The University of Richmond Dining Services
What’s the key to serving great food to 2,900 students on meal plans and 2,000 faculty and staff? It’s listening to what they say.
That’s according to Bettie Clarke, the executive director of campus dining for the University of Richmond Dining services. On the surface, the challenge she and the dining staff must overcome is sheer volume and accommodating the varied dietary needs of so many people, which include gluten restrictions and vegan and vegetarian diets, among other needs.
But the real challenge, and pleasure, is making sure that the dining services reflect students’ values and needs the same as all the other branches of the university.
“Our main goal is always to give great service. We think student satisfaction is very important, it’s really a driving force,” says Clarke.
Clarke is responsible for running the Heilman Dining Center, the only all-you-can-eat dining facility on campus, as well as the university run catering service, University Catering, and Richmond on Broad Café, an off-campus eatery established as part of University of Richmond downtown campus.
She collaborates with executive chef Glen Pruden, Residential Dining Director Jerry Clemmer as well as registered dietician Karen Hensley to plan meals and organize events for students, faculty, staff and the community.
Through the efforts of the dining service, the dining center has a huge selection. On a given day at the on-campus cafeteria, students can choose between a gluten-free Mongolian grill, a rotating nacho bar, a Panini station and a gourmet mac and cheese station with cooked-to-order toppings such as fresh vegetables, Bluefin tuna, crabmeat and bacon.
Back in the day
Clarke says the university refocused its sights on the dining service back in 1978. At the time, the University of Richmond used outside contractors to prepare and serve meals. However, these contractors did not provide the level of service the students and university staff wanted and ultimately led to the administration deciding to provide its own food service.
Since providing in-house dining services, the food not only improved, but the dining service became more involved with students and staff and has been recognized nationally for its accomplishments.
Clarke and her group report to Diane Hardy, the assistant vice president of Campus Services. Hardy is a past president of the National Association of College and University Food Services and supports their mission of providing excellent choices for the university’s students, staff and community.
“Personal contact is a big component of our job,” says Clarke. “Our director of residential dining and all the other managers are familiar with our students [and] know many of them by name.”
However, not all of the outreach is in person. Clarke and her team have made use of technology that allows the dining service to be more available to students. For instance, with the “Text and Tell” program, students can text the dining service directly, with concerns such as “the milk is out” or “please bring back Jersey Dirt.”
The dining service also has an app, the Edible Bytes Mobile Menu, which enables diners to see what menu items are gluten-free or vegan, as well as the calorie count and other nutritional information for the menu options.
“Another big part of our program is offering diversity to our students,” says Clarke. Once a year, the dining service will host an international dinner showcasing food from other countries, this year they will feature Cuba. Prior to spring break, the dining service hosts a destination event representing some of the places students might travel during their week off.
The dining service also provides musical offerings for the students to enjoy while they eat, such as church choirs, karaoke or even a live band. When exam time rolls around, “we run a midnight munchies program on the Sunday night before exams —it’s kind of a stress reliever event complete with finger food, chicken wings and other student favorites and a DJ, or karaoke,” says Clarke.
Clark says a new focus on sustainability comes, in part, from feedback obtained through an annual survey.
“Our young people and the millennials are very conscious of what we use [and] how we use it,” says Clarke. In response, the dining service buys local produce whenever possible as well as partnering with ProFish, its seafood distributor, to offer sustainable seafood options. Each week the company contacts the university’s executive chef and informs him what local seafood will be available for the coming week. While that ensures the university is buying sustainable fish catches, it also provides variety.
The university also supports recycling and composting efforts, as well as using Ecolab’s Apex dishwashing system that saves water and protects the environment.
Another waste-reduction practice is Tray-less Friday’s. Without a tray, students usually take less food, which is better for the environment through reducing waste as well as being healthier for many students. “It would help less food go to landfills [and] less water to wash the tray,” says Clarke. In the future, she hopes more students will skip using trays every day, not just Tray-less Fridays.
One educational program that has been very successful is the Live Well Dine Green initiative. “That’s about healthy eating and being sustainable at the same time,” says Clarke. For instance, the university’s nutritionists and executive chef will host sustainability and nutrition events, promoting healthier eating options, as well as teach them about our sustainability efforts by showcasing the local produce we use. The vendors are also present at these events to enhance the experience for the students.
The dining service believes that these education initiatives are a way of creating a healthier and more sustainable community at the university, which, after, all is part of their education. “I believe our students appreciate what we do and of course we enjoy doing it,” says Clarke.