Auxiliary Services Corporation of SUNY Cortland
Students at State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland have relied on the Auxiliary Services Corporation of SUNY Cortland (ASC) for dining, parking, property protection, mail and campus banking services since 1952. ASC is a set of distinct nonprofit corporations, established more than 60 years ago to support student life on the institution’s 64 campuses across the state. At Cortland, ASC serves approximately 7,800 students, somewhere around the median for SUNY campuses.
Bill McNamara serves as the Cortland ASC’s director of dining services. He has worked in the food service industry for 26 years. He began his career working in restaurants, eventually branching into food service for nursing homes, hospitals and eventually colleges. McNamara worked at Cornell for five years. He has now worked in the SUNY system for 11 years.
McNamara’s team includes 120 full-time employees, as well as 450 student employees, who work part-time, not as work-study. As the largest student employer on campus, ASC has nine facilities, including dining halls and retail a la carte.
In addition, McNamara operates a central production and bakery hub, concessions and catering. The corporation also has two dining locations in the Adirondack Mountains, where SUNY Cortland students in the outdoor education program train.
Feeding the dragons
A major component of ASC’s functions on campus involve: feeding students, faculty, staff and visitors. The company provides food and beverages for the campus through a self-operated dining program, as well as a catering operation.
The catering division operates independently from dining hall kitchens and performs a range of services ranging from small coffee breaks of approximately six people to larger events and barbecues upward of 5,000 people. The catering department also has a high-end to-go food service that rivals local grocery stores with fresh, pre-made food.
The food-related end of the business is undergoing some major changes in the coming years. First, the college will be opening a new state-of-the-art dining facility in January 2015. The Bistro, a full-service meal location will focus on healthier foods and production methods. The other component of the new facility is Fuel, set up for students on the go. Fuel will offer Starbucks Coffee, energy drinks and healthy, pre-made meals and snacks for take-out.
Campus meal plans are also set to change in 2015. “Right now, our students get a set number of meals per week or they can use them as a dollar value in retail,” McNamara explains. “The meals are worth $6 at retail locations on campus. All meal plans soon will be open access. Students can get as many meals as they want as long as they are on the meal plan. There is also a declining balance they will have to use in retail. In unlimited dining, we have found that students eat less each time. It is healthier and less expensive. This initiative is part of a 10-year plan to not raise costs with five years to go. There has also been a focus on waste and ongoing training. Each year we want a better bottom line than the last.”
In the food business, McNamara and his team face a range of challenges unique to the industry. “Food prices are going up,” he states. “We also work hard to provide a balanced menu, but people are only willing to pay so much. We have done well streamlining our production and purchasing. We also have a local sustainable initiative where we strive to buy from local producers, which cost more, but people want it. We are building good relationships with regional growers.”
The focus on health has been huge over the last few years. Along with the local natural food push, ASC is providing cohesive nutritional information on menu boards. Marketing has taken on an important role in this initiative to let students know what to expect. Other components of the program include menus that cater to dietary restrictions, including allergies and intolerances, religion-based diets and vegetarian options.
The company also has to deal with more turnover than other businesses. As a major student employer on campus, the business loses many employees at graduation every year. ASC fights this particular challenge with a strong full-time staff and comprehensive training.
“We try to get the right people,” McNamara says. “Not many applicants are qualified, but we can train just about anybody who is willing to learn. The right attitude is key and communication and flexibility are important for both sides.”
McNamara and his crew are looking forward to the coming years. With new developments underway, the company has a lot of growth potential as enrollment increases and the focus on quality of food improves. The program continues to benefit from a strong and dedicated staff, as well as supportive administration at the school as Auxiliary Services Corporation of SUNY Cortland continues to provide healthy food and diverse campus services.