The University of Richmond now boasts a completely renovated board dining hall, the Heilman Dining Center, complementing its array of campus retail operations.
Heilman formerly offered a 1980s-era scatter system that was described by students as a "high school cafeteria" before its recent renovation into a modern marketplace-style cafe.
The renovated Heilman Center complex features a lounge area (with water wall at right) and a c-store, ETC (in back), for extended hours service.
Self-service is a prime feature of Heilman, with a miniconveyor oven where students can create and finish their own hot sandwiches (top), a self-serve PB&J station with multiple ingredient options and a make-your-own-waffle station.
WE'VE GOT THE GOODIES. (l. to r.) Jerry Clemmer, general manager; Bettie Clarke, director-board operations; Blake Widdowson, director-cash operations; Glenn Pruden, executive chef; Cindy Stearns, assistant director-marketing/training; Dee Hardy, director-food & auxiliary services; Cathy Moran, assistant director-purchasing; Jim Morris, director-catering.
What if you built a dining hall and everyone came...while you were still building it? That was the challenge University of Richmond Dining Services faced a year ago when Heilman Dining Center, its lone residential dining hall, faced the prospect of an earlier-than-scheduled shutdown-for-renovation—in the middle of a full academic semester!
"We were told that because of other big projects on campus, we had to accelerate ours," recalls Richmond's veteran dining services director, Diane ("Dee") Hardy. "At the time, we had thought we would have a year in development, but it turned out to be closer to six months."
The challenge—and its very satisfactory conclusion—are career highlights for Hardy, and constitute a memorable chapter in the history of Richmond's Dining Services department and its relationship with the institution's other branches. It also illustrates how necessity truly can be the mother of innovation, as Richmond Dining Services staff repeatedly found creative solutions to the various challenges that the constricted renovation schedule forced on them.
"The key to success was how well we all worked together," Hardy says. With Heilman's operations temporarily curtailed, the retail outlets had to jump into the breach, especially over the summer when the dining hall had to go completely off line for a couple weeks. Meanwhile, since Heilman had traditionally served as the central production area for campus catering, that unit had to cope with a major disruption during graduation and the summer conference season.
The now-fully-renovated Heilman stands at the center of Richmond's dining operations, a glittering modern marketplace-style cafe offering day-long all-you-can-eat meal service (plus extended-hours retail service at a new adjacent c-store). Other campus dining outlets include half a dozen retail locations, a university club, campus catering and event concessions services.
Hardy credits her team for the success of the Heilman project, but that's not to minimize her own role. An institution at Richmond, she has been with her department for almost 30 years and has served as director since 1997. Undoubtedly, her knowledge of the campus, the relationships she has fostered over her long association with the university and the confidence her leadership of the department has inspired were crucial ingredients in making the Heilman project go as smoothly as it did.
Build It While They Come...
To understand the scope of the challenge, one must grasp that Heilman is not only the university's lone residential dining facility, but also served as the hub of its not-inconsequential catering operations. Built in 1981 with a "scatter" design, it was by the late 90s the Achilles Heel of a department otherwise getting high grades from customers.
"We were financially sound and the students were not massively unhappy with what we were doing," Hardy recalls. "It was hard to convince the administration to give you the kind of money we were asking for when people aren't beating you down."
So she brought in Crofton, MD-based Porter Consulting Worldwide to do a full analysis of her operation and its standing with students and the administration. What Porter found confirmed Hardy's suspicions.
"While the students liked the staff, liked us and liked what we did, they said the old Heilman operation looked like a high school cafeteria," Hardy recalls.
The analysis provided the springboard needed to go before the board of trustees and make the case that a university with the ambitions of Richmond could ill-afford to maintain a "high school cafeteria" as its primary dining venue in an era when students increasingly look at on-campus amenities as a crucial factor when choosing a school. A successful application put in motion a renovation planning process that included hiring outside designers and consultants.
At the time, the project team assumed it had a broad timeline, but the campus was in a building frenzy and in the fall of 2005 the pedal hit the metal in an unexpected way. "Suddenly, it was critical that construction on Heilman actually commence in spring 2006," says Hardy. "We moved along at a pretty good clip. Literally, in a month we approved all the specs on the equipment."
It was decided that the work on Heilman would be done in two phases, one to renovate the production area and servery, and the other to renovate the dining area. The first phase, begun in the spring of 2006, started with the construction of a new production area that would continue to supply meal components while the existing back-of-the-house was inoperative. This area was patched together from storeroom space, some of the back dock area and even the loading dock.
This initial "pre-renovation" work was completed by spring break 2006. Then, demolition and reconstruction of the preexisting kitchen and servery began.
Love Among the Ruins?
The project demanded daunting logistics, since the production areas were behind the old kitchen. Food had to make its way, literally, through a hard hat area.
"Basically, we had a corridor coming from the kitchen to the front dining room, where we set up temporary service," Hardy says. "They were trucking wheelbarrows full of debris through where we were transporting food. We used to joke about the possibilities of a romance cropping up between the construction people crossing one way and production people going the other."
To effect a serving area, the dining team recycled every available resource. Hardy has nothing but praise not just for her Dining Services team, but also for the university's facilities department, which went the extra mile to make the old serving equipment functional for the short-term emergency.
"We were very concerned about the dollars it was going to take to bring in portable equipment," she says. "So we got our facilities people to see what could be done with our existing service equipment."
That equipment was of course embedded into the existing straight-line serving line.
"They knocked those units off their bases and built temporary new bases and rewired them in our new serving area," Hardy recalls. "They weren't designed to be portable, but we made them portable."
The serving area in the dining room space had two lines for faster throughput, along with a large salad bar in the middle (also an existing piece that was "knocked off its base and moved"). They were augmented by an existing beverage bar and two condiment stations lying outside the construction zone.
Also retained for the moment was a small dishroom, which let Heilman continue using permanentware. "We didn't want to go to all disposables, from both quality and environmental-impact reasons," Hardy offers.
"We pretty much offered what we did before, but with a smaller selection," she adds.
"Our students weren't the happiest people in the world," admits Board Operations Director Bettie Clarke, "but they were impressed with the mission and where we were going."
What made it bearable was the knowledge that the inconvenience was temporary. Hardy made sure that was well communicated.
"The student leadership was very supportive," she emphasizes. "We made sure they saw the plans and always knew what was going on."
Meanwhile, catering production was temporarily moved to a kitchen at the Jepson Alumni Center. "Basically, we satellited our catering from another direction than previously," Hardy says. "We got through graduation and then the fun really began!"
"How We Spent Our Summer Vacation..."
The "fun" was Phase Two of the renovation, which did have the benefit of the new kitchen...but little else, since it was now the turn of the serving and dining areas to be remodeled. Granted, this was after spring semester was over, but the many summer conference, sports camp and academic sessions activity still require more dining service than the retail locations can provide alone.
Hence the new Heilman back-of-the-house was pressed into service as a central kitchen feeding several remote sites.
"Bettie was satelliting food out to as many as three locations," Hardy explains. "We were going up to Jepsen Alumnae Center, and they also set up temporary service in the Tyler Haynes Room, a commons room next to the Tylers Grill. She moved some of the (newly) portable serving equipment over there and transported food over from Heilman. This area served both summer students and some conferences attendees. We also took tables, chairs and portable equipment and set up over in the Robins Center, our campus sports facility, where they held the sports camps. We even had some VIP groups up at the Jepson Alumni Center. We served in every imaginable location."
There were of course hitches and ad hoc solutions. "My favorite story," Hardy says, "is that in the middle of that summer we realized that because of the production schedule they would have to pour our concrete floor in the back in two pieces. That meant there would be a week when we wouldn't be able to use our kitchen because there was no way to get product in and out of it."
This realization only came about two weeks before the shutdown, so the department had to scramble. It was in the middle of the summer's conference season, so there was no question of shutting down. In the end, the retail kitchen in the Tyler's Grill, combined with the small kitchen serving the Cellar campus pub/restaurant, became "production central" for a week. Hardy cites the experience as one that exemplifies the spirit shown by everyone concerned during this highly stressful time.
"There were as many as 87 men and women working in here at any one time on the construction crew," she says. "We all marvel at how we got along and how well we worked together with the designers, the consultants, the builders and all their tradespeople. Basically, even as they worked, we moved all over this campus between the middle of May and the middle of August and successfully served more than 44,000 portable meals!"
Project Fast Facts
The University of Richmond
The undergraduate program consists of three schools: Arts & Scienes, the Robins School of Business and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, while graduate programs include law, business and various arts and sciences. The university offers 56 majors, more than 700 courses and three undergraduate degrees (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science in Business Administration).
Fast Fact: Richmond is the only college in the country with the nickname "spiders" for its sports teams