This interview with Gene Kellogg, a food industry pro, explains how college and university food service came to be one of the most dynamic culinary spaces in the U.S.

From his first college “feed” as a student at Illinois State University in 1966 right up until his most recent on-campus dining “experience,” Gene Kellogg, President of ECS Consulting, is a true college foodservice pro with an unparalleled career. Gene gave me some of his time in a recent phone interview. We talked about his perspectives on the different forces and trends that have shaped this industry over the past 50 years. Join our conversation!

Before All-You-Can-Eat, or Any-Time Dining… long before wood-fired pizza or Mongo grill stir-fry… and back when Asian meant chop suey and Italian was spaghetti with meat sauce… the closest thing we ever had to a “dining experience” was that rare shout from the steam table server “seconds!” And that meant you had actually risked “firsts!”

College foodservice

How did it all start, for you and the industry?

After college, Gene said his career choices were either to go to work for State Farm insurance as an actuary, or run a restaurant for his college pizza-place boss. He chose food over statistics, and after a couple of years he landed in college food service with Saga, one of the first contract foodservice companies, in 1973. Saga was founded back in 1948 by Bill Scandling and two college buddies when the cafeteria at Hobart College went broke and had to close. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it was gobbled up by Marriott in 1986. Which in turn was acquired by Sodexo in ‘97.

In the 50s and 60s, contract managed college foodservice was very small (compared to today) and had about one fourth of the market (it’s half the market now). Contract managed programs were mostly in small, private colleges. Self-ops (that means colleges where they operate the dining services themselves) dominated in terms of volume, but lagged behind in terms of attractive program features. Everything was about economies of scale and missed meal factors.

When Gene joined Saga in 1973, there were about 500–600 colleges contracted to Saga and ARA (now Aramark.) This total increased to about nearly 700 contract managed schools by the end of the 70’s, as outsourcing became a buzz-word among college administrators, especially financial officers. By 1998 Marriott was the largest foodservice contract management company in the US, Aramark was #2, and Compass was #3. But self-operated dining management still dominated the larger public universities in all but a couple of states.

After the Marriott merger, Gene moved up the career ladder into senior management positions in sales, business development, strategic planning, and eventually heading up Marriott Consulting. Shortly after Marriott sold all of its contract management business to Sodexo, after 28 years in contracting, Gene formed his own consultancy, ECS, in 2001.  ECS was dedicated to assisting self-ops with Marriott-like solutions, best practices, and management and information systems.

College foodservice

How has contract dining improved over the years?

In a phrase, it’s gone from ‘mystery meat’ to world-class fare.

Back in the 60’s, 70’s, and even into the 80’s there were very few college dining features that were appealing. The phrase ‘institutional food’ was a fitting term.

The image of the long stainless steel counters and steam table seems was so prevalent you could cut and paste a cafeteria from one school to another without anyone noticing…“the steam table: clouds billowing up around trays of mystery meats, ghosts of vegetables past and other indescribables” is a quote from an old New York Times article about college dining. (J. Probber, NY Times, 1987)

Old style college cafeteria

One of the first major innovations to college foodservice was their introduction of ‘all you can eat’. All the contractors copied this popular feature where quality was offset by quantity. Food was just fuel and calories – it wasn’t experiential. All-you-can-eat caught on slowly with self-ops but by the mid-70’s it had become a standard in all college food service.

The next two big new meal plan and dining program modifications arrived at nearly the same time as the 80’s rolled in. One was renovated cafeterias from straight line to food court models. The problem here was cost. The other new idea, which didn’t catch on as strongly as food courts, was around transactions and payments methods. The concept of declining dollars, (essentially a debit card), was introduced. This made it possible for the creation of a retail environment with many different food options that students could shop from with their declining dollar accounts. This also helped cover up weak programs and missed meals, two problems that the student diners of the later eighties were making noise about; and more and more campus administrators wanted solutions from their food service managers.

Gene tells how Marriott’s research showed that students wanted more choices. Variety became more important. But not just variety, for variety’s sake. Over one million student surveys made it clear that students wanted a variety of things they like, prepared the way they were used to getting in restaurants. You only got points for variety if all the items are also well-made. Students wanted food made fresh, prepared well. College students had become experienced, demanding diners.

So what caused these changes?

After the baby boom generation went through college in the 60’s and 70’s, in the 80’s student populations declined. The student-age population was simply smaller at that period, due to simple demographics. But at the same time, expectations of quality in college foodservice were rising.

In the 60’s and 70’s the baby boom students were often the first generation in their families to have gone to school. Now in the 80’s it was their kids who were going to college. These students’ parents had gone to college and they wanted their kids to have a better college experience than they did.

And often, family incomes were rising as Moms had entered the workforce. And outside of college, consumers were bombarded with the increase of casual dining and many varieties of quick serve food.

Expectations for better food were rising in society overall.

All this meant that both parents and students expected college food to be better…much better! Institutional food wasn’t going to work anymore. College dining operations had to get better in every way. The facilities, the service – and mostly the food. They needed capital. New standards of service. And they had to go out and look for chefs.

College pizza

So why did contract foodservice model grow as an option?

What changed? In a word, demographics. As mentioned above, the baby boom, post-war generation had gone through college and by the ’80s there were simply not as many students. This generated much stronger competition among like colleges. Tuition discounting was rising. Colleges began to have budget challenges. And facilities were showing their age. Everyone needed capital for upgrades and renovations. States also had budget challenges, which affected the state schools as well.

This made it more challenging for many self-operated college foodservice operation to be profitable, to cover rising employee benefits, and to fund renovations without adding to college debt-service.  This opened the door for the contract companies with fat check-books, and in some cases better dining programs. In some cases, not all.

What’s the answer – contract management vs self-op?

There is usually a best direction to go. Most colleges have answered this question. To outsource or remain self-op? Each year another half-dozen or so colleges examine their options. If they do a thorough unbiased assessment, looking not just at short-term financial windfalls, but at the 5–10 year forecasts; and include of the program delivery and support factors, then the right answer can be found.

Sometimes contract is the best solution, sometimes not.

Some campuses will always be better off running the dining services themselves.

Here is what Gene thinks after close to twenty years or more on both sides.

There’s nothing a contractor can do that a self-op can’t do. If they have access to the right resources. Such as: culinary expertise, capital, IT systems and support. Marketing, back-office, consulting expertise, design help, best practices, and assessment.

If they recruit and keep top managers and chefs and have the support of the administration, a college can run a dining program that is as good as a contract-managed one — in many cases much better. And a well managed dining program can create a positive cash flow for the college.

This depends on whether the college administrators realize the key role foodservice plays and gives the dining operation what they ask for.

On the other hand, if campus auxiliaries management have milked the dining program over a period of time, without reinvesting in its own program, then it can sometimes reach the point where it’s difficult to bring it back.

A lot of it has to do with the campus culture of a school. A very valid position is where the school says, “we’re educators and researchers and we want to focus on that. We don’t want to focus on auxiliary services like dining.” So this is a candidate to contract the dining out.

And often, it’s simply about inertia; if it is being done one way, (self-op or contracted out) that is likely to continue.

Contracting is not the right answer for everyone. And equally, self-op is not the right answer for everyone.

College foodservice hamburger

What is the current state of college food service?

In the present day, expectations of students continue to rise higher and higher. If the food isn’t really good, students will walk away, or worse still, tweet about it.

Many students, by the time they get to college, have tried just about everything; their tastes are often more sophisticated than the faculties’. They have high expectations, from the food quality and variety, to its sustainability, to how it’s presented and the dining facilities.

What is wanted now are a big authentic flavors, more ever-changing variety, (African, Moroccan, Asian, vegan, etc.). Also mixed with good old-fashioned comfort food like burgers and pizza. You don’t get points for only having new items, unless the basics are also done well.

The biggest difference between college dining and street dining, is that on a college campus, it’s all you can eat, as often as you want to come. Literally every kind of food you can find in restaurants is available. Obviously some items just don’t fit a college budget, but usually something just as popular is offered. Ask a street restaurant chef to make his or her menu available all-you-can-eat. It’s hard.

It is much harder to create a large variety and quantity of great tasting food and dining experiences for several thousand people on a college campus than for a few hundred people in a restaurant.

College foodservice

So which is the harder job for a chef or a manager? A college program or a restaurant?

Gene’s answer is that most any campus dining chef or manager can succeed in the restaurant world, but many restauranteurs would struggle in campus dining.

Students want what they want, prepared the way they want it, when they want it…and, oh yes, as much as they want.

To meet these challenges, college dining has attracted a lot of top talent, and now some of the best chefs and managers are in the college dining industry.

Thank you to Gene for his time and for helping me, and I hope you,  to understand how and why this dynamic industry has evolved to where it is now.

College library