Cooking for Profit Feature
Bon Appetit at Whittier College
by Jeanne Graff
Reprinted with permission
"Cooking For Profit Magazine,"
October 15, 2001 Issue"
Turn back the clock to 1897. A gathering of educators, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), set about establishing an institution of higher learning in the then tiny community of Whittier, California. Lofty though their ideals may have been, they could not have known that their Whittier College would, more than a century later, be found by U. S. News & World Report to hold the distinction of being “the most diverse institution of its kind in America.”
Diversity didn’t apply to higher education then. Education was almost synonymous with male and, economics factoring in, white was understood. But the Society of Friends had its own ideas and ideals. Their basic tenet, the welcoming acceptance of human differences, seemed to anticipate the ethnic and racial diversity the Los Angeles area would experience over the years. Today, Whittier, with an enrollment of 1,350, has representation from all races and nationalities that make up this country and, as if on cue, students from Europe, Asia, Africa and South and Central America gravitate to its campus.
This very diversity was a major factor in Whittier’s choosing Bon Appetit Management Company when Whittier went looking for a replacement for its long-time, ready-to-retire foodservice director, Ed Thorpe. Thorpe had run The Campus Inn for years, and his would be big shoes to fill. Bon Appetit, one of four contenders for the operation, scored when Whittier administration realized this firm wasn’t just a contract management company in there to run a cafeteria. Here was a custom restaurant service, one that would tailor its menu to client preferences. Bon Appetit could and would meet the many ethnic differences that came together on the Whittier campus, meet them with the same care and attention that launched Bon Appetit’s success seven years earlier. That’s when the San Francisco catering firm emerged from relative anonymity and went on to provide custom restaurant services to corporate clients. If clients — in Whittier’s case, students — would prefer foods from their homeland or ethnic background, Bon Appetit had the know-what as well as the know-how.
Because Bon Appetit’s major investment is personnel, the first course of action upon winning the bid was finding the right people for the key jobs of general manager and executive chef. This is a tried-and-true strategy the firm has employed at numerous corporate sites, bringing the people who will be doing the jobs into contract negotiations. Where to find them? Either position could be filled from within the company ranks or from a long list of applicants who recognize the many advantages of being part of the Bon Appetit program. Together with the college administration, all facets of the overall job were analyzed — staffing, equipment, hours of operation, plus that basic consideration of presenting foods that recognize and respect Whittier’s student population, where they came from, who they are.David Adkins, Bon Appetit’s general manager at Whittier, said it best: “We can’t apply a prepared menu from, say, Maryland or Alabama and send it to the West Coast or Midwest to utilize it. Nor would we want to. What we do is put together what is best likened to a SWAT team. We come in and interview a client, find out what direction they want us to take. Then we begin our customized approach. This meets their needs much better. That’s why they contacted us in the first place.”
Adkins is a self-described hybrid, a management person who made the move from cooking some years ago. When the transition from one position to the other took place, it was so gradual, he said, as to go unnoticed. He does admit to being very grateful for the time spent training under several chefs at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. This experience has enabled him to interact with the kitchen. His partner, Chef Jaime Macius, has a significant history of culinary successes crowned by the enthusiastic reception of his fare at Whittier.
Together, they work out day-to-day and monthto- month strategies. These strategies include listening with careful ear to student and faculty comments, observing which dishes go over best through the school year. Summers bring a new batch of consumers. That’s when Whittier opens its doors to as few as 80 and as many as 250 people attending camps and seminars. If it’s football camp, that’s one kind of food. If it’s a church camp, the menu is adapted to their preferences. When it’s the International Language School’s ASPECT assembling, it’s high gustatorial adventure.
“We specialize in a variety of cuisines here,” Adkins said. “It’s a very international organization, students from all continents. And our menu reflects that. It’s an objective of the school that our menu does so, not only from a food preference standpoint, but from educational and cultural awareness as well. On any given day, you can see two or three different cuisines represented.”
The variety of menu approaches meets equally well with Whittier staff. Dean of Students David Leonard noted how presentation changed dramatically when Bon Appetit took over. “Diversity in terms of what came to the table, the look, the ambiance, the creation of dishes different from what we’d had ... they’re unique, broad-range.”
Rafael Chebran of Whittier’s outstanding Language Arts Department pointed out the accommodation of menu to student body: “Many other cultures bring dietary preferences and restrictions. Some (of our students) are vegetarian or becoming vegetarian. That’s being met. Now they can go to The Campus Inn and find foods they want. Students from other countries can find foods that look and are familiar to them. It’s all part of the mix of population we have here. Another outstanding feature is the food offered to our Latin American and Asian student populations. These have become adventures for the Americans.”
Understandably, not all 1,350 students take all their meals at The Campus Inn, but those who do constitute a healthy number. Breakfast for 300 is the rule, and lunch and dinner each account for 600 to 800. Breakfast is perhaps the most “standard American” of all the meals served there. Eggs scrambled or otherwise, the customary meats or how about some corned beef hash, cereal hot or dry, potatoes presented in a different way each day and fresh-from-the-gas-oven pastries. Lunch and dinner are where ethnic specialties get their play. One meal may see a tandoori chicken bowl, another a fast steak wrap. Ethnic or otherwise, the meals provide the recommended protein/starch/vegetable combination.
Given the universal appetite of the college-age student, these meals are all-you-can-eat buffet and prove to be the favorite feed. Running a close second to the buffet is the build-your-own-sandwich bar. A third area, MTO (as in made-to-order) features entrée salads, chicken Caesar salads, Asian noodle salads...all good for the lighter diner or one who’s looking at food with health awareness.
There is yet another facet of operation to be dealt with, and that is work area. Adkins said that Whittier, or any other client, contracts with Bon Appetit to produce the food program but also expects it to operate as a technical resource in terms of design and equipment specification.
“That’s a big part of our job here,” he said. “Schools don’t have the national exposure to resources that we do. Where we have upwards of 140 accounts, they have one. Our team of corporate officers is there to help them put together the most efficient kitchen possible for their needs. When we come in and find a less than desirable situation, we put a time line and game plan together to get where we need to be, where they expect us to be. Often, we come in at start-up and help out with design and equipment to fulfill our goal. Many of our management personnel are used in the capacity of kitchen design, and we also have consultants on retainer to help us design and construct.”
As it happens, less was needed for the Whittier operation. The Campus Inn, both dining and food preparation facilities, was “almost new” when Bon Appetit took over. This was the inevitable result of a devastating fire in the late ’80s, requiring The Inn to be rebuilt and demanding food director Thorpe’s outfitting a new kitchen. By and large, Thorpe’s choices met with Adkins and Macius’ approval, but their new menu called for some new equipment.
Southern California Gas Company’s Energy Resource Center (ERC) is located in nearby Downey and there was an open invitation from Consumer Service Manager Melisa Marks to take advantage of the facility. Neither Adkins nor Macius thought in terms of anything except gas equipment. Both have had more than passing familiarity with the shortcomings associated with other fuel sources.
“So Cal Gas’ Energy Resource Center (ERC) is a well-known site, and many concerned operators use its Food Service Facility as a resource to evaluate comparable lines,” Adkins said. “I’ve found that every piece of equipment operates differently, has different applications, so when you go to the Resource Center, you know what your kitchen will have to do, what you want to get out of it and which piece of equipment will fulfill your goals.”
The team utilized the facility to its fullest, testing Whittier’s recipes on a variety of natural gas equipment, finding which models and brands would best meet their time and space limitations, how this piece or that would best serve the needs of a kitchen that, in Adkins’ words, “turned on at 5 o’clock in the morning and shut off at 10 p.m. five years later.”
That’s a big order, but Marks had made all the arrangements and Adkins had lined up an equipment broker to help in making selections. “It’s an educational process, and they worked with me. I thought I knew what I was looking for, but we see three, four, five or six pieces of equipment. Brokers see every piece of equipment, so they know which way to steer you. I was looking for a fryer, and he knew the one I needed. It worked in all given categories — high output, speedy rethermalization, outstanding engineering and construction. That fryer and the rest of the equipment we chose work well together. Our menu is composed of frying, grilling, charbroiling, baking – you name it. We chose equipment to operate like a team.”
The team concept extends to staffing the kitchen and dining room. Putting out upwards of 1,700 meals each week calls for quite a few hands. When asked just how many worked at The Campus Inn, Adkins said, “There are 12 jobs in the kitchen, 10 in the dining room, two bakers and two in the pantry. These people work a five-day, 40-hour week. Twelve jobs times three shifts times seven days...do the math. It’s a big staff, and that doesn’t include the half dozen utility personnel.” Together, Adkins and Macius train their help because, in a very real sense, all food personnel represent Bon Appetit and the management team makes it a point to maintain, not just a good, but a top reputation.
Although Whittier College has long been independent of sectarian control, the school takes pride in its Quaker heritage. That heritage is still expressed in the friendly tone of the campus and in a prevailing concern for the individual and for his or her personal growth within the campus community. In contracting with Bon Appetit, Whittier has seen to the healthful nutrition of its student body and, by happy adaptation, made food part of the international experience to be had there.
Reprinted with permission © "Cooking For Profit Magazine,"
October 15, 2001 Issue"