DINING SERVICES DISCUSSION PAPER
The Cornyn Fasano Group (CFG) has prepared this executive summary formatted discussion paper as a means of highlighting the salient issues and challenges associated with Southern Oregon University's (SOU) dining services program. Based on CFG's initial research findings, the current qualitative and financial program results suggest that it is both timely and prudent to assess what improvements should be made.
SOU desires to have a dining services program that complements the overall academic mission by offering reasonably priced, properly prepared quality food on days and times that will best serve the campus community. The objective is to feed the body and, at the same time, feed the mind via opportunities to connect socially with campus community members.
To operate all Dining Services entities in a consistent, professional manner relative to the preparation and service of quality food at reasonable prices. As a State institution, Dining Services must be operated on a financially self-sustaining basis. Key attributes include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Provide a menu that will appeal to a majority of the campus community in terms of variety, food quality and price: value.
- Operate in a professional manner always meeting, if not exceeding, all legal and relevant foodservice industry best practices.
- Be proactive in assessing campus community satisfaction and using the results to make patron-driven changes.
- Maintain all facilities in a clean, sanitary manner.
A list of the materials examined can be found at Attachment A. A total of two days were spent on campus interviewing students, faculty and staff. Most of the student interviews were part of several organized focus groups. The faculty/staff interviews (see proposed list in Attachment B) were either one-on-one or in small groups. The purpose of the interviews was to gain an assessment of the current dining program, ascertain any personal and/or organizational needs and develop questions for the follow-up web-survey.
There were several interviews with the Dining Services management and staff teams. There was a separate focus group session with student employees.
This Discussion Paper will be used as the basis for a strategic planning workshop on campus.
Please see Attachment C for the results. In summation, there is a high level of dissatisfaction with Cascade and a moderate level with the meal plans. Since patron satisfaction is critical to meeting the programmatic objectives, the survey results suggest that there are several obvious missed opportunities to better service the campus community.
Findings & Commentary:
CFG's overall assessment is that there are several inter-related challenges associated with the dining services program. On the positive side, Cascade receives fairly good rankings for price-value relationship, cleanliness/sanitation and hours of operation. In contrast, the complaints regarding Cascade are associated with food quality, lack of menu variety and staff service (negative attitude being the primary complaint).
Stevenson Union, on the other hand, receives high marks for menu variety and food quality and only falls down when it comes to price: value and days/hours of operation. Catering received generally high marks even though there is the expected resentment at always having to use Campus Dining.
On an overall basis, there is a need to change the fundamental approach on the part of the Cascade management and staff team. Over and over again, the Dining Services management and hourly staff team were emphatic that they are doing everything possible to please the students. As noted herein and the survey results, the students definitely think otherwise. In many cases, CFG agrees with the students. Therefore, the focus must be in reassessing and revitalizing the program from an overall campus community satisfaction perspective.
CFG believes that part of the satisfaction at Cascade and dissatisfaction with price: value at the Stevenson Union has to do with the meal plan. It is a points-based plan that used to be quite popular on many campuses but has pretty much disappeared because it creates an actual or perceived inequitable price: value equation. As CFG understands the SOU situation, here are some of the other major concerns:
It disproportionately impacts the board plan students as they must pay the so-called fixed cost portion of the dining plan leaving the points to pay only the food cost rather than use a normal retail pricing structure. Those so-called food cost points are then used in the Library and Stevenson Union for a retail equivalent purchase that most students acknowledge they do not understand. [A copy of the explanation document received by CFG is attached as Attachment D and pretty much supports the students' contention that it either does not make sense and/or is complicated to the point of distraction.] As noted in the attachment, the points plan creates the potential perception of significant pricing inequities as they defy rational explanation. There is a question of food portion equity. Paying a la carte (which Cascade is), means that the light eaters have points to spare at the end of the year and the heavier eaters burn through in the first two months or less.
CFG believes that the meal plan structure is archaic and needs to be replaced. There are several alternative ones that should be considered. The primary driver to whichever plan is selected needs to that it does not negatively impact the financial outcome. A critical part of the new meal plan structure will be predicated upon a determination if there should be a full or partial all-you-care-to-eat concept introduced as part of the Cascade concept.
Food quality at Cascade has a lot to do with an antiquated facility and equipment and, to some degree, management and staff approach to food preparation and presentation. A large proportion of the menu is composed of convenience items rather than offering "signature" specials considered unique to SOU. In another instance, Papa Murphy's pizzas are baked off and sold rather than offering a product that is relatively easy to prepare and serve in front of the customers at a far lower food cost. One of the primary complaints concerning Cascade has to do with the lack of menu variety especially around the early morning and late night menus. Even then, there were several negative comments directed to the lunch and dinner menus. The primary ones were that lunch and dinner are basically the same and that, outside of the salad bar and the daily offering of rice and beans, there is virtually nothing available for vegans and vegetarians. Weekend meals, with a few exceptions, were considered even worse in terms of variety and overall quality.
Another issue of concern to SOU students and everyone else these days is the desire to know the ingredients and nutritional content of what is being served. This is especially true for students who have religious or medical concerns/prohibitions. One Jewish student noted a complete absence of menu sensitivity during Jewish holydays as pork seemed to be the predominate protein menu choice during that period. One has to assume that Muslim students would be equally offended during Ramadan plus any other time if there were no other viable protein options offered.
While not a huge issue in terms of volunteered comments, more and more campus community members want to know if what they are eating and if the food is served meet contemporary environment benchmarks. There are no apparent or stated initiatives dealing with local sustainability/environmentally correct/social justice concerns at the present time. The downside to many of these initiatives is that they can cost more.
At Cascade, the menu rarely changes from day-to-day or veer from the cycle. There does not appear to be an attempt to offer anything new/creative or whatever is available from the local area and/or in season. Student perception of the weekend menus was quite negative as a lot of the food appears to be leftovers from earlier in the week.
Food quality at the Library and Stevenson Union received generally high marks (Elmo's received several positive citations. The challenge for the Stevenson Union is that the bulk of the business happens at lunch only and, as a result, loses money. The Library's menu is limited due to the lack of space and no ventilation system to permit cooking.
CFG believes that SOU's Dining Services program is light years behind other campuses in terms of the manner in which food is prepared and merchandised to the campus community. It is our sense that the current intent is to offer as much as possible, even if commercially prepared/packaged and not appealing) rather than do fewer things better.
Facility & Equipment Condition
The servery itself is veritable hodge-podge of concepts that are not organized in any kind of logical flow pattern. Persons not familiar with the layout are easily confused which causes congestion and, in some cases, the food is cold by the time they pay and find a place to sit. There are few, if any, opportunities for food to be prepared to order in the servery itself. Almost everything is self-serve/sold by-the-ounce and a bit of a price shock for some at the cash register.
Building age and infrastructure issues are significant at Cascade simply due to the age of the building and long list of deferred maintenance items. Age is not a factor at the Stevenson Union since that facility was recently remodeled.
There were several student focus group complaints concerning the lack of consistency around the accuracy and consistency of the cashiers. Given the large number of products and various containers used, the charge-by-the-ounce approach is fraught with mistake opportunities. There were complaints that certain cashiers were allowing friends to either not pay or only pay for half the items on their tray.
There is no question that Cascade represents a prime example of deferred maintenance and timely upgrades. When compared to other campuses, it would not be a place to take prospective students. There is no question that one of the principal outcomes of this study will have to be a determination on how this facility can either be updated or replaced.
Communications with the campus community in general and the student body specifically is almost non-existent. Students, especially, noted that the comments board had not been updated for several months and, far too often, management's responses were unacceptable or promises never kept. The students need a viable and responsive contact for their concerns. We recommend Dining Services Advisory Board needs to re-energized, but under Student Affairs leadership.
There was particular concern about the lack of management sensitivity to students when they inform staff that they got sick from eating something and are told to fill out a comment card. This is simply bad customer relations. As a proactive measure and one that should be consistently promoted, CFG highly recommends that samples be taken of susceptible foods each day/batch, marked as to what it is and the day/time the sample was taken and held under refrigeration for a period of no less than 72 hours. If there is a food poisoning/ contamination outbreak, there will be samples available to send out for testing. Staff should be instructed to maintain time and temperature records on all susceptible foods as well as all freezers and refrigerators. We acknowledge that not all student stomachache complaints are the result of bad food. Management has to simply be aware that several complaints within the same time frame regarding one or more of the same food items will require immediate attention so to avoid an epidemic.
There is a need to present and sustain a professional, customer driven image within Dining Services. Simply stated, we live in a retail environment; a campus dining program cannot assume that it will get the business just because it is there or the students are on a mandatory meal plan. The professional image must be real and consistent in order to be effective.
Based on our interviews, there is virtually none for management or the hourly staff. Management staff acknowledged that they rarely get to any college/university food related group functions (NACUFS, NACAS or ACUI), no general foodservice industry shows (other than those offered by vendors) and little or no external training relative to legal compliance and foodservice industry best practices. Only the Cascade manager is ServSafe certified which makes the situation elsewhere on campus problematic where she has no supervisory responsibility.
The primary reason for this (along with the absence of any facility upgrades in Cascade) is that the program is losing money (see Financial below).
In CFG's opinion, the absence of staff training and development is a major management flaw and the cause of most of the food quality and lack of menu variety complaints.
Hours of Operation
At Cascade, the students want to know if a 10:30 PM closing Sun-Thursday and 6:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays really meet their needs as opposed to the Dining Services staff? They also question why breakfast closes at 9:30 AM when the first class for several students is at 11:00 AM or later.
There were several complaints regarding the hours at Stevenson Union. Essentially, the SOU operated dining operations shutdown at 2:00 PM and the Subway (lease operation) at 5:00 PM. Neither is open evenings or weekends. While this is not good for dining, it would appear to be a significant negative for the Stevenson Union is terms of programming and student services.
The program must acknowledge the reality of serving the students when they want to eat, not expect them to adapt to the times that staff wants to work.
There are, essentially, no professional programs in place to promote the sale of meals plans and/or retail and catering sales on campus.
Resentment was directed to the K-12 student and conference groups that dine Cascade the same time students want to eat (especially during peak lunch and dinner periods). Students believe that the revenue from these groups helps to keep their room and board costs low. At the same time, they would like some accommodation for preferential times or a better idea as to when those groups are scheduled to dine.
Financial results are, perhaps, the ultimate litmus test for how well a dining service program functions. One of the reasons for listing financial last was if the above factors are problematic, it is not unusual to see negative financial results. On an overall basis, the program is losing money. In 2006, it lost $43,360 and for the year-end, 2007, $71,655. We do not have the year-end figures for 2008, but the March statement appeared to indicate that it would potentially lose well over $100,000. It is important to distinguish that these are operating dollars only and do not appear to include direct costs for rent, utilities, etc. and indirect costs for administrative overhead, etc.
After surveying each entity, the concern is that the ones that are supposed to make money, do, but not anywhere close to what is expected. As an example, Cascade showed a $76,300 profit or 2.8% of revenues when other similar type and size programs earn a net profit in excess of 10%. The Library operation showed a loss of $1,200 when it should have made a profit of no less than $27,000 or 10% of the $276,700 in reported revenues. The huge financial drain is, obviously, the Stevenson Union. With revenues of just under $1,000,000 in 2007, it managed to lose $148,000 or 15.2%. Even with most of the catering being handled out of this facility, the lack of business other than at lunch is the primary cause. In this instance, 53% of every dollar earned goes for labor. Food and other controllable costs equal 63%.
The bad news is that it could get worse if nothing is done. The good news is that there are ample opportunities to improve with the right management team and positive attitude.
This Discussion Paper is intended to form the basis for an on campus meeting on a mutually convenient day and time.