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Nancy Levandowski is a California girl but now also an Iowa icon. As director of dining services at Iowa State University for the past five-plus years, she led the ISU Dining Team in the rebuilding of a program that was underperforming financially and growing increasingly disconnected from the expectations of students. When she was hired back in late 2006, ISU Dining had been without a director for well over a year and faced an uncertain operating future.
Today’s numbers testify to the good judgment the school showed in hiring Levandowski to lead its turnaround. Since her arrival in Ames, she has overseen a 50%+ increase in dining department revenues, from $25 million to nearly $40 million. That’s based not on simple price increases but on an explosion in voluntary meal plan sales (from less than 600 when she took over, to around 3,500 today) driven by a new meal plan approach and splashy new venues that have helped almost triple retail sales from around $5.6 million to nearly $14 million. Also contributing to the bottom line is a growing catering operation that now realizes around $4 million in annual sales.
Further, Levandowski has overseen a literal reinvention of dining at ISU as her tenure has coincided with major renovations—over $20 million worth—of most of the school’s dining venues, which now consist of three residential dining halls and 14 retail outlets.
When she was hired after a career that included stints with several major contract management companies as well as in self-operated college dining services all along the West Coast, ISU was already well into an extended initiative to integrate its historically separate retail and residential dining operations (until 2002, they were parts of two distinct departments). Many of the dining venues were outdated, and what retail there was failed to attract much business from school’s huge off-campus student population.
“The world had changed and ISU Dining had not,” Levandowski says. “The dining hall menus were very traditional and repetitive, while retail was not really addressing student needs as we recognize them today.”
Her mandate was to modernize the facilities and offerings and grow student participation while disciplining the financials (at the time, there was only a single P&L for a department; it is now tracked by each operating unit).
ISU had proposals to renovate its two most antiquated dining halls on the table. A third, Union Drive Marketplace, had been built back in 2003 and was the star of the campus dining environment with attractive features like a modern Mongolian grill and a pizza oven.
“We proceeded with looking at drawings, working with the architects, talking about the vision of what should it really look like,” Levandowski says. “We also toured other campuses to get ideas.”
Those tours looked at both peer institutions in the Midwest and schools as far away as California. They also included cutting edge commercial operations like In-N-Out Burger, Whole Foods and Disneyland (the latter for its precision catering operation).