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Newsmakers: Q&A with UDining President, Kurt Hermanson

Every other week, the Talon invites a member of the Oklahoma Christian University community, a “Newsmaker,” to answer questions about their role on campus.

This week, Kurt Hermanson, the president of UDining, Oklahoma Christian’s food service, answered questions about daily operations for the award-winning cafeteria, the Branch.

How do you think the Branch has changed the UDining experience?

“The Branch has been my dream for 20 years. The old cafeteria was 22 years old when we stopped using it. I was in on three previous remodels in that space — that was probably a 20-30% upgrade. The new Branch is more like a 100% upgrade from what we had before. We were ranked the No. 2 college cafeteria in America for private institutions, and then we won architectural awards for it. It’s night and day difference. I mean that place (the old cafeteria) was so old, so run down, so ancient in almost every way, and we came into a facility (the Branch) that is state of the art, beautiful. Food tastes better when you’ve got it in a place that looks really good. Our staff, I hope, has been super friendly to everybody, because that’s super important to me as well.”

How do you assess university needs and feedback?

“We really value feedback. Years ago, we used to have RA and Hall Director reports. They would come around to every wing of every dorm and every apartment and they (students) would offer their feedback. They would separate it out between maintenance needs, food service, academics, chapel, and that was some of the best feedback we ever got. We also listen to Twitter, Facebook, and we also have a comments section on the UDining website we really listen to. We try to be super reactive. If they ask for something we haven’t had in a while, we will do our best to try and get it ordered, in house and on the menu within two days. We want to make sure students know we’re listening. That’s very important to our business.”

Why do you feel UDining is so important to the campus?

“It’s a lot more than food. We’ve always known that wherever students gather is a big community event. I’ll walk out there some days and just see everybody having a good time. It puts a smile on my face because it’s food, it’s community, it’s friendship—it’s all those things.”

What do you think students should know about the Branch?

“We spend over $6,000 a week on fresh meat—fresh chicken, fresh hamburger meat, fresh beef. It’s never been frozen and comes from a local meat packer—Oklahoma City Meat Company. Any chicken you see that’s not breaded or any meat you see on Five Spice, it’s all fresh. We get four deliveries a week. Before we (UDining) came in 2009, 100% of the food was frozen. Now, probably 80% of the meat we serve is fresh meat. I don’t think anybody really knows that, and it’s super important for our local economy because we use a local meat packer, but it’s also a much better product if it’s never been frozen.”

How do you choose what foods are on the menu each week?

“It’s based on what the students want. Our menus are driven by what the students eat. If there’s something that comes up and hardly anyone eats it, we generally won’t put it back on the menu. We’ll switch it out for something else, something the students like. We’re not a national company, so we don’t have a database that we have to serve. We have 100% flexibility being an independent contractor. All of our menus are student-driven, and they always have been.”

What improvements, if any, are in the works?

“There’s not a lot of things other than menu driven stuff. The facility (the Branch) is state of the art. Chef (Ginger Grey) is really good about consistency, and we have a great staff back there. Visually, the food is very appealing to the eye, which is super important to her and me. We always try and find something that’s trending that we want to throw in. The Pho bowl is a perfect example; that’s been really hot lately. We’re always looking for something new, something different, and those usually are the least eaten because people don’t want to take chances on something new. We have a lot of stuff on Global that, if it’s got a weird name and it’s got something they didn’t recognize, a lot of people just won’t eat it. 

I spend a lot of time back in the dish room watching what comes back because to me that’s an indicator of what people do or don’t like. A lot of times I will go back there and see multiple totally untouched items that people just decided not to eat. That’s probably our biggest challenge—that we have no control over how much students get when they come through the door. If you stand by the exit in the dining room, you’ll see that people have five items stacked up on their tray, and you know they’re not going to eat all of it. Our biggest waste and our biggest cost is food coming back.

What steps is UDining taking to decrease waste?

“We did a weight study the first year we opened the Branch, and it’s unbelievable the amount of waste we have. That is one thing I wish I could change. A couple years ago we asked SGA to see if they could help with that a little, because it really has to come from the student side and not our side, because it will look like we’re trying to save money to make more money. We’re here to serve our students and the faculty and staff. Yes, we have to make a profit, but unlike the bigger companies that really want to stick it to the students, we don’t do that. We’re here because you guys are here, and if you don’t like what we’re doing, then we’re probably not going to be here.”

What does a typical week look like for the UDining staff in terms of menus and meals? 

“Generally, we prep it (the menu) a full day ahead on everything that doesn’t affect the quality and everything else is prepared that day. We probably have six different menu cycles we use. We try to rotate in at least a four week cycle, and like I said, if we find something that isn’t liked, she (Chef Grey) will pull it off the cycle and put a new menu item in. I don’t know that we’ve ever run the same week twice in a semester. It’s a student driven choice. That’s how we determine what’s going to be on the next week’s menu. It’s super easy to find out what they like—between going to the dish room and seeing what’s coming back, plus the number of students that partake in a certain item drives what we do next time it comes up.”

How will the addition of the new Events Center affect UDining?

“The goal is that the new event center will bring in a tremendous amount of business from the community. It will also help you guys (students) because if that starts to really do well, we get to lower our prices for students on our meal plans which is the goal.”

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