Building relationships key ingredient in Stu Orefice's recipe for success
By Eric Quiñones
Princeton NJ -- On his second day of work as Princeton's dining services director in November 1992, Stu Orefice had breakfast with legendary Tigers basketball coach Pete Carril, who challenged him to improve the food service at the University.
That season, the University of Pennsylvania ended Princeton's string of four straight Ivy League titles and began a three-year streak of its own. Orefice was confronted again by Carril two years after their introductory breakfast. "Pete said, 'Stu, the food is so much better than when you first came here -- but now I'm losing,'" Orefice recalled. "I started feeling paranoid that I was a bad luck charm. Thank God we won in '95."
Hiring Orefice has proven, in fact, to be very good fortune for Princeton. Under his direction, the University's Department of Dining Services has blossomed into a national award-winning operation that has expanded and modernized its offerings to Princeton's students, faculty and staff.
Along the way, Orefice has become a recognizable figure on campus, thanks to his friendly demeanor, his daily visits to various dining facilities and his prime courtside seat as scorekeeper during Princeton's home basketball games -- a side pursuit that the former junior high school basketball coach also enjoyed at his previous employer, Cornell University.
"Stu has great relationships across the board. He has an awesome rapport with students and a great rapport with the staff -- that's where he really excels," said executive chef Rob Harbison, who oversees the chefs in the residential colleges, the Frist Campus Center and the University's catering operation. "When he came to Princeton it was a very traditional food service operation. He had a master plan to bring some passion into it."
A dream come true (sort of)
Orefice came to Princeton after 10 years at Cornell, his alma mater, where he was assistant director of dining services. A native of Eastchester, N.Y., whose family rented summer homes on the Jersey shore, Orefice turned down opportunities to become a dining services director at other schools until the ideal position became available at Princeton.
"In my high school yearbook I said that what I wanted to do in life was to own a restaurant and live in New Jersey. I came close," he said.
When he arrived, most of Princeton's dining halls still employed "snake lines," or military-style service, with limited offerings of entrees, soup and a salad bar. Over the next several years, all of the residential colleges were updated to a more open "scramble" style of service, adding specialty bars, short-order grills and multiple entrees and desserts.
"The feedback I received from students, faculty and staff when I came to Princeton was that the quality of food was poor. It wasn't that the quality of the food was substandard, it was the variety. We're still buying the same food, we're just preparing more of it and in different ways," Orefice said. (For more information on the food served at Princeton, see "By the numbers" on page 2.)
Robert Hollander, emeritus professor in the Department of French and Italian and former master of Butler College, was a longtime advocate for improvements in Princeton's menus. Impressed with the food at Cornell during frequent visits there to conduct research, Hollander recommended Orefice when Princeton's dining services director position became available.
"The appointment of Stu Orefice has been proven to have been a superb one," Hollander said after enjoying a cappuccino and pastry in a recent visit to the new Chancellor Green café.
Lee Mitchell, a professor of English and the current master of Butler College, agrees: "Having been a faculty fellow during the '80s and master now, I can attest to a dramatic change. The salad bar at Butler is one strong improvement, and the quality of the main entrees seems to me far more inventive and more appetizing."
In addition to expanding the University's menus -- Princeton now serves 2 million meals per year, up from about 1.2 million during Orefice's first two years -- he sought to change the atmosphere in the dining halls to build better relationships between his staff and their main customers, the students. He said dining services is committed to addressing students' concerns and requests, which can range from peanut allergies to vegan offerings to Atkins Diet menu items.
"We want to take away the stigma of institutional dining so it's more like eating at home," Orefice said. "We have several students who have to go to the kitchen to get their food, because their allergies are so severe we have to cook it in a separate pan. We know when they come in, we have it prepared for them, and they know the chefs by name. We're part of their culture and family."
Suneel Bhat, a sophomore, praised the staff in the Rockefeller/Mathey dining hall. "They are a great group of individuals (who) have gotten to know me and my daily breakfast quite well -- often preparing it immediately upon seeing me enter, which is helpful when I'm in a hurry," Bhat said.
Bonnie Potts, a grill cook at Frist, said she has enjoyed building relationships with regular student and staff customers during her 12 years with dining services. Just recently, a student who graduated in 2000 returned to campus to get a recommendation for medical school and made a special stop at Frist to visit, Potts recalled. "Students always come back to say hello, especially at Reunions. It's really nice," she said.
Dining services also has incorporated student concerns by taking environmentally friendly steps such as using unbleached flour in the bake shop, serving organic cereals in all dining facilities, distributing surplus food to area soup kitchens and developing partnerships with local farmers to recycle food waste.
The department has worked with the student group Greening at Princeton to address a number of environmental issues, including the development of an "eco-friendly" seafood initiative, which involves purchasing more abundant types of fish. Orefice noted that Princeton was one of the first universities to institute such a program. "It's a good example of how you can work with students to achieve success," he said. "Our pro-gram is based on listening to our customers."
Taking an innovative approach
While he is proud of his depart-ment's progress, Orefice is quick to deflect credit to his staff, whose makeup has changed dramatically since his arrival. The number of student employees has dropped from about 500 to 225, which he said reflects a broader trend in colleges and universities as students increasingly choose other types of work-study jobs. To fill the void, the number of permanent and term full-time employees in dining services has risen from about 90 to 200 and the number of part-time positions has increased from 25 to 75.
Orefice also reorganized dining services to put different chefs -- mostly culinary school graduates -- in charge of the menu in each dining hall, a departure from the previous model of having one executive chef write all the recipes and parcel them out to cooks. He also developed training programs for staff members, enabling them to participate in culinary workshops and other professional development opportunities.
"We learned over the years that we had some talent on our team but maybe those folks never had an opportunity to go to school, so we provided them with some of the training and put them into management positions," he said, noting that several sous chefs and managers have come from the hourly or temporary employee ranks. "We have been able to listen to both our customers and team members and use our creative resources to develop new and exciting program initiatives."
One popular innovation has been theme dinners, such as "Wild Wild West" and "Main Street USA," in the residential colleges. Among its more recent initiatives, dining services in January opened the Backcourt Bistro, which offers Italian food for an hour before each men's basketball game at Jadwin Gym. Also in January, the new Chancellor Green café opened in the building's lower level with a menu of salads, sandwiches, soups and pastries, replacing the old coffee house upstairs.
Orefice also has brought in visiting chefs from popular restaurants in New Jersey, New York and Chicago to provide training for Princeton staff members and to prepare meals that are served in the residential colleges. (Pietro Frassica, a professor in the Department of French and Italian who has brought students into his own kitchen as part of a course titled "The Literature of Gastronomy," will be the featured "visiting chef" at Forbes College on March 22.)
Enthusiasm breeds success
Harbison, the University's executive chef, said Orefice "has really taken advantage of the enthusiasm of the staff."
Harbison came to Princeton from Merrill Lynch's training and conference center in Plainsboro seven years ago, after working for many years as a "knife for hire" in a variety of New York restaurants. He has helped introduce new tastes, such as authentic Cuban, Indian and other ethnic dishes, to the University's menus. "There are very few colleges doing this," he said. "A lot of the other colleges are old-school -- we're new-school."
Harbison and his chefs were able to showcase their versatility when the Frist Campus Center -- with its multiple food options, Beverage Laboratory and Cafe Vivian -- opened in 2000, Orefice noted. "I gave them an outline and let them have fun. With all the knowledge they gained over the years, they finally had a place of their own to start from scratch," he said.
The results have been impressive. In 2002, the Frist food gallery was awarded a grand prize by the National Association of College and University Food Services. Last year, Princeton's dining services department won an Ivy Award from Restaurants and Institutions magazine, a major industry publication, for overall excellence in the college and university category. The magazine wrote that the Frist operation "symbolizes the progress that makes this campus a role model for college and school food service."
The success of Frist has raised the bar for Orefice's next challenge: the planned increase in the student body and the opening of Whitman College. The new venue will emulate the "marketplace" style of Frist's food gallery, with a pizza shop, grill, deli station, fresh sauté area and other options.
"The next decade of dining is all about the team and ideas bubbling to the top," Orefice said. "We want to continue to break down the walls between the kitchen and the students."