results were distributed to members by the National Association of College and University Food Services.