Q&A with Ted Faulkner

How Virginia Tech balances finances with exceptional dining.

Ted Faulkner ,Director of Dining Services, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.As the director of dining services for Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Ted Faulkner oversees a $64 million budget. Campus dining includes 47 food concepts in 10 locations with only one all-you-care-to-eat platform, plus two food trucks. Between 14,000 and 16,000 meals are served per week, plus roughly 215,000 retail food transactions. Faulkner manages a staff of 2,200 full-time employees, 340 part-time and 1,560 student employees.

A 2017 IFMA Silver Plate Award winner, Faulkner's foodservice career spans 42 years, 19 of them at Virginia Tech. He remains an active member of Virginia Tech's Hotel and Tourism Management advisory board, in addition to holding a position as an adjunct instructor of practice in the Virginia Tech Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. He also serves as a member of the campus development committee.

Here, Faulkner discusses how Virginia Tech provides students an over-the-top dining experience while keeping the dining services department on budget.

FE&S: What are the key challenges in dining services?

TF: Dining Services is continuously expected to make more contributions to the university. We're a state university and state support has eroded for academics, so the university looks to auxiliaries to make up the difference. At the same time, dining services is expected to provide exceptional dining experiences. In essence, we're contributing to controlling rising educational costs and contributing at high levels to the student experience and building community while maintaining an exceptional value to the campus community.

FE&S: How do you achieve the ideal of doing more with less and ensuring value exceeds cost?

TF: We have increased the cost of dining plans because we must balance the budget. We've also increased efficiencies. We've had to be very proactive versus reactive to make changes. For example, to accommodate enrollment growth, we entered into an agreement with Chick-fil-A, one of seven retail, national-branded concept partners, for a breakfast promotion.

In the fall of 2017 we'll roll out a smoothie program that uses a recipe without refined sugar and calls for Greek yogurt and fresh fruit in response to students' requests.

FE&S: How do you appeal to a more food-focused student population?

TF: Gen Zs and Millennials, they'll try anything. They're fearless with what they are willing to try and expose themselves to, which is why limited-time-only offerings are very popular on restaurant menus. In addition, we have more international and out-of-state students because of our erosion in state funding, which means more student diversity.

Last year, we started broadening our menus to make them more global. We focus on diversity and inclusion through food and try to keep pace or exceed the needs or expectations of those who are part of this campus community. For instance, we offer composed plates heavy on African flavor, an Indian cuisine week in the Pan Asian station and diversified pizza toppings to feature chipotle chicken pizza and chicken Parmesan pizza.

FE&S: What's changing for the upcoming school year?

TF: Soon we'll be refreshing, reconfiguring throughput and expanding services at West End Market's JP's Chop House and our sports bar, The Fighting Gobbler. Returning students will say 'wow! this is unexpected.' These will include new furnishings, equipment, venue layouts and incorporating pick-up points for those using the mobile ordering and payment app.

With enrollment growth and food venues reaching capacity at the traditional lunch timeframe, we designed and custom built two state-of-the-art food trucks (FE&S, October 2016, page 60). We also carved out some prepared grab-and-go segments in strategically placed locations.

We are using the same labor to produce ready-to-consume packaged items during downtimes throughout the course of a day. We added a six-foot, open-air refrigerated display cabinet at West End Market that in the first 28 weeks of the academic year generated $171,000 in revenue from 32,800 transactions, while adding no additional labor. We are expanding some of our hot food items to a similar concept with hot grab-and-go selections that staff can prepare prior to the release of regularly scheduled classes.

FE&S: What do you envision for the future given the mounting financial challenges combined with the shrinking workforce?

TF: Advancement in technology and equipment are going to play even more significant roles in the future of foodservice than what is found in the market today. For instance, we've invested in gravity-fed slicers so we can centralize the slicing of meats and cheese and send them to each unit. Only two people are needed for this task. We also find efficiencies by weighing portions.

In dining centers, smart technology, including sensors and programmable equipment, will play significant roles. We'll be tracking and monitoring production in order to ensure safety and sanitation standards are being met and we'll eliminate outdated technology and processes, such as replacing analog line-based credit card systems with faster methods of processing.

The industry will continue to seek programmable production equipment in order to gain efficiencies through technology and equipment. Yes, we're doing more with less and I don't see an end in sight for this practice.