Principia’s Dining Services operates like any other standard business. The only difference is that it does not try to make a profit. Front-of-house and store manager Brian Day said, “The goal of Dining Services is to […] cover expenses that we incur. That’s our responsibility to Principia as an entity.”
The annual boarding cost at Principia College is $5,680, or $2,840 per semester. About two-thirds of this amount is used to cover the operating costs of Dining Services. “The overhead—or cost of the basic infrastructure, including such things as equipment, space, and utility—remain fairly constant,” said Vice President of Administration Karen Grimmer.
In addition to the overhead, the boarding fee also covers day-to-day operations. “The [current] College dining operation is calibrated to serve about 500 students,” said Grimmer. “Dining Services are able to adjust their operation to accommodate a plus or minus 10 percent variation in customers without a significant impact on their operation.”
This means that the decrease in student enrollment this year probably had no significant impact on Dining Service’s operations. However, there has been a minor increase in cost of the meal plan to account for inflation.
Dining Services minimizes its losses by collecting and using data to make projections about their operational costs. “We track all of the expenses, look at the projections on enrollment, compare prices with other colleges and universities, look at food costs and the projections for food cost,” said Dining Services director Lance Thornton. “We work very closely with SYSCO to come up with these numbers.”
SYSCO is Dining Service’s largest vendor, providing up to 90 percent of the food and ingredients they use. SYSCO is the global leader in marketing, selling and distributing food products to educational facilities. “They are highly respected in their industry. We know where their food’s coming from, that they are tracked and safe, produced in the best conditions and meet all the Federal guidelines […] it is an important part of our business to know that at every moment, you are receiving the highest quality product,” said Thornton.
Dining Services also has contracts with other vendors: United Natural Foods Incorporated (UNFI), Naked Juice, and Brockman. UNFI deals in natural, organic and specialty foods—items that would be harder to find at Walmart. For example, Luna bars and Stacy’s Pita Chips are supplied by UNFI. Brockman, on the other hand, deals in packaged goods that would be typically found in a convenience store.
These vending contracts only last so long. Every three years, Dining Services goes back to the drawing board to assess the best food companies in the market. It then invites potential vendors to a bid meeting to offer their best prices. Thereafter, they work with the Director of Purchasing, Bruce Alioto, to lock in on a pricing structure and come up with the best deal for produce, fresh meats, cheese and dairy products, and other staples. Principia uses its buying power to vie for the best deals for their foods. Thornton said, “We never buy the cheapest products on offer, nor do we often go for the most expensive. [Instead,] we try to strike for an affordable deal.”
Student feedback also impacts how Dining Services makes buying choices. Day said, “Dining Services is faced with a 25 percent turnover every year when our seniors graduate and new freshmen enroll … [and they all have] different eating habits and tastes.”
In order to cater to these differing tastes and trends, Dining Services concentrates on providing variety in their meals. “We try to provide as much choice as possible. If you aren’t satisfied with what’s in the hot line, you go to the grill and order an omelette or choose stuff from the coolers found in the scramble room and the store. That way, we increase chances of you finding something that you like,” said Thornton. Day added, “[Friday night] ‘Menutainments’ are a fun way to add variety. Customers get to personalize their food, and these nights have been really well received.” Because students leave Principia for the weekend, fewer people eat Friday dinner, and this allows Dining Services to put more time and creativity into those meals.
Dining Services also depends on student feedback to provide satisfaction. For example, not all students are satisfied with the range of meals provided; freshman Juliana Okonya said, “I hope to one day see an African dish on the menu.” How this feedback is communicated is another matter.
One way is via Sophomore Brett Huntley, who serves as the student government representative. He meets with Thornton on a weekly basis to discuss student feedback. “I usually get feedback through word of mouth,” he said. “The problem is that most of the comments I get are negative. If something’s good, people don’t say anything. If something’s bad, their feedback is usually vague and general.”
Another way is the text-and-tell program that launched spring 2015. “Eventually it expanded to include the television screens where we share feedback with everyone,” said Day. “That software has been a useful marketing tool. It’s a way to not only do what we are doing, but to tell people about it—to tell our story.”
Some students expressed faith in the text-and-tell program’s efficiency. Senior Bishoppe Kamusinga remembers how his friend complained about an overripe batch of apples that had been put out for breakfast one day. “They posted it on text-and-tell and the following day there was fresh fruit,” said Kamusinga. Day said that the text-and-tell system results in quick turnaround for most feedback.
Even suggestions on a larger scale are usually implemented in one way or another. Huntley said, “Dining services is looking to start [an] “international week” later this semester or the next, where foods from a country represented by each of our international students will be prepared for one day of the week.”
Dining Services also tries to cater to individual requests; it allows students to post comments and suggestions, including recipes, to its website. “Because we are a smaller community, students can personally walk up to me and give me feedback or suggestions,” said Thornton. “Some of the current, frequent requests [have] been for very specialized food […] grown in a particular way and in the case of an animal, treated humanely. It’s not just Principia,” Thornton said, “but a growing trend in all colleges and universities. Right now, the demand is small and those items are pretty expensive.” Expense plays a large part in how feedback is implemented.
Students are playing a larger role in how Dining Services chooses its menu items. Food shows are events where buyers taste their way through new foods to add to their menus. Thornton recently brought Huntley and senior Nick Boyd to a food show organized by SYSCO at the St. Louis Ameristar Casino Resort. Huntley described it as “a big convention full of people trying to sell you stuff. We found a lot of great things—soups, hummus, more local meats and veggies […] that are in the works to being added to the menu.”
The dining services is one of the life forces of the school. Unlike other offices, they can’t afford to close when they should be open. Thornton acknowledged that running Dining Services has its challenges, but said, “I did restaurants for twenty years and […] it’s an amazing business, but it’s all about the dollar. When it’s all said and done, restaurants close everyday, but here at Principia, we are a part of a much bigger picture. The things that we do here today help those that are here tomorrow.”