Recipe for Success: University Food Service’s new dining dynamic

At noon, three pages into your twenty-page research paper, your stomach grumbles and your eyes droop. You need a shot of espresso and a slice of pizza to keep you going.

With three dining halls, thirteen retail locations around campus, and an in-house catering service, University Food Services (UFS) is doing its best to keep MSU students, staff and visitors well-fed, caffeinated and happy.

UFS prides itself in being a self-operated enterprise, unlike many colleges and universities who contract with large corporations, or have well-known franchise restaurants on campus. “All the student dollars are kept on campus, all the profits we make are reinvested in the operation,” UFS Director Todd Jutila explained.

“We can be more flexible, and respond faster to customer feedback. Contractors are there to make money, we aren’t. We can do what works for MSU,” Added Dining Hall Manager Michael Kosevich.

Major renovation plans for MSU’s three dining halls are underway, as are minor facelift changes in SUB retail locations. Alongside these developments, UFS is taking large steps to become more sustainable — including environmentally friendly infrastructure changes and expansion of the Montana Made program.

Back of the House

Behind the steam tables laden with scrambled eggs and pancakes, beyond the heat lamps hovering over slices of

pizza, are the prep kitchens for Food Service’s various venues. Crammed with shining stainless steel appliances, some large enough to fit the Bobcat linebackers they help feed, the kitchens in the dining halls and the SUB are clean and well-organized.

The kitchens are staffed predominantly by part-time student employees: young men in steezy baseball caps bent over large flat-top grills, two girls clad in brightly colored aprons and giant yellow rubber gloves chatting in the steamy dish pit waiting for the next flood of dirty plates, and a quiet young man stacking cases of juice in a walk-in cooler.

There are usually twenty-five to thirty employees scheduled for a shift in Miller’s kitchen, while the main kitchen in the SUB, which supplies the Union Market and other SUB food retail locations is staffed by around ten employees each shift. Other employees include full-time cooks, managers and chefs.

Rick Schneider is Executive Chef of retail operations. “Ninety-nine percent of our recipes are developed in house,” he said. “We do as much scratch cooking as we can. We batch cook, and try to stay away from premade [meals]. We write and develop menus that take into account freshness and quality.”

The goal is to give the customers what they want. “It’s almost a fault of ours,” Schneider admitted, laughing. “That’s why you’ll see eight different hot sauces [in the Union Market dining area], because folks couldn’t choose between the other seven we had.”

Both the retail and dining hall kitchens batch cook as much as possible, preparing small amounts frequently, to maintain freshness, and they utilize as few canned, pre-prepared ingredients as possible.

One of the major changes included in the upcoming dining hall renovations is a shift from larger-batch food preparation to individual portion preparation and made-to-order cooking. This move will increase the freshness and quality of meals, decrease waste and allow for more variety and customization.

Driving UFS is the eternal question: “Are we offering what people are looking for?” said Jutila.

Renovations and Remodels

In an attempt to update dining facilities that UFS readily admits are sorely outdated, in March, UFS will begin a series of renovations to all three dining halls.

UFS hired an independent consultant to evaluate the entirety of MSU’s food service operations. “The biggest recommendation was to update our dining facilities,” said Jutila. “The consultant didn’t change our plan, just told us to speed it up … this is a leap and a bound.”

Responding to customer feedback and recommendations from the external consultant, the dining hall remodels will “enhance the ability for diners to experience more variety and customized options and display cooking with made-to-order options” as well as “create a vibrant and functional gathering space for customers with more efficient seating” and “improve the facility and equipment” for energy efficiency and waste reduction, explains the UFS website.

Specifically, the dining halls will be more similar to current retail operations like the Union Market. “Various concepts will be scattered throughout,” explained Kosevich with a sweep of his hand. “Each station will be like going to … a unique restaurant.”

“[The remodels] will shrink the kitchens and move everything out front, to cook to order,” he continued.

Miller Dining Hall, the busiest hall on campus, and the first to begin renovations, will feature a Mongolian Grill, a wok bar, an espresso and smoothie bar, late night breakfast, among other concepts. Each dining hall will also feature a Montana Made concept, starring food produced in Montana. Miller’s Montana-based concept will be a Montana Made bakery.

The atmosphere of Miller will also be modernized: plans detail an expansion to the dining area, extending towards Roskie Hall, which will be furnished with comfortable chairs and includes a fireplace.

Phase one of the Miller remodel project begins later this semester, with exterior and infrastructure renovations, during which the dining hall will remain open.

The majority of the dining halls’ infrastructure dates from the 1960s, and is now aging, inefficient, or both. The mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems will be updated during phase one. The end product, Kosevich hopes, will be an efficient, LEED certified building.

In phase two and three, interior work in Miller will begin, as well as renovations to Harrison and Hannon.

Retail dining facilities are less outdated than those in the dining halls, having undergone renovations and facelifts in the mid 1990s and again in 2007. However, small changes are taking place. UFS will completely redo Tomassito’s Pizza, located in the Bobcat Court, installing a hearthstone pizza oven to create a higher quality and more desirable product.

UFS also hopes to introduce a traveling food truck in June. Plans for the food truck menu are still in the works, but Jutila hopes the truck will become a regular feature around campus. The food truck will supplement on-campus dining, especially during dining hall closures due to construction, and extend the reach of UFS’s retail operation to outdoor events like Catapalooza and Music on Main.

Improving Sustainability

Alongside the physical renovations, UFS is making policy changes to increase the environmental friendliness of operations. Sustainable initiatives that began as independent student efforts are now unified, and a full-time director was hired for the Montana Made program. Current programs include trayless dining, which reduces food waste and water usage, composting programs, and a reusable mug program which offers discounts on beverages purchased at UFS retail locations.

Previously, most sustainability programs were results of student initiatives from comment cards or groups like Network of Environmentally Conscious Organizations (NECO) asking for renewable alternatives to plastic coffee stirrers and styrofoam to-go containers.

“The single biggest help to sustainability has been … the Office of Sustainability.” said Stephanie Hanson, UFS’s marketing manager. “It’s very productive to have it all centralized.”

“The biggest parts [of our sustainability program] are … education and collaboration with students and student groups,” Hanson continued.

One major development in UFS’s sustainability efforts is the recent hiring of Montana Made director Nicole Morgan. “Never has there been a full-time employee dedicated to the management of the Montana Made program,” said Morgan. “We have a huge opportunity to streamline how we interact with vendors, distributors and our community when it comes to local foods.”

UFS currently purchases from nearly 60 Montana vendors, including On the Rise Bakery, Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream and Montana Fish Company. “Every day I am working with Montana vendors to expand our local purchasing,” said Morgan.

Although the position is only two months old, Morgan is busy working to organize and streamline procurement procedures, collect Montana Made data, and reach out to students, the community, and Montana producers.

The developments to the Montana Made program are all part of University Food Service’s dedication to its customers. With a growing focus on outreach and interaction with students and staff, UFS hopes to encourage involvement and input from its customers. “What can we do to make our customers happy?” Jutila asked.