Published September 1, 2017
This is for those who plan meals for kids. It’s going out to anyone among us who has heard that universally imploring, never-ending cry:
“What’s for dinner?”
Imagine having to answer that question for 20,000 hungry young adults. And having to keep them happy. And having your livelihood and reputation depend on it.
All in a day’s work for the small army of Campus Dining & Shops (CDS) employees whose job is nothing less than serving up breakfast, lunch, dinner and all other things food for all those hungry UB people.
For CDS, the payoff is more than just that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when feeding people you care for. Campus dining services has suddenly become a national selling point in the higher education sweepstakes of attracting enough students. When students decide where to attend college, food is near the top of the list of factors. So this Game of Food Stations matters.
And just to make it more interesting here at UB, the leader of CDS has raised the bar when it comes to satisfying that incessant “What’s for dinner?” refrain. If Jeff Brady were a football coach, he would be promising his fans more than just making the playoffs.
A worker tends to rotisserie chickens at a food preparation station in Crossroads Culinary Center in the Ellicott Complex. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki
“I want to exceed everyone’s expectations, every day,” says Brady, CDS executive director. “The expectations are that they expect to have the best dining experience anywhere here at the University at Buffalo. That they have a cutting-edge experience with worldwide cuisine. Healthy choices and clean labels.”
This is not their parents’ college food service, or even their older siblings’. Times have changed, Brady says, and are changing all the time. The students who eat the 28,000 meals a day in UB dining halls, cash operations and the host of other feeding sites run by CDS are different than those who swiped and ate before them, Brady says, even compared to a few years ago.
“They have expectations that they have the best dining experiences they can here at the University at Buffalo,” says Brady. “They’ve studied us. They can’t wait to come in.”
So not only does CDS have to feed 20,000 students and staff a day, they have to do an exemplary job.
“It has to be award-winning,” Brady says. That’s what they’re looking for. Award-winning.”
And if the truth be known, Brady and Company are more than just Rex Ryan talk. They’ve doubled the size of business in the past seven years. They’re responding to changing demands and needs with entrepreneurial flexibility. They’re right on schedule with some big-picture goals that aim for nothing less than changing the university culture by transforming a UB crossroads with plans for a dramatic Global Market at Founders Plaza.
But CDS also makes smaller, more immediate changes to answer today’s demands (Greens and Beans has become the Bowl featuring expanded salad and noodle and grain bowls with international influence). Then there are even more particular changes within the “restaurants.” “Who would ever have believed we would have a grain bar?” Brady asks when listing changes dictated by “healthy eating.”
So as the Feeding the city of UB team shifts into high gear this week, understanding what goes on behind the curtain is a reasonable question. How does it work? How does the effort live up to Brady’s goal to “exceed everyone’s expectations”?
The short answer would satisfy the organizational crowd, the MBA with a soft spot for administrative structure. Brady and Executive Chef Neal Plazio beam when they explain their innovative software system Food Service Suite (not “Sweet”). They display their flow chart with pride, saying it took years to get it the way they want and refer to the pieces as “brigades,” the classical French term for kitchen teams. Their FSS computer system can tell them in great deal what is and is not selling. For example, CDS officials can go into their computer and see how many hamburgers Putnam’s sold in the past 15 minutes.
But give Plazio a little room to roam, and the poet in him comes out.
“It’s like being one of those guys on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’” he says, “the guy with the sticks and the plates. So each unit is a plate. You get the plate spinning, and you get it going, and that one’s good. Now you have to get this one going. So you get them all going, and then you have to watch them. So as soon as one of them wobbles, you have to go back and touch it.
“But that’s not bad because that’s kind of what you deal with every day as a chef. When I taught at ECC, that’s what I would tell the students. I would try to teach them finer points, sure. Yes, the class is about cooking, and we’re going through recipes. But I can give anyone a recipe and have them cook it,” he says.
“At the same time, I would try to start to get them to think in terms of a chef, and multi-tasking, and being able to look at multiple situations and being able to touch it and get it to stabilize so you can go to the next one.”
So keeping CDS running efficiently and effectively is a challenge similar to being a chef, Plazio says.
“On the cook’s level, the stock is simmering, so you don’t have to worry about it. The rice is on the verge of burning, so you get on that right away. It’s all about looking at your areas of responsibilities and thinking about the ones you have to touch.”
No account of Feeding UB would be complete without a look at the scope of the operation — from the small army that makes it all work to more lettuce than a normal person would see in a lifetime. This is about feeding a small municipality. Some numbers:
All these figures take into account two overarching principles. The first is the importance of buying local. Supporting local quality businesses and farms frames many of CDS’ decisions. The other theme is to prepare food in a healthy, natural fashion. Brady calls both of these guiding ideas “sizzle words.”
“Students are looking for a clean label,” he says. “They’re looking for organic. They’re looking for hormone- and cage-free chicken. We’re addressing that right now.”
The surveys and testing methods are constant. CDS organizes what has to be one of the most sought-after jobs on campus. Every year CDS forms a student focus group to advise throughout the academic year. There are regular meetings where the 20 or so students chosen for the focus group taste test new products about to be presented in the campus restaurants.
“This past year, we actually rolled out the new menu to them,” says Ray Kohl, CDS marketing manager. They got to taste some of them at the meetings. We wanted them to tell us what they liked. What would they like to see at these new concepts? And we did that for a lot of our new changes. ‘Try some items. Give us your feedback.’”
The only requirement for membership is having a campus meal plan.
Applications for this year’s food focus group are available online.
And one more word to those who face that “What’s for dinner?” question. Cooking is always an exercise in restraint. How much do you test? How much do you eat while everything is cooking?
Transfer that dilemma to an environment where dozens of warm cookies are coming out of the oven. Or scores of chicken Caesar salads lie on a cutting-board countertop. Or yogurt parfaits are mass-produced using a machine made to fill dozens of doughnuts. Being around all that food requires a game plan and more than a little discipline.
“It’s a real balancing act,” Plazio says, “because on the one hand — especially if you’ve forgotten to eat — all of a sudden you’re supposed to be just testing something and you’re devouring it. So you really have to learn to exert self-control.
“Or if I haven’t eaten breakfast and I come in, and the bakers have been testing some new items and they bring them in here. It’s like, ‘Should I just have a nibble of the muffin?’ and the next thing I know, I’m grabbing the second one because I can’t stop eating them.
“That’s kind of how it goes.”
But on the other side of the coin, he says, you have to taste everything.
“The thing that upsets me more than anything is when somebody is cooking something and they haven’t tasted it,” he says. “We’ll have a formal training session with the top-level cooks and that’s the one thing I don’t understand: why they’re not tasting what they just made.
“That’s always a question I ask if I am walking the line and they’re preparing it,” he says. “Especially if I taste it and to me it tastes off, I’ll ask the cook:
“‘Did you taste it?’
“‘No, should I?’