Sunday, September 21, 2008

Toss those trays

College foodservice is often the incubator for trends that eventually spread into the restaurant mainstream. If that tradition holds true, get ready for two changes in the business: The end of the restaurant tray, and the emergence of a new foodservice position called “the forager.”

Dennis Pierce, the diretor of dining services for the University of Connecticut, provided a preview of both changes during the Food Safety Symposium on Sunday (see earlier posts for some context).

The forager, he explained, is a position that’s arising as a result of interest in procuring local produce and ingredients. “It’s someone who has a culinary background, as well as a procurement background,” said Pierce.

Because localized purchasing can require menu re-engineering, he continued, restaurants will need someone with the ability to adjust recipes or tweak the bill of fare as supplies change with the growing seasons. But at the same time, he noted, that person has to know how to adjudge how much of a local item will be needed, and where to get it a feasible price.

Pierce cited the hypothetical example of adding locally grown garlic. The forager would have to know what's needed, in terms of volume, and how to get it.

The other trend, he said, is already well underway in college dining. “If you’ve not heard about this,” he said, “you will. It’s trayless dining.”

He recounted how Middlebury College had eliminated trays from its feeding facilities as a way of saving water in its cleaning operations. That prompted UConn to give it a try last semester. For a week, two dining facilities operated as usual, but with Pierce and his team studying and apparently benchmarking certain variables. The next week, they educated the students about such issues as water conservation. The third week, they stopped using trays.

“We discovered that we had 900 lbs. less of food waste and saved 2,000 gallons of water,” he said.

That prompted the school to pull trays this semester from dining facilities that cater to freshmen, since they’ve not yet been accustomed to using trays.

Pierce also described the college’s newest sustainable venture, the use of a “pulper” to convert food waste into compost material, which the school plans to sell. The waste is pulverized and dumped into a bin, which is then heated. It apparently consolidates into what looks like dirt.

He also recounted the school's experiences with bee hives. It's already put in 10 hives, and is harvesting hundreds of pounds of honey. Ten more are coming. UConn plans not only to use the honey as a sweetener, but also to sell it in convenience stores.

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