Keep the Change
“Getting a college degree is hard enough; getting good food shouldn’t be,” says Pierce, shown at Whitney Dining Hall, which specializes in vegetarian and vegan dishes. Pierce brought sustenance to students in the form of comfort food and cozy places to enjoy it.
Dennis Pierce ’15 MBA never got the memo about how humans tend to be change averse. During his 34-year tenure at UConn Dining Services the recently retired Pierce created a culture of change. “They embrace change,” he says of dining employees. “On Friday we look different from what we did on Monday.” We asked Pierce to list a few things about running what, under his watch, has become one of the largest self-operating dining services in the country. It has its own catering department and bakery, employs 450 full-time workers, and serves some 3.6 million meals a year.
FIVE things you recall from those first late-’80s years when you started at UConn:
➊ Technology was nonexistent. We had no computer in the office. When we got one, we got literally one. Now of course we rely on tech.
➋ The state system was outdated. It required us to use only certain vendors and left us little flexibility in purchasing. Now we have large multi-year contracts with many vendors. Unique to dining we run an operation separate from Human Resources — we have nontraditional employees and our own HR and benefits group.
➌ Students were required to dine only in their respective dining halls — if you lived in McMahon, you were required to eat only in McMahon.
➍ In the early days, students just wanted food and a lot of it. Dietary needs, preferences, allergies were practically nonexistent. There were a handful of vegetarian students. They’d tell me they wanted to get off the meal plan. I’d ask how long they’d been vegetarian, and usually it was a week or two. We’d have a conversation. I’d say there’s a book out there, “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Lappé. Lappé had come to UConn and given a talk at the bookstore, so I had a stack of her books by my desk — right up until the day I left. I’d say, “Here’s a book on how to be a healthy, strong vegetarian. Read it, and come back and tell me if I am not meeting your needs.”
➎ Students relied on comfort food to center themselves. We were feeding them emotionally as well as nutritionally.
FOUR ways things have changed — or not — since then:
➊ We have so many menus now to meet student’s medical needs and preferences. You need to offer variety, meet student preferences. I always felt we should be flexible, get away from traditional college food. Students come to UConn now because we can meet their dietary needs. We are known for being the best school to meet a gluten-free diet. We provide vegan, halal, vegetarian, kosher, alternivore, all of it. And we work with local suppliers when we can — students want to know where their food comes from.
➋ Our food waste management is now state of the art. Through a partnership with Quantum Biopower in Southington, Connecticut, all of our dining hall food waste is transformed into compost and energy.
➌ Our chefs, staff, and management team are now industry professionals and very well trained. When I got here, workers in the large units were variously trained. Now we hold a chef’s contest every year and what they put on the menu is as good as anything in restaurants up and down the East Coast. They are extremely talented.
➍ Students still rely on comfort food to center themselves and always will. They are emotional diners. I remind staff that getting a college degree is hard enough, getting good food shouldn’t be. We have to be there for them, be the provider of comfort food 24/7 — or pretty close to it. And that means whatever their comfort is, whatever culture, religion, and so on.
THREE of the biggest challenges your team has faced in 33 years:
➊ Covid-19. No question. We were building the plane as we were flying it. How do we get the students fed? How do we support them? We had to close down units, lay off people. Every day was completely new — you never knew what was coming at you on the next phone call.
➋ Lack of student employees. It’s happening now and we had the same thing 20 years ago. We need to hire some 1,100 students at a time and we’re down about 250 right now. We don’t know why.
➌ The constant budget pressure. Pressure to always find extra money at the end of every fiscal year.
TWO favorite Dining Services recipes:
➊ The lemon bars our Catering Services makes.
➋ I’m a big fan of our New England clam chowder we serve in the dining halls.
ONE Anecdote from your time here you’ll never tire of telling:
It was a convocation weekend mid-’90s and I wanted to do something different. I said, “Let’s do a half-mile-long sub.” It went from North Eagleville to that stop sign in front of McMahon. We created bridges so you could go under them from one side to the other. It would have made the “Guinness Book of World Records,” except that it wasn’t one continuous loaf of bread.
It was the kind of thing you have to plan forever, prep it all, troubleshoot everything. The night before, we chalked the curb with markers for employee stations — you’re at 47, you’re at 48, and so on. Then it rained overnight, and all my numbers disappeared, and everyone just had to figure things out.
Another thing I failed to foresee: In those days we used walkie-talkies, which worked fine. But I hadn’t thought about covering the distance myself! You get a call that you’re needed immediately at McMahon and you’re standing by the road at North Eagleville. That’s a hike. I definitely should have had a golf cart or something.
Another story was when we were honored to have President Clinton come for the dedication of the Dodd Center — we were setting up coffee break areas everywhere. They didn’t want his schedule out there — where he’d be when — so we just had many setups all across campus.
By Lisa Stiepock
Photo by Peter Morenus
Illustration by John E. Bailey '84 (SFA)
UConn Lemon Bars
Makes 36 bars
For the crust
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ cup white sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, blend together the butter, flour, and sugar. Press into the bottom of an ungreased 9x13 pan and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Remove and set aside to rest.
For the filling
- 1 ½ cups white sugar
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 eggs
- Juice of 2 lemons
In medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and flour. Whisk in the eggs and lemon juice, then pour over the baked crust. Place back in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and let the bars cool and firm up. Cut into 2-inch squares and serve.
UConn Clam Chowder
Makes 6-8 servings
- 2 tablespoons (¼ stick) butter
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 1 ¼ cups chopped celery with leaves (about 2 large stalks)
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 pinch ground thyme
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups clam juice
- 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 1 ¼ cups light cream, warmed
- 2 6 ½-ounce cans chopped clams, drained, juices reserved
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, garlic, and thyme, and cook, stirring until the onions are translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add the flour and cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, to make a roux. Add the clam juice and potatoes and cook until thickened. Slowly whisk in warmed cream and clams, allow to simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.