As the senior director of Hospitality Services at NC State Dining, the foodservice arm of North Carolina State University, Randy Lait oversees a $46 million budget with annual sales volume at $49 million. The dining program serves 31,000 meals per day and employs 150 full-time employees and more than 1,000 part-time employees.
Lait was recognized with a 2019 IFMA Silver Plate Award. He also recently accepted a new role at NC State leading the administrative services group for Campus Enterprises, with responsibilities for finance, accounting, human resources and information technology for the division.
Lait and the dining services team have created a full spectrum of dining services, including three all-you-care-to-eat dining halls and three additional buildings with multiple foodservice operations spanning from convenience stores, a private fine-dining club and retail operations. The dining services arm also includes full-service catering, food trucks and concessions for football, basketball, and track and field.
Dining services also creates training meals exclusively for student athletes that focus on performance-enhancing nutrition. Football players, for example, eat what’s dubbed as training table meals in the dining room at the Murphy Football Center, where the team works out, studies, rehabs, etc.
Q: What is your secret to successfully introducing 12 new dining venues in a 2-year period?
A: I wish there was a secret or easy way to do it. The team put in a lot of hard work and there was a lot of planning, discussion, agreement, disagreement and decisions. I tend to be a big-picture thinker and I could see we needed to carefully coordinate a number of foundational elements to work together positively when the timelines all met.
We designed the foodservice layouts with the architects, but at the same time, we studied our meal plans to determine what price points could be supported in the new locations. We also determined how the menus needed to be built to maximize our effectiveness and what kind of culinary talent we would need to achieve our goals for fresh, healthy and sustainable recipes in these new locations. We built a pro forma for each operation with customer counts per daypart, average checks, food cost percentages and the person-hours per week that could be sustained by sales. In the end, we had pretty good plans for the new venues and most of our work was on target.
Q: How do you stay on budget and still accomplish so much?
A: One key to staying within a budget is to have a reasonable expectation for performance and to avoid surprises. We have been fortunate to have a strong meal plan program that continues to grow year after year, both in price point and in the number of plans purchased. This has helped fuel solid revenue growth for the department, which in turn generates resources that can be used to make other improvements, which in turn generates more revenues.
We have been in an upward spiral for many years in a row, and this year, we will finish with record meal plan sales and record customer satisfaction scores.
Q: Talk about your focus on health and nutrition.
A: NC State University is very focused on student success, both academically and in life. Our hope is to teach our students about making healthy choices during their time here, so when they go out into the world, they will be armed with great knowledge so they can achieve a long, healthy and prosperous life. We also have followed the emerging issues related to food allergies and can see parallels between how vegetarian preferences years ago were addressed and how food allergy issues are addressed today.
In the old days, dining responded to a vegetarian request at a banquet by leaving the chicken off the plate. Today, we plan beautiful vegetarian dishes that are popular with everyone. With food allergies, the need to be precise with ingredient information and food handling to prevent cross-contamination is much greater.
Along the way, we discovered an unexpected benefit of being precise with food allergy support. We found that our dietitians can easily spot recipe errors that show up in the nutrition content for recipes. As recipes are corrected for ingredient weights and measures, yields, and allergen traits, the recipes become very accurate. Accurate recipes are key to proper costing, ordering and retail price setting. As our recipe database became precise, our margins improved and food waste was reduced.
So, that said, I measure success in this area both in tightly controlled food costs and in the pleasure we get when parents and students reach out about food allergies and we can share with them all of the ways we are transparent with the information about what is in our food, making it safe for them to eat without isolation.
Q: How did expanding your involvement in culinary arts change the NC State Dining program?
A: I started in computer science at NC State and then changed majors, ending up with degrees in economics and business management, so I think I always had a mind for technology, logic and numbers. I found that our department tended to reflect my own focus when I was the business manager. We were pretty good at logistics, technology and handling our money but just OK with our approach to culinary. We were really proud that we had a single professionally trained chef on our staff.
When I became the director of dining, I knew we had to also become great at food, an area in which I was not personally strong. I created a new leadership position for our culinary program and we shifted our focus in full-time staff development to elevate our culinary talent. I’m proud to say now we have 27 professionally trained chefs on our staff, including 8 certified executive chefs.
Q: How have your equipment choices supported operations?
A: Picking the right equipment can make a huge difference in a unit’s success. While I would like to say I have always made smart decisions, the truth is, we purchased next-generation cooking equipment that simplified production for the staff, used less utilities and yielded better food, but we also made mistakes along the way. For instance, we purchased a few large pieces that were difficult for the staff to master and were hard to maintain in working order. Eventually, we had to face facts and make a change in favor of equipment that could make us more effective.
Q: What stands out in terms of technology within NC State Dining?
A: Our experience with launching a mobile ordering app on our campus has been the fastest customer adoption of technology I have ever seen. In our student union, about half of all orders now come in via mobile devices. A geomap shows where people are when they order and we see orders being placed from residence halls, buses and just a few feet from the register. Mobile ordering is a game changer for the industry and it will be interesting to see it develop.
Another important piece of technology for us is how we use our food production database as the single source of truth about our recipes and ingredients, and we connect that data to customer-facing interfaces to communicate nutrition data, ingredient information and food allergy information.
The next area we are just beginning to explore is how to better utilize the data we have in our various systems. We have been able to run the canned reports from individual systems and make use of those. But what can we learn when we connect data from multiple systems together? I recently used a program to link tables containing student campus housing assignments, class rank and meal plan data to examine how they may impact student choices regarding the dining program on campus. It is challenging because this is not something we are inherently skilled at, but it gets a little easier with each report we create.
Q: What changes are coming on the NC State campus?
A: We are actively engaged in campus planning activities for the development of new residence halls and, with those, the planning of residential dining facilities. We are excited about the potential to build one or two significant new facilities in a few years.