Aside from its academic prominence and world-famous football team, there are a number of attributes that set Notre Dame apart, many of which can be found within its innovative foodservice program, according to Mike Davy, manager of continuous improvement for Notre Dame Food Services.
There are 29 residence halls on Notre Dame’s campus in northern Indiana. More than 80 percent of the 11,500-plus students enrolled in the university live in one of those residence halls and therefore require a meal plan. This puts a significant amount of responsibility onto Notre Dame’s two dining halls.
Collectively, the dining halls serve an average of 8,000 meals each day and more than 2 million meals annually. Aside from being a place to get delicious, healthy food, they are meant to function as an “extension of a social space,” Davy explains. “It’s like having dinner with your family. That’s how the university would like it to be. Whatever we do, we approach it in that fashion.”
Endless Service Offerings
In addition to the dining halls, Notre Dame has 18 separate retail units situated throughout campus that average more than 9,000 transactions daily. Within its student center is an operation called “The Huddle,” which houses four national retail brands and a self-branded convenience store. The rest of Notre Dame’s retail operations are self-branded, Davy says. Half of them are Monday-through-Friday operations serving breakfast and lunch to students, faculty and visitors.
About a year ago, Notre Dame Food Services repositioned one of those operations, Greenfields International Cafe, to feature an all-healthy, seasonal menu utilizing as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The Greenfields concept is intertwined with the university’s health and wellness initiative, and the restaurant often hosts special events featuring nutritionists who lecture on improving one’s eating habits.
Notre Dame also operates a casual-dining restaurant and pub called The Legends of Notre Dame Restaurant and Ale House Pub with the Legends Nightclub on the other side of the same building that features entertainment acts such as DJs, comedians and live bands. “Although those two operations are separate budget entities, there is profit-sharing in the sense that anything we make on the restaurant and pub side from the general public goes to support student programming on the club side,” Davy says.
“We have an excellent geographic distribution of these retail units,” he adds. “A number of them are in academic or office buildings. Strategically, certain locations on campus cater to a neighborhood, so we have an excellent capture rate of revenue per student. We know we’re being efficient and that we have a strong financial return.”
Last but not least, Notre Dame operates one of the largest and most diverse on-campus catering programs in the U.S. college and university market, Davy attests. “It’s amazing the extent of their business,” he remarks. “They book over 8,000 events annually that could range from coffee and donuts delivered to a meeting to dinner for 4,000.”
For the past 14 years, every single Notre Dame foodservice operation has functioned through a centralized warehouse distribution and food production network that serves as its internal primary vendor, Davy says. “For commodity items, it makes sense to buy a full truckload of a particular item and warehouse it rather than have our individual units get weekly or semi-weekly deliveries,” he explains. “It gives us an economy of scale.”
Its food production capabilities include a bakery, a butcher shop and a produce-processing unit, as well as a cook-and-chill operation and special assembly functions such as prepackaging its own meats and cheeses. “Rather than each operation producing their own soups for the day, those are produced centrally, distributed and re-thermed in a finishing kitchen,” Davy says.
The university is passionate about reducing its environmental footprint, he adds. More than 40 percent of its recyclable items are diverted from landfills. “We feel pretty good about that,” he admits. “Where it makes sense, we try to introduce sustainability-produced items, which include organic brands as well as local foods. In addition to that, I believe we were the first college and university foodservice program to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a program that certifies the chain of custody of seafood.”
More than 44 percent of its $5.5 million annual food purchases are locally sourced, meaning they come from Indiana or the states immediately surrounding it. Recently, Notre Dame facilitated a grassroots effort with other like-minded Indiana colleges and universities called the Indiana College and University Food Alliance. “Folks like Purdue University, Indiana University and ourselves got together to look for ways we can be better environmental stewards,” Davy says. “That’s an ongoing development.”
Notre Dame values its allegiance with other academic institutions in Indiana just as much as it cherishes its partnerships with vendors and suppliers, whether they are local organic producers or powerful international brands. For example, the university has had a longstanding relationship with Coca-Cola. The corporate giant’s former president and COO, Donald R. Keough, is chairman emeritus of the university’s board of trustees and a life trustee of Notre Dame.
“We work together to promote Coca-Cola products in our operations and have always had a great relationship with them,” Davy says.
“We like to say we are a customer-driven organization,” he continues. “That’s the key to our success and a building block to the reputation we currently enjoy. We always look for opportunities to give our customers what they are looking for, and oftentimes that happens by partnering with our vendors, whether local distributors or international brands like Coke.”
Notre Dame often introduces new food items in its dining halls per customer request. In the past year-and-a-half, it has introduced four ethnic-inspired menu lines to its program including a Vietnamese noodle shop or “Pho Bar,” as well as Mediterranean, Indian and Korean dishes. “We have a test kitchen – which is unique for a college foodservice operation – where we develop a menu and recipes, and test them in our dining halls,” Davy says. “We feel it’s a good way to provide additional variety to our students.”
Notre Dame also has begun implementing cutting-edge foodservice technologies to engage its student customers. “We recently incorporated QR codes on our dining hall line cards that will link students to our nutritional website,” Davy says.
“If you continuously find out what your customers want or need and how your markets may be changing, then you can develop a strategic plan and use it as a road map,” he continues. “Truly, we focus on quality, safety and service, and those are three things you have to have to be successful in the college foodservice market.”