Miami University Dining has benefited from a long term vision, a tenured management team and an operational model focused on efficiency, culinary excellence and customer choice.
Tucked away in Oxford, a rural town in southwestern Ohio, is one of the oldest universities in the country and one of its most accomplished public institutions. Miami University, lauded as one of the original “Public Ivies,” is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and quite a lot of looking back — and peering forward — has been going on there.
AT A GLANCE
Miami University, Oxford, OH: www.hdg.muohio.edu/EatingAtMiami/
That is true for its dining services as well as its academic departments. With traditions that go back to the days of in-room, coal-fired stoves and meat costing students a penny a pound, Miami Dining over the years was a pioneer in central production, progressive meal plans and computerized food production management.
Today, it operates a state-of-the-art culinary production center that is the envy of many other schools. Campus dining offers a wide range of brand, service and menu choices in refined retail restaurants. Its meal plan gives students a choice of traditional, all-you-care-to-eat dining or a declining balance program with refundable credit at year's end. And both are managed via a universal debit card that can pay for food at every venue on campus, including vending machines, sports concessions and the student center.
With all that choice, it's no wonder two-thirds of Miami's off campus students choose to buy meal plans, or that it boasts 75 percent student participation in them overall.
The school's ability to offer this high level of retail-style sophistication while maintaining pronounced central production efficiency makes its operation one many schools can learn from. But when you get right down to it, the key to the program's success seems to be grounded in the continuity provided by strong leadership, management bench strength and a long-term vision shared by the individuals who have directed development of the program over the last two decades.
Much of the credit for that has to go to Pete Miller, Miami's associate vice president for auxiliaries. Miller came to the school as dining director in 1984 after a ten year stint as assistant director at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Foodservice on the campus was fragmented then. The meal plan was still based on assigned dining halls with buffet-style service. Most students abandoned it as soon as they could move off campus.
There were limited retail options in the Shriver student center, but they were managed and operated separately from residential dining. The on-campus Marcum conference center was also a completely separate entity.
Because Miami's strong academic programs had always given it one of the highest tuition rates among Ohio's state universities, its operating philosophy had focused on keeping meal and board rates low as an offset. At the same time, “the administration realized we needed to re-invest in the foodservices and residence halls, not only to bring them up to contemporary standards, but also to increase our efficiencies,” Miller says.
“The existing program was a good one, but there was a lot of room for improvement given the trends we saw in the future,” Miller recalls today. “Much of the equipment was antiquated and the ratio of student labor was fairly low. We knew we needed to give the students more dining choices.
“They were questioning why they had to eat only at certain times; why they needed permission to bring a guest to dinner; why they had to provide notice if they wanted a takeout meal; why the only retail food was at the Shriver Center, and why meal plans couldn't be used there.”
One main result at the time was a decision to consolidate responsibilities for operating the Shriver student center, the Marcum conference center and dining services under a single department of housing, dining and guest services. The department entered a period in which it spent several years closely evaluating its many dining facilities, programs and strategic needs and seeking to coordinate them.
It was a time of great change, and also a period when several young managers were hired who today make up the backbone of the department's senior management team. Miller was one of these.
So was Bill Moloney. A Miami grad with a degree in accounting, he had worked his way through high school and college as a restaurant manager on the side. After graduation, he'd gone on to work for a franchise company and then came back to Miami as a unit manager. Today he is the senior director for dining and auxiliaries, reporting to Miller.
Another was Marijo Nootz, a dietitian who had performed her internship at the University of Nebraska and had become assistant director of its student union. Looking to move closer to her family in Ohio, she applied for and landed a manager's job at Miami's Shriver Center and today serves as its senior director. Mike Mitroi, associate director for dining and culinary support services, also joined the organization in that era.
Nancy Heidtman, now Miami's director of dining and culinary support services, came to the organization just a few years later. Heidtman had been a regional manager with a full service restaurant chain with centralized commissary operations. That experience was to prove instrumental in the next phase of Miami's dining program.
VISIT MARKET STREET AT McCRACKEN. If you'd like to have a tour of Miami's largest c-store from general manager Diana Byrd, including an overview of its merchandise mix, go to http://food-management.com/video/0609-miami-university-mccracken
VISIT MARKET STREET AT McCRACKEN. If you'd like to have a tour of Miami's largest c-store from general manager Diana Byrd, including an overview of its merchandise mix, go to food-management.com/video/0609-miami-university-mccracken
By the early 1990s, Miller and his team had improved the quality of campus food and its production systems with better standards and “our emphasis began to change,” he recalls.
“Until then, most of our staff had been home-grown and had learned their skills on the job here. We needed people with outside experience to help us develop better restaurant offerings and do so more cost effectively.
“We began hiring chefs from restaurants, managers from commercial chains. We moved away from a model in which facilities basically replicated each other on different parts of the campus and began to replace them with branded and signature concepts.”
Operations at the Shriver Center, which had faced many of the financial challenges common to student unions, had been turned around with limited meal plan equivalency options and tighter management. Purchasing economies had also been gained by consolidating its food purchases with those of residential dining.
Although some a la carte options were now available, Miami's main dining plan was still based on non-refundable “meals-per-week” plans and students were demanding much more flexibility than they could provide.
“Most students wanted a debit-based system that would work at all locations,” Miller says. “At the same time, some didn't want to be forced to that model. We had to find a way to offer both point accounts and meals-per-week plans. There were also concerns that unspent money in a point system would not be returned.”
Dining habits were also changing, with students eating more frequently, at more locations, over the course of a day.
“They'd become much more aware of what they were paying for food and labor at each meal occasion,” Miller adds. “Snacking between meals — the way we all do when we live at home — was seen as more expensive than it should be.
“Lighter eaters complained that they were covering the food and labor costs of heavier eaters. It also could work the other way, with heavier eaters paying more than their share of overhead costs.
“Our traditional way of covering overhead just wasn't working, and small changes weren't going to address it,” he says.
The department devised a dramatically different plan to address these issues in 1993. With it, a meal plan holder paid a flat rate per semester to cover a share of overhead. Remaining dollars, and any additional money put into the plan, could be spent at any dining operation on campus. Plan holders received a 30-60 percent discount on posted prices while those without plans paid full price. A separate “MUlaaa Dollars” account could be added to the ID card for purchases of supplies, laundry and other service options.
“We also took the position that unused points be returned at the end of each year,” Miller says. “We felt if we couldn't provide the quality, value and variety we promised, and students didn't use all their points, they'd get them back.”
That keeps the department focused on giving students what they really want, Miller adds. And even though it means a return of several hundred thousand dollars to students each year, it makes the meal plan much easier to market.
The system was very transparent. Although it required a more complex accounting system behind the scenes, the software investment to do so paid off.
In 1993, almost no meal plans were sold to off-campus students. Today, almost two-thirds of Miami's 8,000 off-campus students buy them, giving the department a much more substantial and predictable financial operating base.
The new plan enabled many operational changes. “It was an exciting time of constant change,” Moloney recalls.
“We replaced sack lunches with to-go windows and ended up opening five of them. We opened our first branded grill and pizza stations and began to convert buffet dining facilities — there were 13 at the time, each one with its own kitchen — to a la carte. The new plan let us offer extended hours at the Shriver Center and we began to develop our own branded concepts.”
Heidtman was involved in helping develop many of these and points to the learning curve they entailed for staff.
200 Years of Dining Tradition
Established in 1809, Miami is the seventholdest university in the country and has dining traditions just as storied as its academic history. Students originally cooked in their rooms. Records show that in 1832, $50 would have paid for a year’s tuition, room and books with prepared meals available locally for one dollar a week. The first dining room was opened in 1849 in Stoddard Hall.
Stoves in the kitchen were coal-fired and refrigeration was supplied by daily deliveries of ice. Many students worked as waiters in the full service dining rooms to subsidize tuition. By 1922, 36-week board fees were $162 for women and $180 for men.
Miami enjoyed steady growth after WWI and new residence and dining halls were built to handle it. Foodservice made a great leap in 1932 when MU constructed the dedicated “Central Food Store” on Elm Street. It provided refrigerated and dry storage and facilities to make ice and ice cream, pasteurize milk and house a central bakery.
The operation was groundbreaking at the time and helped MU keep board costs low. It also established a tradition of central production that presaged the Culinary Support Center operated today.
During WWII,the school’s facilities were used to train over 10,000 cooks and bakers for the Navy. In the 1950s, the school eliminated maid and wait service and introduced buffet-style self-service dining, which remained the primary service model until the late 1980s.
Today, Miami’s dining program includes five buffet-style dining halls and 16 a la carte operations that offer a full range of retail dining service options. It operates five c-stores, including Market Street at McCracken, the largest, which alone does about $2.6 million in annual sales.
The department also manages over a dozen brands, ranging from Uncle Phil’s Express (a takeout line used across campus) to Miami Twister (a pretzel concept) to fully-developed restaurants like La Mia Cucina and Panache. The newest concept, Dividends, will open in the new Farmer Business School this fall.
“Learning to add brand value to our offerings was a completely new frontier on the campus and it required a lot of training and changes in attitudes. As production began to move from the kitchen to front of the house, we began outfitting staff with the kind of uniforms you'd see in commercial restaurants. There was much more focus on the customer and we began to benchmark ourselves not against food at other colleges, but against national brand restaurants.”
At the Shriver Center, Marijo Nootz was intent on establishing a strong campus brand for what had been a modest catering operation (see sidebar, p. 28). “We wanted Carillon Catering to have identity separate from Shriver, to be seen as the place to call no matter what your catering needs were,” Nootz says. “We upgraded menus to make them broader and more flexible and simplified pricing and ordering.”
By the late 1990s, “our emphasis shifted again,” says Miller, and the department began a long term look at how it could achieve better efficiencies in the new enviornment. Attention turned to the 80-year old facility on Elm Street that was then known as the “Central Food Store.”
The four-story food warehouse and production center was inefficient, but still essential. In the late 1990s, Nancy Heidtman had taken on responsibility for it as part of her brand management role.
“It had a bakery on the third floor and still had some meat cutting going on another floor,” she says. “We had just begun to dabble in commissary operations. The warehouse, refrigerated space and receiving and loading facilities were antiquated. Operating from the facility — there is no other way to say it — had become painful.”
After four years of planning, the department opened a new Culinary Support Center in 2001 that addressed these limitations and provided the resources to help it drive the production efficiencies it needed to supply components to its many campus operations (see sidebar on p. 24). As one example, “We previously were cutting salad bar lettuce in ten different kitchens,” says Heidtman. “Today, four people process 3600 pounds of romaine and iceburg lettuce in a four hour period twice a week, and that takes care of the entire campus.”
Under Mike Mitroi, the department took on responsibility for managing its own vending machines, a move that let them be used with the debit card. It also lets the department customize vend machine offerings to particular demographics at different locations on campus.
Technology also began playing a much larger role. Today, customers at the Scoreboard Market in Martin Hall use their ID cards to place to-go food orders on kiosk terminals at the entrance. These are produced in the kitchen and barcoded so they can be scanned at checkout, improving accuracy and speeding up the lines. At La Mia Cucina, customers place orders in a similar way before seating themselves, speeding food production.
All the products made at the Culinary Center are similarly barcoded so that individually-packed items can be scanned at point of sale or, in the case of bulk product, in the date-stamping and inventory tracking process.
Procurement strategy is also an important part of Miami's effort to manage costs. The school uses an aggressive system of competitive bidding, warehousing stock for redistribution on the campus. It buys from more than a half dozen major broadliners, several specialty distributors and, often, directly from manufacturers. Recently, it joined ProVista, an arm of the Novation group purchasing organization, to further leverage its buying clout.
Brand management remains a key part of Miami's strategy, “but while we come up with new ideas all the time, our bar is pretty high in terms of moving forward with them,” says Heidtman. The department is looking to reduce the number of brands it supports, she says, so it can focus on the strongest identities in its portfolio.
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Efforts to improve sustainability and to do more local sourcing are figuring much more prominently as the department looks ahead.
This summer, the department is directing a lot of its energy towards the first floor foodservice in the new Richard T. Farmer School of Business that will open this fall. Called Dividends, it will feature panini, salad, soup and quiche offerings, an upscale dim sum concept, and a bakery and coffee counter.
Given the current climate in higher education, “improvements in efficiency will be at the top of the priority list,” says Heidtman, who believes the Demske center positions the department well to meet that challenge. Facility modernizations at individual dining hall locations will also be critical to that effort, she adds.
As such necessary changes are made, the department will have to stay focused on retaining its longstanding sense of community, Miller says.
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“There is a sense of history here,” he adds. “It is partly the architecture and campus, partly from our location, but a lot of it is from our people.
“I've had the pleasure of working with many senior managers and staff over the years who were always very dedicated to Miami's excellence and its oldest ideals. We have people in campus jobs who are second and third generation employees and will tell you a father or grandmother worked here. It's one of the things that makes the Miami experience unique.”