A Discussion About Dickinson Dining

Michaela Shaw ‘16 spoke with Errol Huffman, the new Director of Dining Services, to discuss the recent changes to the Dining Hall, as well as his plans for the future.

Michaela Shaw: To start, could you give me a brief overview of the changes that have been implemented in the Dining Hall?

Errol Huffman: We’ve gone back to serving the food from the hot counter. That [change] was to address sanitation, hygiene and appearance issues, as well as the quality control and temperature and just the overall goodness of the food. The last aspect was to improve the speed of service, which has improved quite a bit. Looking at what we did in December with the students serving themselves versus what we’re doing now, we’re up to a minute less knocked off the time during busy periods for students to get through the line, so we’re moving much more quickly. We [also] added a hot entrée and a hot soup to grab-and-go at lunch time, I’ve got plans to expand that to two entrees and two soups in the coming weeks, and then to eventually expand that to [a] dinner time option. To go hand in hand with that, we’ve introduced eco-containers. We have sustainable, reusable containers, and we have a nickel exchange program, so students can pick up their food, take that with them, and bring [the container] back to one of the door checkers and get a wooden nickel in exchange. We [then] will run the soup pail or dinner box through the dishwasher, make sure it’s clean and sanitized. It’s not been a widely published or generalized aspect yet but we’re going to go ahead and accept those ecotainers at Union Station and at the Quarry.

M.S: You described the reasons behind some of the changes; what was your reasoning behind the hot food in grab and go? Is it a starting point for a larger take-out system?

E.H: That is a solution. In a cafeteria that’s all you care to eat it’s difficult to be able to say how you’re going to divide up [meals for] a student… How do you differentiate between grabbing the food and sitting down to eat in a dining room versus getting the takeout box and leaving the cafeteria… [to] eat your food? How do I address the situation when a student sits down and eats a full meal, then they go and they get a carry-out box and fill it with yet another full meal, and then carry it out for another purpose? We’d have to drag up the entire food cost of the meal plan from that food consumption, and I’d almost have to double it – it would be over one and a half times what the meal plan costs now, without data to be sure that we captured the costs that would be related to these carry out containers.

M.S: How have these changes been received, and how has it gone from your perspective?

E.H: From my perspective, it has all gone very well – we haven’t run into too many hiccups. [As for] the serving – I’ve gotten feedback from two ways. About twenty or thirty napkins have made it up on the board saying, “stop serving us.” We could spend all day talking about why none of that makes sense or how I dispute that. In general, the anecdotal evidence I’ve gotten from line supervisors and from students in the cafeteria itself is that they like it. I’m getting good feedback about how speed of service has improved, and improvement in the quality, which is a perception piece – we haven’t changed any recipes, we haven’t changed any preparation, but what we have done is improve the appearance and the quality control of what’s being placed on the counter. Grab and Go is a slow start. I started that on purpose with a soft opening and not broad distribution of advertising. I thought I would I see how that would go for the beginning days, and it really picked up fairly quickly. We’ve had more and more interest in that with each day.

M.S: What has been the response to the hot food in Grab N’ Go?

E.H: The soup is really the most popular thing – with the cold weather, it makes a lot of sense. It’s menu driven, depending on what we have, as we are able to expand our capabilities and add a second entrée that might tell us what people are liking or not liking. We’re limited to one entrée or one hot soup at the moment. We’ve got to work out a couple of kinks here and there but we’re trying to see what the acceptability is, and I think that it’s there.

M.S: Moving forward, what are your priorities, and what can students expect to see next?

E.H: I’ve met with a couple of folks from the Student Senate, and we’re going to look at putting together a food advisory council or dining advisory council, which will be a mix of one half student representation, and one half faculty or staff. The staff will be representatives from the dining administration, [so that] we have some different perspectives talking about all things Dining Services. We’ll be … talking about relocation of facilities, what’s important to the students, if we had a renovation in the facility what we would like to see done with the cafeteria. I’m working on some other things and trying to find capital funding and ways that we can work on budgeting so that we can make improvements to the facilities. But to the greater end, it’s going to come back to the Student [Senate] to come up with the ideas that drive our future. I am trying to look at some more creative ways of handling our menu planning, we’ve got a really fantastic creative team so I’m not saying that we don’t have good entrée planning, but we’re looking at some other things.

M.S: What are your over arching goals for Dining Services, and do you think those goals are attainable?

E.H: I think our goals are attainable in time. My biggest goal is getting funding for a renovation – the cafeteria is in major need of a new look and I think the last time it was renovated was in 1993. I’m working on some plans and I think President Roseman has been very supportive of this idea… And again, starting with the students, [my goal is] developing a picture that makes some sense of what we’re going to do. I can imagine all kinds of fun pieces, but what I do envision us doing is bringing our production forward to the students. That [way], you have more interaction with our chefs, and they with you, and there’s something fun about seeing your food being prepared and knowing exactly where it’s coming form. I don’t think there’s any issue with the variety of products that are offered, or the types of cuisine, and I think our executive chef and associate director Jack [O’Donnell] does a great job writing up menus… Those are great things we’re going to continue on and try to improve, and involve students more and more in our cuttings and tastings and samplings of our products and new recipes.