President, NACUFS; Director of Campus Dining and Catering, University Housing & Dining Services, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
Among the more innovative segments of foodservice is college and university dining. That has never been more true as higher education dining managers were forced to quickly pivot over the past two years as large student populations had to be fed. For some it was how to feed students in quarantine, while others handled the quick return of students to campus life.
With that in mind, Total Food Service wanted to get a read on what’s next from NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Service). At the association’s recent annual convention in Spokane, WA, we were able to visit with the newly elected NACUFS president, Kerry Paterson.
The veteran University Housing & Dining Services executive came to Oregon State University in 2013. Paterson has more than 25 years of culinary experience and started his career in New Zealand where he trained in culinary arts. Kerry came to Oregon State after 13 years of experience and leadership as an executive chef and an assistant director of dining services at University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.
While at OSU, Kerry Paterson has brought innovation to the Corvallis, OR campus that includes the use of food delivery robots in full service dining. With that in mind, TFS visited with Paterson to get his perspective on “what’s next” in campus dining.
Can you talk about your background?
I was born and raised in New Zealand. Studied culinary in New Zealand. Worked as a chef in various locations worldwide, including a Michelin Star restaurant in England. Been in the USA for just under 30 years and have been in College & University foodservice for the past 21 years. 12 years at the University of Colorado – Boulder as the Associate Director Dining: Culinary/Executive Chef. Came to Oregon State late 2013 to take on the role of Director of Campus Dining & Catering.
What lead to the opportunity at Oregon State?
After working for a number of years at UC-Boulder as an associate director, I realized my next move may be at another university. When the position of director of campus dining and catering at Oregon State opened up, I decided this would be a good move for me. So, I put my name forward. I knew a bit about OSU’s food service operation and its high standards. The campus visits during the interview process confirmed this; it was a good move for me.
When did you get involved with NACUFS?
I first became involved with NACUFS via the Culinary Challenge. I competed in the regional challenge held at the University of Northern Colorado in 2002. From there, I have held various volunteer positions over the years up to and including my current role within the organization.
How has NACUFS helped you grow?
NACUFS has allowed me to develop a network of peers to utilize for support and as a knowledge bank. It has educated me on a number of various topics over the years, including food trends, culinary and leadership skills, and construction and renovation trends. It has given me access to a large base of vendors for knowledge on the latest
food trends and insights on new ingredients/products.
Can you share what the last 3 years have been like through the pandemic?
The past few years have been tough (as a result of the pandemic), requiring a lot of quick thinking and the need for flexibility. A major focus within OSU Campus Dining and Catering has been around finding solutions that contribute to staff safety and wellness while at the same time taking care of our students, some of whom may have remained on campus due to travel restrictions. As more students returned to campus last year, staffing shortages placed pressure on our operations and employees. Providing food and service to meet students’ needs during so many staffing shortages has been a challenge.
How has student dining evolved through the pandemic?
The pandemic has allowed food service operators to reset their operations to meet the changing needs of students and the campus environment. We have sought to find the right balance between correct staffing levels, taking care of students’ dietary needs, utilizing technology to assist where needed, and moving slightly towards value-added products to reassign staff to other areas. At the same time, students are returning to campuses to enjoy the “on-campus” experience. They are looking at moving away from classes offered remotely by Zoom and other services. They want to be in the community again and connect with fellow students and professors to form lifetime memories around the campus experience. Dining plays a major role in that.
Do you find that your OSU student population would like to eat healthier fare?
Overall, yes. More and more students are following a vegetarian/vegan diet or increasing their focus on vegetables. Serving vegetables within our breakfast serving lines is becoming more and more popular and in demand from students.
Where does plant-based fit on your menus?
Our use of plant-based meat products is limited and will continue to be evaluated based on student feedback and demand. We serve three to four plant-based meat alternatives on our menus and for use as an ingredient. Plant Forward is an area the OSU continues to focus on, offering more and more vegetable-based menu items. We endeavor to move more and more of our menus to being focused on vegan offerings and even Gluten-Free Friendly and having additional side items so students can build their meals to suit their dietary needs. For example, add cheese or egg for a vegetarian meal or animal protein as needed.
Talk about the team that you have built at OSU?
The OSU team is great, and we wouldn’t have survived these past few years without team members’ dedication, flexibility, and desire to serve our customers. They have continued to grow both their technical and soft skill sets over the years, allowing us to continue to move forward with our food service and catering vision and goals.
During the pandemic, the team showed great flexibility and tolerance to continual change. Adapting where needed but always keeping the success of students first.
I ask that question because I would like your thoughts on the opportunities that college and university dining present?
I see this question as having two parts to it. From the student and campus point of view, dining allows students to connect. It allows an area to create or come into the community around a dining table. Dining is an area where a lot of experiences outside of the classroom can be gained, including work ethics and leadership skills. These skills can be gained from working within dining services; learning healthy eating habits as students select their food options during each meal period; and learning about food in general.
From the employee’s point of view, campus dining allows food service employees to work in a stable environment and offers a work/life balance. It is a work environment where your food service job can become a career and is a place to grow personally and work within a diverse team. As a culinarian working in this environment, the rotating menus and international food service styles offered by campus dining programs allow a chef to be exposed to a lot of variety.
What were your takeaways from this year’s NACUFS conference in Spokane?
NACUFS 2020 National Conference offered a lot of great sessions overall and challenged my thinking in several areas. Learning about the upcoming Generation Alpha was very eye-opening. It made me think about what campus dining may need to look like as the next generation of students starts coming to campus towards the end of this decade. Plant-based alternatives were definitely a focus from our industry partners, and a lot of great offerings are available to suit a multitude of different programs. Learning that staffing shortages are an issue facing nearly everyone to some degree or another was valuable. I always am impressed to see that campus dining operators are very diverse on multiple levels.
As you take the reins of NACUFS, what are the highlights of your agenda?
To continue to have the board work strategically to make NACUFS a better association for all. Our new strategic plan has four initiatives:
- Learning and Professional Development
- Communications and Public Relations
- Member Engagement
By focusing on these four areas, we really can make NACUFS a strong association that supports and promotes excellence in collegiate dining and offers value to our members to transform the campus community experience.
Any thoughts on the pros and cons of self-operated vs. contract food service?
Campus dining programs come in various shapes and sizes that require a variety of management styles to support these programs. Both management styles have, as you say, pros and cons around how they offer value to students or campus administrators. Dining is and will continue to be an important piece of the on-campus experience, and each campus will need to evaluate what it feels is the best program for its students.
Curious to get your read on how kitchen equipment has evolved to support the volume demand that you and many of your members face every day?
The equipment world continues to evolve year over year. Environmental issues play a greater part in what equipment is selected. As food service providers or campuses start talking about moving away from gas as an energy source or for cooking – and wanting more electric-powered equipment, the industry is going to need to respond. Food safety continues to be an important factor. It’s great to see equipment that supports students’ desire to customize meals. For example, sauté stations that are able to be placed right into the serving lines. Hot and cold holding cases that provide better environments to support food quality. We are seeing new equipment being offered to support students’ needs for speed, convenience, and transparency. These include food lockers, mobile ordering platforms, and digital labeling systems.