Civilian contractors join military personnel for lunch at the spiffy new Pegasus Inn at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
(Top 2): Foodservice staff like Spc. Matthew Harris serve 250 to 350 meals a day at the Pegasus Inn. (Center): 1st Sgt. Reginald Sweed, center, proudly stands with his awardwinning foodservice staff in front of their new dining facility. (Bottom): Spacious and comfortable booths encourage camaraderie among soldiers during meal periods.
After a long day of training in the field, today's soldiers enjoy satisfying, hot meals made the freshest way possible - through batch cooking, use of seasonal produce and sophisticated spicing.
"Military foodservice." What's the first image that springs to mind when you read these words? If it's a vision of World War II-style mess halls, C-rations or K-P potato-peeling duty, you might be spending too much time reading the comics page.
Despite the way military foodservice often finds itself portrayed in our culture, a step through the door of many active duty dining facilities today will reveal floor plans, equipment, decor, seating arrangements and menu choices that look much like those found at up-to-date onsite facilities in the civilian sector. And when it comes to feeding troops in the field, the selection and care with which food is prepared can rival that of any outdoor, offsite event a noncommercial operator might stage.
To acknowledge the skill levels, creativity and exceptional food quality in U.S. military foodservice establishments around the globe, the International Food Service Executives Association ( IFSEA) co-sponsors annual awards programs with each branch of the service. The 2006 Army awards program, called the Philip A. Connelly Awards for Excellence in Army Foodservice, offers an excellent view of the Army's "Best" in five separate categories. This story focuses on two of these: one is this year's best model of a smaller-sized contemporary military dining facility (with capacity of 400 or less), and the other, a prime example of an active Army field kitchen.
82ND AIRBORNE DIVISION
In April 2005, a new incarnation of the Pegasus Inn dining facility opened at the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in a remote section of the base that's undergoing construction for the first time.
Described by its former dining facility manager as a "cross between a sports bar and fine dining establishment," the Inn, whose name is a nod to the aviation division's winged horse emblem, boasts a scatter system with stations for made-to-order pizzas, 24-item salad bar, separate sandwich and nacho bars, an ice cream and smoothie station, and a main line hot food area, along with beverage and dessert spots.
Snappy, glazed tile flooring and walls bring an upbeat, bright atmosphere into the servery, while shades of cream, blue and green decorate the dining room, echoed in its attractive curtains, upholstered, formal diningroom-style chairs and cushy booths.
"In the past few years, the Army has made a big effort to give soldiers a more satisfying foodservice experience. The result is dining facilities that are comparable to business dining cafeterias," says Char Norton, a Mission City, Texas-based Vice President of the Romano Gatland consulting firm (and retired Army colonel). Norton was also one of the IFSEA evaluators who traveled and judged the seven small dining facility nominees for the 2006 Connelly Awards.
Of the Pegasus Inn, Norton notes that "they developed training that others don't have - they're a little further along. The soldiers are interested and excited about the foodservices at Fort Bragg."
She says she and the other evaluators also found that "the food tastes great;" and interviews with soldiers and guests dining at the Inn corroborated that that's the case daily.
"We noticed that no one was rattled when we came in to evaluate," she explains. "The facilities were spotless, staff was checking temperatures routinely, their records and inventory control proved meticulous and professional, and the dining facility manager ran the place like clockwork. His group loves him."
That would be First Sergeant (1SG) Reginald E. Sweed, recently promoted from Sergeant First Class, and who has since moved up the chain of command to a less day-to-day, managerial position in dining services. But with 20 years in Army foodservice and a legacy that includes a grandfather and uncle in dining services at Texas A&M University, Sweed understandably still likes "to keep my hand in."
And it's no wonder, given the facility and staff he has built up. Acknowledging the " outstanding job" of his predecessor at the original Pegasus Inn in terms of food quality, training and operations that set the stage, Sweed then had to turn up the marketing efforts when the brand new version of the Inn opened up in an outlying area of the base.
"We were the first new facility to open in that area," he explains. "The location is away from everyone else, so we had to find ways to pull people from across the base to come eat here."
Operating much like the National School Lunch Program, in which schools get a set amount of money per student meal served, military foodservices also use a basic funding, per-person system. "So the customer counts are crucial," Sweed notes.
The attractive new facilities certainly helped as a lure, but Sweed also made sure to introduce "authentic meals," theme events, special pizza days with unusual toppings, and even passed out unexpected treats such as candy bars or snacks among soldiers seated in the dining room to increase their positive experiences.
One of his most effective techniques, however, is continual staff training and competitions at all levels, he says. "That's what really keeps the staff on their toes and in gear. The Army requires that we gauge customer satisfaction on a quarterly basis, but we do it every day, going in and asking soldiers how it's going, what they like and don't like."
With the availability of Army culinary training programs, IFSEA opportunities, and apprenticeship programs through the state of North Carolina, Sweed has managed to push 100 percent of his staff through certified training programs. "They need these types of credentials when they go out to join the civilian workplace," he insists.
Continual competitions fuel the staff's interest in foodservice and generate ongoing pursuit of training opportunities. From spur-of-the-moment contests to see who can make up the most appealing vegetarian display plate to challenges among the different rank levels, to participation in formal competitions such as the IFSEA Iron Chef meets, the staff responds well to the spirit of excelling in personal performance that Sweed inspires.
After all, they enjoy plenty of kudos and rewards as a result, including extra time off and special call-outs in the dining room to announce particularly noteworthy achievements.
States a clearly impressed Norton: "These aren't just cooks - they're chefs. The soldiers have tremendous pride in their facilities and produce quality food and presentations --there was even an elaborate ice carving of a helicopter on display the day we were there. We didn't get that kind of food and service when I was in the Army!"
ACTIVE ARMY FIELD KITCHEN
18TH ARTILLERY BRIGADE
Out in the field with today's Army, foodservice is a slightly different matter. But surprisingly, not by much. It's true that, instead of a shiny new facility on the order of a modern onsite cafe, soldiers in the field enter a tent, pitched out in the elements, for their meals. But the same approach-to providing outstanding food and customer service drives the field kitchen culinary teams these days, too.
The 2006 Active Army Field Kitchen Connelly winner, Fort Bragg's Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 18th Field Artillery Brigade (Airborne), is managed by Food Operations Sgt. Brian Roberts. His team incorporates not only adherence to HACCP regulations and strict sanitation guidelines of all the nominees, but also exhibits particular creativity in menus, food preparation, presentation and garnishing.
Art Ritt, CFE, former chef, consultant to the foodservice industry, and an IFSEA Army field kitchen evaluator for 2006, notes that the Fort Bragg field kitchen stood out among other remarkable nominees for several reasons.
"Most units have senior management overseeing them, but these soldiers performed with minimal top level leadership and obviously worked as a cohesive team," he explains. "Their security and perimeter protection measures were outstanding, and they had an excellent relationship with the troops coming through. They also showed just the right amount of creativity in working with what ingredients were on hand --not going overboard, which wouldn't be appropriate in a field setting, but resourcefully using the items they came out with. When you're in the field, you can't just call up and get something delivered instantly - you have to work with what you have."
Ritt and the other evaluators were especially struck by a dessert Roberts and his team concocted from "residuals." In order to add a special touch to end the meal one night, they cored out oranges, filled them with sliced strawberries and vanilla pudding, and added a pineapple garnish on top. Typically, desserts in the field might include just whole oranges alone or oatmeal cookies; this one added color and freshness to the presentation, which the soldiers visibly appreciated, Ritt says.
Other efforts Roberts makes to provide pleasurable meals for the soldiers include setting up three roasting pans on the line sideby-side "so that it's more like a dining facility instead of the usual front-to-back placement you normally see in the field," he says.
The pans are also thoughtfully garnished with carved fruit and vegetable flowers; and checkered cloths and nutrition cards adorn the tables in the clean and tidy meal tent, referred to as the "Artillery Inn." Menus of blackenedCajuncatfish,salmon,roasted/braised/grilled meats, hearty grain sides, plus plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables welcome soldiers back after a long day in training.
"Lots of units don't realize you can order additional items like extra fresh fruit to take with you to enhance the meals," he notes.
As Ritt observes, "The Fort Bragg team did lots of batch cooking - more than the other units - and were very skilled at it, not overcooking things or overfilling the food compartments, and utilizing good spicing."
Much of that is thanks to Roberts' early training as a teenager in restaurants, where he worked his way up from dishwasher to short order line cook. Through the military, he has continued to enhance his culinary expertise by taking culinary arts courses at nearby Fayetteville Technical Community College.
Future Onsite Leaders?
As well-traveled industry veterans, both Norton and Ritt express amazement at the talent levels found in today's Army foodservices.
"These soldiers have outstanding skills I haven't seen in the military in the past, given the kind of training they're getting," says Norton. "And the directives to do so are coming from the top down. They've got culinary skills, management skills and the ability to work with limited funds - plus tremendous pride in their facilities."
Adds Ritt: "It's time for the foodservice industry to discover these tremendously talented individuals and approach them for positions when they get out of the service. Otherwise, we'll lose them. They've been working with sanitation procedures at a much higher level than many restaurants today, have great skills, and are dedicated, hard-working people. We need them in our industry."
INSIDE AN ARMY FIELD KITCHEN
According to Sgt. Brian Roberts, food operations head of the field kitchen at Fort Bragg's 18th Field Artillery Brigade, it takes his team of three staff members one and a half hours to set up and achieve cooking readiness from the time of arrival at a site.
Examples of equipment and supplies in the kitchen typically include:
THE CONNELLY AWARDS: An Overview
Named after the foodservice industry veteran-and former IFSEA president, the Philip A. Connelly Awards Program for Excellence in Army Food Service was founded in 1968 as an acknowledgement of the late Connelly's dedication to promoting professionalism in foodservice and establishing IFSEA sponsorship for an Army-wide awards program.
Differing from the IFMA Silver Plate awards, the Connelly awards are bestowed upon foodservice facilities as a unit, versus individuals. However, winning teams select representatives to attend the annual IFSEA conference and awards ceremony in April, and one winning team member from each category spends a week immersed in culinary training at a Johnson & Wales University campus. (Leaders from the two winning teams profiled in this story, Sgt. Brian Roberts and 1SG Reginald Sweed, will each represent their units at the awards ceremony this April and partake in the culinary training prize.)
Currently, the Connelly program is a joint effort between IFSEA and the Department of the Army (specifically, the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence, U.S. Army Quartermaster Center and School in Fort Lee, Virginia).
Determining award winners is close to a year-long process, according to Lt. Col. Donald P. Vtipil, Jr., the Connelly program director at Fort Lee.
"In early spring, each major command begins conducting competitive activities within their installations and picks the best of their region in five categories, forwarding the five to six nominees from each category to us by the summer."
The five categories include small active duty dining facilities (with a capacity of 400 or less); large active duty dining facilities (seating 401 or more); and three field kitchens, one each from the Active Army,Army National Guard, and Army Reserve.
In the fall, evaluation committees comprised of Army Quartermaster Center and School foodservice experts plus IFSEA representatives travel, often internationally, to all the nominated installations, using a point system to judge a number of particulars, including food preparation, quality/taste/appearance, nutrition, customer service and sanitation. For 2006, 26 finalists competed in the final evaluation.
Winners are announced in late December, prior to the ceremony in April, where the top units receive silver bowl trophies, runners-up take home plaques, and staff members of all finalist facilities earn certificates of recognition.
As important to Army foodservice personnel as the Silver Plates are to other onsite professionals, a Connelly award is "something soldiers love to compete for," says Vtipil. "There's nothing better than to have that on your resume."
What about the other service branches?
The International Food Service Executives Association (IFSEA) co-sponsors annual awards programs for excellence in foodservice with each branch of the military, and jointly shares sponsorship of the Air Force awards with that service branch as well as the National Restaurant Association and the Society for Foodservice Management (SFM). These military awards programs include:
Other 2006 Philip A. Connelly Award Winners:
Large Garrison Winner:
US Army Reserve Field Kitchen Winner:
US Army National Guard Field Kitchen Winner: