Putting students first

The entrée at Comfort on a Thursday morning in February is Lutheran Hotdish—not a favorite but well-liked enough that it shows up in the menu every four or five weeks.

“In general, casseroles and hotdishes aren’t as popular with students,” said Cindy Hogenson, Concordia’s residential dining manager, glancing at Comfort from where she sits at a table in Anderson Commons. This is a major concern: A dish’s popularity determines when it gets served and, in some cases, whether it is ever served again.

“Everything that’s served on a really regular basis in Anderson Commons was determined by student input,” said Janet Paul Rice, associate director of Dining Services.

Many students go to Anderson Commons several times a day to eat, but they don’t have any idea that they are actually the most important factor in how their food is selected and prepared. According to Rice, student approval is what drives every step of the process, from choosing a vendor for ingredients to putting the food under the warming lamps at each station.

From Cloquet to Concordia

Application of student input begins with where Dining Services gets its ingredients. Before any food can be prepared, it first has to be purchased and shipped. Concordia buys most of its food from what is known as a primary vendor. In this case, it is Upper Lakes Foods out of Cloquet, Minn.

“A primary vendor is where you get the lion’s share of your purchases,” Rice said. “We get about 75 percent of our purchases from one vendor.”

The vendor was chosen through a bidding process: Different large food vendors put together applications for Concordia, and Concordia’s Dining Services staff weighed student preferences and the vendors’ pricing and variety of items against their services and their locations. This last consideration has become more important lately, as DS strives to become more sustainable.

“These last few years, we’ve been really active about trying to get local foods,” Hogenson said.

A primary vendor is most important for buying large quantities of certain items, according to Rice.

“You need sugar, you need flour, you need eggs. Those are all pretty standard items,” Rice said.

However, certain items are bought separately from smaller vendors. Their milk, for example, all comes from Land O’Lakes; the bread, from Pan-O-Gold. This year, DS began buying all of its potatoes and honey from local organic farmers, both within 40 miles of Moorhead. According to Rice, while these changes have little impact on Concordia’s budget, they can be extremely important to the local farmers supplying these products.

“To have us be a regular customer is a really big deal for them,” Rice said.

Of course, student prefence plays a roll in the choosing of vendors as well. At times Concordia will use a separate vendor simply for one or two items that students have been shown, through taste-testing, to prefer. Coke has Concordia’s pop bid, for example. Cisco Foods, another large national vendor, is utilized only for their pizza crusts, which Hogenson said Concordia students preferred over other Upper Lakes Foods pizza crusts.

Having multiple vendors can be a headache for the Dining Services staff. More vendors means more contracts to juggle and less cost efficiency, Hogenson said.
“When we start branching out and going to other vendors, it’s a lot more work,” she said. “You have to make sure it’s worth it.”

An Art and a Science

Each Monday, a committee of cooks, Dining Services workers, and dietetic interns get together to discuss the menu from the last week and plan for future weeks—each week takes nearly two hours to complete.

Angie Sloth, one of Concordia’s three dietetic interns who assists in menu planning each week, said that the meetings are often a drawn-out process
“But at the same time,” she said, “they’re so important because you have to make sure that you’re not repeating items, you’re not making items all the same color, all the same consistency…anything a student would pay attention to.”

Among the many factors that the menu planning committee takes into consideration are how much time and labor a dish will take to prepare, how expensive it will be, and its nutritional quality. The most important factor, however, remains whether students will receive a dish favorably. Bree Bian, another dietetic intern, said that how well a dish is received is dependent on what it is served with.

“[We say], ‘Oh, we have mashed potatoes, and we have cauliflower. Same color. Let’s try and implement something else,’” Bian said.

The committee also has to plan how much of each dish to prepare for each station in Anderson. Part of the huge difficulty in this process is the choices that students have to pick from.

“You don’t just pick, like, ‘Let’s have carrots today’,” said Katie Haarala, another dietetic intern. “There’s all different varieties of creamed carrots, candy-corn carrots, all different types.”

The very presence of a dish on the menu for any given day is carefully calculated long before any of the food in the serving lines has been prepared. Menu planning consists of two main parts: deciding what to serve in each of Anderson’s eight serving stations, and attempting to predict how much of each dish will be consumed by the students.

“It’s an art and a science combined,” Rice said. “The more variety that you have in the menu, the more items that you serve, the harder it is to forecast.”

While the committee uses a standard set of a few hundred recipes in Anderson, they actually have many more at their disposal. Rice has binder upon binder in her office filled with recipes from the internet; the interns have lists hundreds of lines long—each line is an entire recipe.

“We have somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 recipes in our database; some that are more current then others, some are ancient.” Rice said. “We would not subject our students to some of the really old recipes, the salads and stuff that go back 50 years. They’re just not in keeping with today’s tastes.”

The largest source of recipes is the student body and the Dining Services staff.
All year long, they can submit recipes in the Dining Service office, and at the beginning of each year, Dining Services specifically requests student recipes.
Other recipes come from cookbooks and many come from the Internet.

“Most of them start out as home recipes,” Rice said. “Somebody says, ‘My mom makes the greatest tomato soup ever—can you make it in DS?’”

However, before a new menu item can ever be served to the student body, it has to be tested. Usually a small portion will be prepared and served to a panel of Dining Services staff. If it is successful there, it next goes to a focus group of students. These students are usually recruited at the check-stand in Anderson or on Dining Service’s Facebook page, titled “Cobber Dine.” If the students don’t like it, it won’t make it onto the serving line.

“It’s never served in Anderson until it’s approved,” Sloth said.

If the taste-testing panels like the dishes, the staff has to determine whether the cost and labor involved in a dish’s preparation justifies serving it, and the recipes have to be standardized for the sheer number of students who come through DS. On an average weekday, DS can expect to serve nearly 3,000 meals.

“Some things don’t always work when you’re making, you know, 30 gallons,” Rice said.

In general, the main entrees, which are served at the Comfort station, return approximately every three weeks. Less popular items show up every four to six weeks, and those that flop may never come through again. The popularity of an item also affects how much food is made for other stations. New menu items, which are most commonly introduced at the Explore station, can hardly be forecast because they haven’t yet been tested on the larger student body.

“When it’s a new menu item, then it’s a crapshoot,” Rice said. “When it’s a taco day at Comfort, you can pretty much bet nobody’s going to Sizzle that day.”

Cooking for a Crowd

Of course, once the ingredients have been purchased and the menu planned, the food itself needs to be prepared. For this, Concordia hires a staff of cooks and a head chef—but there is more work that just these hired professionals can handle. To help them, Concordia also has a legion of students working in behind the scenes in Anderson.

“We do rely on a lot of student help to assist the cooks,” Hogenson said.

Most of the time, students do not actually make the food that is served in Anderson. Instead, they are involved in food preparation. Blake MacKenzie, a sophomore who works in Anderson as a chef’s helper, said that this work can range from taking ingredients out of freezers and boxes to actually cutting and measuring ingredients. Students may not see the end product of their work before their shift is over.

“Things are done in stages, so we’ll put stuff on a pan and then tomorrow or later today someone else will put it in the oven,” MacKenzie said. “One day I cracked, like, 200 eggs.”

James Vair, a sophomore who worked in Meal Ingredients as a freshman, said that often students come in and have to guess where people had stopped during the last shift so they could continue working on the same dish.

“I’d get the sanitizer waters ready for everyone else, and then I’d start with the clipboards and try to pick up where somebody else left off,” Vair said.

According to Hogenson, this step of the process is known as “mise-en-place,” a French term meaning “everything in its place.” Students weigh, measure, and cut ingredients, then set them all together for the bakers and cooks to follow one of the recipes. Only very experienced students who have worked in Dining Services for a long time are allowed to cook a dish entirely on their own.

Throwing it All Away

The final step of the process is, of course, throwing the food away. In recent times, Hogenson said that DS has been trying to minimize food waste. Their most obvious effort has been the trayless dining initiative, but they also donate a lot of food waste to other operations. Much of the left-over grease from cooking is sent to an organic farmer, who uses it to produce bio fuel. Around 30 pounds of fruit and vegetable waste is sent to the biology department to feed its animals each week, allowing DS to throw away less and the biology department to spend their money elsewhere. Items that don’t spoil quickly and haven’t been contaminated by serving are donated to local food shelves or the Dorothy Day House.

However, while Dining Services has taken many steps to reduce food waste, it is impossible to avoid it altogether. With food production forecast so perfectly that food waste is minimized on the serving end, students still tend to take too much and not finish their portions.

“Food waste from the kitchens is always a fraction of plate waste,” Hogenson said.

Rice believes that the only way that the managers in Dining Services know to curb this problem is to continue listening to their customers: the students.

“It doesn’t matter at all if I like something,” Rice said. “There’s no point putting something on the menu if students don’t like it.”

For all the work that goes into preparing every single meal, many students still find things to complain about. According to Hogenson, student surveys reveal that students still feel there is not enough variety in DS—despite the hundreds of recipes that are served in a three-week span of time. However, MacKenzie thinks that the reception of Anderson’s food and services has been mostly positive.

“I think people really like the food here,” MacKenzie said. “We just complain about it. We’re really ungrateful, which is unfortunate because we probably have one of the best dining services in the state.”

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