the physics of institutional food service

Gastronaut 8

Commons: The physics of institutional food service

There has been a sizable amount of commons-bashing in the Quest, and most of it is legitimate. I do believe, however, you, dear readers, could use a few insights about the realities of food service, or more specifically, institutional food service.

In a restaurant, any restaurant, the chef, management and staff have a large amount of control over their interaction with the public: if they run a steakhouse, they run a steak house, if you want pad thai you have to go somewhere else. The staff also controls the number of their customers (well, in a sense) by controlling the number of seats, number of seatings and hours. This amount of control leads to fairly accurate projections about sales and revenue, which in turn, help whoever is responsible for food purchasing to target the appropriate amount of food-stuffs to purchase. This is by no means an exact science, but any good manager has a feel for it.

Institutional food is a different animal entirely. Bon Appetit has to serve everything. They have a captive audience, to some extent, but the fact remains that they must make a serious effort to please every single member of the community. This is exceedingly difficult when each plate is not one-off. One-off food, like a steak at a steakhouse, is made to order. Made-to-order food on an institutional scale is only possible with grill food. I don’t think I have to detail the predictability of grill food. Generations of Reedies have lived on grilled cheese alone, but I can testify that doing this can cause permanent damage to your health. When a kitchen is asked to please everyone, what results is something I will call base level cuisine. Base level cuisine must please the most squeamish and picky eaters: the garlic-phobic, the spice intolerant, the fat averse, the kosher, the vegan, the halal, and that one person we all know that won’t eat anything that jiggles. I remember my commons experience as a love affair with hot sauce and ketchup, as I’m sure many of you do as well, and that is the sticky wicket: we can make our food spicier or saltier to our tastes, but yon squeamish eater can’t take the garlic or the meat out of a finished product. As it is commons has comments posted often about how their food is too this or too that. Reedies are a picky bunch.

Bon Appetit has no control over how many customers they serve. Sure, they know how many students are enrolled and how many have board plans, but they certainly don’t see those hoards of high school kids here for Greek theatre three days in advance. With that kind of variability in sales, your average daily losses (meaning unsold food) can range from zero to astronomical, unless you try your best to use it all up (which explains the thinly disguised last-night’s-dinner-entrée soups). In addition to the tremendous opportunity for losing money on food cost, there is also the labor question. Commons is open a lot, with many more staff then any normal restaurant would ever need. That adds to the overhead immensely, especially when you consider the shiftless masses that typically work in food service; there is a tremendous amount of turnover at commons and everywhere else in the industry.

Let me be clear about something—some Commons practices are horrible. But most, if not all of these practices are at the behest of a manager, corporate master or someone else high up. Feeding a college and making a profit is very hard to do. Methods change, prices are constantly fluctuating, and corporate directives are consistently misguided. We cannot take our anger or disappointment out on the cooks and chefs. They are trying to please a very moody, bitchy public who are bitchy because they eat there three times a day. I’m sorry, but you could eat at the French Laundry three times a day for some months and get sick of it. Everything gets boring and monotonous after a time.