Q&A: Eric Montell, executive director Stanford Dining, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

A division of Stanford University's Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE), Stanford Dining strives to be more than just a foodservice provider. Instead, food is promoted as a multidisciplinary educational experience.

Students are engaged in food issues related to health, the environment, social equity and the global economy. R&DE's mission is to be collaborative, sustainable and technologically efficient in its approach, while also encouraging innovation.

The Stanford Dining operations include Schwab Executive Dining, 10 undergraduate dining halls, two late-night dining operations, an athletic training table and a robust summer conference business. More than 12,000 meals per day are served to students, staff, faculty and campus visitors.

Stanford Hospitality and Auxiliaries, a division within R&DE, operates five retail outlets on campus, including Stanford Catering, Athletic Concessions, Vending and the Stanford Guest House.

Eric Montell is the executive director of Stanford Dining. In the past 12 years, he has introduced a number of new initiatives and partnerships. A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., Montell studied hotel and restaurant management at the University of Hawaii. Prior to joining Stanford University, he worked for Sodexho Marriott as the director of operations at Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.

FE&S spoke with Montell to discuss Stanford University's recent dining program initiatives as well as the challenges and successes achieved in recent years.

FE&S: What major changes have you made to your program in recent years?

EM: We have significantly expanded hours of operation and dining locations for students. Two locations are open until 2 a.m. seven days a week. In addition, we expanded our retail café locations. We also are building a dining hall that includes a central production facility and have renovated and refreshed dining halls through capital projects.

We've added herb and vegetable gardens at each dining hall, while also expanding our sustainable program to include organic dairy, cage-free eggs, Alaska wild salmon, grass-fed beef, and local and organic produce.

Recently, Stanford created a Dining Ambassador student program to encourage student engagement in the dining program.

FE&S: What makes your dining operation unique?

EM: Stanford Dining is a very culinary-focused organization and one of the few self-operating dining services in the country. We have many award-winning dining hall chefs who have previously cooked at fine dining establishments.

Our network of Dining Ambassadors (DAs), or student liaisons, works directly with the dining hall staff to promote wellness, healthy eating and sustainability through community building activities and educational experiences.

The Stanford Dining sustainability program has strategically aligned itself with the academic mission of the university. Our program includes a faculty-led speaker series, partnership with faculty on expanding our sustainable efforts and teaching at various classes throughout the university.

FE&S: What is your biggest challenge?

EM: The dining areas in all 10 dining halls are designed to accommodate 80 percent of the students living in the residence at one time. Stanford Dining meal plan students can dine in a number of the Stanford Hospitality & Auxiliaries retail cafes, and the dining halls are open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week.

The administrative expenses, such as maintenance and utilities, exist regardless of whether a student eats any meals in the dining halls. The cost of food is minimal in comparison to labor, the largest cost and essentially a fixed expense due to the extensive hours of operation. These operating costs are funded by each of the student meal plans in all of the undergraduate residences. Stanford Dining does not receive a funding offset from the university for the overhead of a meal plan.

Our biggest challenge is to remain efficient while operating in the Stanford model. This requires us to constantly look for ways to more effectively and efficiently deliver a high-quality dining program for our students.

We are also conscious of the need to maintain an affordable meal plan rate for students and recognize these expenses cannot simply be passed on, but must be reduced by creating new efficiencies.

We are in the midst of building a new dining hall, the first in almost 20 years. It will include a central production facility to provide food to all of the dining halls, retail cafes and even some catered events. This will help to reduce duplication of production throughout the Stanford Dining system.

FE&S: How do your back of house operations support your menus?

EM: The new central production facility will be the linchpin to reducing the overall cost of operations through labor efficiency. We have spent significant time visiting other central production facilities throughout the nation to learn best practices, benchmarks and metrics. Proper back-of-the-house equipment is key to building a high-quality dining program. At Stanford, there is tremendous diversity in the types of dietary needs, religious requirements or eating preferences as we serve student athletes, vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, halal, kosher and other religious or restrictive dietary need students. Our equipment is unique in the dining halls, as well. While one dining hall may include a Mongolian grill, another will have a churrasco grill.

Our new dining hall will have the dining rooms and servery on the second floor, so students can get their meals and dine while looking out over the tree groves and herb/vegetable gardens around the building. With the central production kitchen on the first floor, the second floor will be the finishing kitchen so foods are prepared in front of students.

A new flex induction cooking station will allow the type of equipment to be changed for different meal periods to maximize flexibility. There might be Paninis at lunch and this would change to a wok-tossed station at dinner.

Our back-of-the-house, central production kitchen and front-of-the-house finishing stations have a symbiotic and complementary relationship with each other. For example, a sauce will be made in the CPK and finished in front of the students.

FE&S: When purchasing foodservice equipment, what are the most important factors to consider?

EM: We consider the return on investment and cost of the equipment, which will contribute to reducing the cost of operation and creating labor efficiencies. Also, reducing energy usage and consumption is important. We also look at reliability and the cost of maintenance, in addition to flexibility and multipurpose use. New equipment must contribute to the latest menus and culinary programs.

FE&S: Discuss the effect equipment technology has had on your operations and menu offerings.

EM: The new central kitchen will have a HACCP program, so we will leverage equipment technology for time and temperature monitoring and documentation. This will include our large production cookers, blast chillers, refrigeration systems, warewashing systems, food delivery and distribution equipment. We will integrate this data with our menu management and purchasing IT systems.

FE&S: What do you predict for the university dining segment overall in the next year?

EM: I believe this will be a better year for university dining than 2010, which had many challenges associated with the economy's downturn. We will need to keep a close eye on food inflation and the issues in the global food market
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