MICHELE LEFEBVRE: I'm really glad to be part of this roundtable. I'm glad to be able to represent what seems to me like a very different aspect of food service. So I'm going to launch right in.
I'm the director of Nutrition Management for Cornell Dining right here on campus. I am a registered dietitian. I'm also about to graduate with a master's degree from the Hotel School, so hospitality has been part of my life for a long time. I have a lot of slides, but hopefully you'll see that we can go through them pretty quickly.
So I was asked to talk about dining innovations in food service in general. And I come from a campus food service background, so wanted to give a little bit of a perspective in campus dining, which I think at first glance, we think of as pretty different than a lot of the demographics that are represented here today. But what is the same is that on campuses we're serving large volume amount of food, large amount of people, and it's day in and day out.
So it's similar to a lot of different aspects that are represented here today in that people live on campus and we have to feed them. Of course, it's a different demographic, but they're not going home. We're serving them. And so in that case, it's actually really similar.
I use this picture to represent what we're doing here on campus, because most people think of as institutional food service they think of something that's coming out of a can, or a box, or a bag. And you hear on campus, we're really trying to break that model, and do something quite a bit different, and use a lot of fresh foods. So I'm going to talk about innovations that I think-- I chose ones that impacted health, but also had pretty big dollar amount significance in terms of their amounts and how they impacted our overall bottom line.
So just real quickly, I'm going to talk about who is Cornell Dining. We serve over 22,000 meals a day. We have over 10,000 students on meal plan, but actually those are just the students that are on meal plans, so we serve also staff and faculty. Every day, we're serving those 22,000 meals a day during the semester.
We're open 358 days per year and 22 hours per day. So we're open quite an amount of time during the year. We have 28 locations-- and this is really small, isn't it-- 28 locations, and they can actually be found in just over one square mile on campus, so a lot of locations in a very small amount of space. We have just over 400 full-time staff, and we actually employ a lot of student staff. The student staff is really a big part of our everyday operations, and as of this semester, just over 600.
It wouldn't be fair to go on without doing a little bit of patting our backs and talking a little bit about all of our awards. So for the Princeton Review, we've actually been in the top rated-- in the top 10 for the last 11 years straight. This year we were rated number four, and we think a lot of that has to do with our high ratings because we really try to drive innovation and be leaders in campus food service.
In 2017, we won The Sani Awards for food safety. Food safety is really important to us. Every year we do the standard health department inspections. We also employ a third party health inspector audit, so we really focus on food safety.
This year we won 28 team best overall food allergy program for college university. 2017 we were number one for campus dining for New York state. We came in number two this year right behind our friends at Culinary Institute of America, and we were number two in 2017 for best gluten-free/allergen-free dining. So that's just a little bit about us. Excuse me.
So I have a couple of innovations that I wanted to talk about, and like I said, they're focused on health and focused on impacting our bottom line. Dining innovation, number one, open a free from dining hall, which doesn't sound that innovative. But what was mostly innovative for us was we didn't tell anyone.
Free from means we are free from gluten, peanuts, and tree nuts, and so we're certified. We actually are certified. We go through an audit, and as much as we thought it was going to be pretty difficult, it was really easy. We were first in the country to be free from peanuts, tree nuts, and gluten.
And what is most innovative for us was that we didn't really market it and we continue to grow our customer base. So I say this in terms of a dining innovation, is you can do this in a lot of locations, and what you're doing is you're serving the customer. Our customers are happier. We're not having to prepare special meals.
A big part of our demographic here on campus are people that are avoiding some kind of food. We have just over 20,000 students on campus. And by my estimations, we have about 1,500 that need some kind of special diet.
So in this case, it really helped, because we weren't preparing special meals, which, by the way, really relaxed our staff. Our staff, they were on edge because we had to stop what they were doing and prepare a special meal. This really helped.
So it looks like it's gotten a little funky. It looked really beautiful. "Keep the flavor, lose the gluten." So that's what we focused on, is really keeping the flavor.
And after six months of doing that, we polled the students, and just under half, 50%, of our customers that went to this dining hall still didn't know that it was gluten-free, peanut-free, and tree nut-free, which means to me that you really don't need gluten. And a lot of times, you're using gluten as a fallback for your menu items. And if you could see, our total customer costs actually have grown significantly. From when we changed over from the free from, we actually have grown by 49% in our customer counts. And like I said, not only our customers are happy, but our staff feels a lot better.
We did this in a number of ways. These cupcakes are actually gluten-free, and I would serve them to most people in this room and you wouldn't even know. We really focused on the flavor. So we didn't change out pizza for pizza. We actually really looked at different ethnic foods and changing our program, and I think what really made our customers happier was that we weren't relying on the same old pizza and pasta.
We really changed up programs. So we have a baked potato bar. We have a nacho bar. We do polenta French toast. We have a cheesecake bar.
So it's really, really been innovative. It's been fresh. It's been exciting, and as you can see, we've really impacted our numbers.
So we swapped out high-flavor items and we avoided changing that one for one. We really focused on free from ingredients from the start. So for example, across campus every pesto on campus is tree nut-free. So that makes it a lot easier for our staff, because they're not going to one unit where they have one set of ingredients and another unit where they have another set of ingredients, which can be very confusing, stressful, and hard for the student as well or the customer as well.
And of course, make it taste great. We started a commissary out of this dining hall as well. We're now doing about 250 sandwiches out of there a day-- salads, packaged goods, and we're working on a bakery commissary. So for example, an uniced cupcake, gluten-free, tree nut-free cupcake that we could buy wholesale is probably about $0.75 a piece, and that's a uniced. We can make these for about $0.23 a piece. So we really saved save some. We've created a lot more happiness in terms of the customer feedback as well.
By the way, the customers are still asking for croutons at the salad bar. So they are still coming, and they still don't realize that it's gluten-free. Students, I encourage you to check it out.
Dining innovation, number two. So, again, same old-- she's talking about plant-based. These are innovations that have hit the market, at least in terms of quick service and fine dining, quite a few years ago, but here we are. We're an institutional food service, and when you're serving that many meals per day, it can be really hard.
But on the other hand, when you're serving institutional food service, it's really good to remember how much impact you have when you're serving that number of meals. You're having a huge impact on customers, but you're also having a huge impact on supply chain. Something that is really interesting for us is we try to make this about an experience.
So how many of you think back to your dining hall days when you were in undergrad? Do you do you think about the food or do you think about the social experience? So what we want-- what we're really trying to do is focus on the food, and the social experience, and really bring home these really strong experiences for the student, and for the customer, and create these memorable experiences. But also, these are food decisions that customers are making sometimes for the first time in their lives.
So introducing plant-forward recipes seemed like kind of a no-brainer. It was our demographic wanted it. It was just a matter of how do we do it in an institutional setting.
So in the first year that we did this we increased our produce purchases by 9%-- it looks like we also have a lot of little-- and that ended up being about 160,000 pounds of produce. We also reduced our meat purchases by 5%, which was just over 50,000 pounds of meat. So it was better food, but it was also really impacting our cost of goods.
So we did this in a number of ways. We added an all-vegan salad bar. No one noticed. They didn't ask for the cheese. When you source really high quality salad dressings people don't necessarily notice that they're missing all the cheese and creamy salad dressings.
We actually started adding beef to our-- or added mushrooms to all of our ground beef dishes. So all of our nacho beef, all of our meat loaf, all of our meat balls, if we make meat balls, and also every one of our burgers that we're pattying. We blend with about 30% to 40% mushrooms. We actually created a blended burger program. We call it the Big Red Blend. We have had phenomenal success with the blended mushroom program.
It's actually-- The National Mushroom Council's really been pushing the blended burger. But we've done it with all of our ground beef, and it is made such an impact. Because when you're holding food on a line, it dries out, and ground beef does not dry out when it also has mushrooms. So you're adding flavor, you're adding health, you are reducing the amount of meat in the product, and it's a win-win across the board.
We also added vegetables to our comfort foods. So all of our stews, our pot pies, all of our roast meat dishes, we added up to 40% to 50% more vegetables, which again, increased the health and decreased the amount of meat that was going in the dish, so really had an impact. Our bolognese, we bulked up with vegetables.
And something fun that we added was a culinary competition. We wanted to inspire our young culinarians to focus on produce, and we created a culinary competition, which we've actually had four years now. It's really successful. And we presented to the students in a grand ballroom and the students can taste a bunch of really amazing dishes, but the culinarians spend time testing and playing with recipes focused on produce.
We also added a acai and avocado in our retail locations, and we created these up charges. So we actually work with avocados from Mexico. They helped us do quite a bit of collateral and they really promoted this idea of creating an upcharge with avocado, and it seemed like kind of a no-brainer. But we sell out of avocado in most of our a la carte locations every day. It's almost like-- students might be able to attest to this if they text each other that, oh, the avocado is almost gone, come and get it type of thing. But we're capturing a higher check average with that avocado.
Same thing with acai. We're going through about 150 quarts per week. It's amazing how much we're going through what seem like simple add-ons to the menu, but are really, really popular.
Here's one of our avocado toasts. It's got roasted sweet potatoes, pepitas, and a maple vinaigrette. It's really yummy.
This is-- one of our culinary competition, they really played around with beets, and they made these-- they call them "fire drops," and their ginger beet gummies. And the creativity that we saw with producers was actually really fun.
We also had these rainbow spring rolls in our spring culinary competition. Not bad for institutional food service, right? Last innovation. No one's kind of waving down and saying your time is up, so I'll keep going. How am I doing, Brooke?
MICHELE LEFEBVRE: OK. So dining innovation number three is clean labels. Again, doesn't seem that innovative, but when you think about institutional food service, it is actually pretty innovative. It's not easy to get food that's fresh, that's not in a can. When you're producing this number of meals, it actually can pose a lot of complications.
But with that, we created a logo and a mission. I got my staff really excited. I got the management really excited.
We have chefs that are really buying into this mission of serving whole, minimally processed food. We set some goals, which seem pretty simple. We were already serving the dairy that was our RSBT-free. We focused on the soy. We focused on the colors.
And then this is a very small list of what we did, the changes we had in just 2017. So we focused on breakfast meats. Something as simple as cider vinegar had soy protein. We made the change, we saved over four grand. So again, better food.
Just in 2017 we saved over $30,000. Now, that was-- we didn't focus on doing this in the whole year. The first part of the year was the goals and the mission. So we just started this in 2017. So a good part of the year was setting up the infrastructure for the committee.
We saved over $30,000. We haven't tallied it up this year, but I'm going to tell you, we're actually having some significant savings and we're feeling really good about the food that we're serving at this point as well. That's it. Thank you so much, guys.
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Michele Lefebvre, Director of Nutrition Management, Cornell Dining, speaks about dining innovations in campus food service, including unique and successful programs at Cornell. The talk was part of the Healthy Futures Roundtable held on October 10th, 2018.