Kirk Rodriguez worked his way through the ranks at Texas Tech University throughout the past 24 years. He started as a hospitality student and climbed the ladder of the foodservice department to managing director of hospitality services.
He was instrumental in developing the university's full-scale retail program and overhauling dining services, which now include multiple food courts, mini markets, kiosks, franchise concepts and food trucks, as well as healthy catering. Rodriguez oversees a $40 million foodservice operation and manages more than1,000 employees.
FE&S: Retail seems to be the wave of the future for many college campuses and Texas Tech has been a leader. What are you doing to maintain and improve upon your services?
KR: There are certainly colleges and universities that are still passionate about all-you care-to-eat programs, but retail is the way to go now. Our students were very vocal about wanting more retail options about 12 years ago.
We have an on-campus population of 7,300, but 36,500 students come on the campus every day for classes, so we compete heavily with off-campus restaurants. Bringing in more franchised brands was part of our renovation. And most of our students eat throughout the day rather than have a traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner so having a robust grab-and-go program is important. Our production kitchen handles the grab-and-go items for all of our kiosks and retail locations across the campus but most of the retail sites have their own kitchens. Most of our operations are open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
FE&S: As director of hospitality services, what is your day-to-day like?
KR: Well, that's the reason I've been here as long as I have — no day is the same. We're about building people and relationships and developing our future leaders of tomorrow.
We have 22 physical locations with over 50 concepts around campus so it takes me the entire week to get from one place to another, but I like to say I try to make it to all of them.
FE&S: How do you collect feedback and engage students in dining services?
KR: We're a big self-operated school, which is another one of those things that continues to be more prevalent among universities these days. Some universities think that the education of their students is most important and will farm out foodservice, but we believe this is an important piece of student development and we contribute significantly by being a part of the student experience.
We have used mediums to engage with students, such as student government, residence hall associations, and even menu committees with students working with our on-staff dietitian. In fact, our dietitian regularly meets with our students to get feedback and develop new menu offerings.
FE&S: Customization and variety seem to be very important to college students these days. How do you cater to that?
KR: Most of our concepts offer some form of customization, from pizzas to sandwiches, salad concepts, Mexican concepts, grilled cheese bars, baked potato bars, and yogurt bars. We also have a breakfast burrito bar that's open all day. We've been down the road where we offer a set menu, but we realize not everyone eats the same way or likes the same thing. We find much more success in making customers happy, but also in bringing them back if we allow them to customize their orders.
FE&S: How has this customization impacted equipment selection?
KR: We build our concepts such that we can change them relatively easy. We have made a huge investment in hot and cold technology. If we need hot wells one day, or cool wells the next, we can switch them easily.
All of our serving lines are very open and it's easy for the customer to interact with staff and see what we're producing. We're very hands-on when it comes to projects — we get very involved in the design and interaction between customer and employee.
FE&S: How do you leverage technology to fit your customers' needs?
KR: Last spring we introduced a new online and app ordering platform that has been very successful. No one likes to wait in line. As students walk from one class to another they can use the app to place — and even pay — for their order and the app sends a notification when their order is ready for pickup. We often have a space where we have segregated those orders so they don't even have to get in a line.
There is no mistaking that during peak periods before we had the ordering app I know we were losing people because the lines were too long, or it took too long to get your food so our students would run to the nearest fast-food restaurant. This app has solved some of those problems for us. We can even use the app to notify students about special buying offers and incentives to get them to use our services. Now we're looking at more kiosk ordering.
FE&S: Where do you see the future of foodservice in the college/university sector?
KR: Certainly we're seeing more globalization of food and concepts. Millennials were probably the first group to show interest in global cuisines, but Gen Z students are the same way. This has to be a part of your menu and discussions.
I'm seeing more inclusiveness and a coming together of people from different cultures and backgrounds. This
has a huge influence on the overall range of our concepts. Also, students want better food, faster. So the question is, how do you do it all? Because you have to do it all to stay competitive.