While standing over that boiling pot of water in your kitchen, gazing at the directions on the back of your Velveeta box, you might be under the mistaken impression that you are making your food. In truth, though, your food has made you. Food has forged humans into what we are, down to the words we speak; no other cultural force is as universal.
And at UR, too, we take food seriously.
So do our providers. Indeed, one man above all others considers it a personal goal to please every single one of the University’s rabid consumers.
And darn it if Director of Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations Cameron Schauf isn’t getting closer.
Auxilary services includes a lot bookstores, laundry, etc. but clearly Schauf’s joy comes from his work with Dining Services.
With Friday afternoon dwindling away, I met with this chief of cuisine and accompanied him to his office, buried deep underneath Susan B. Anthony Residence Halls. This was only his sixth meeting today; he normally averages 25 or 26.
‘This is a slow day,” he said with a grin.
On the way down to his den, Schauf stopped to chat with a couple Danforth employees to find out what’s on special tonight (a roast). He has an easy rapport with the 120 full-time hourly workers and tries each day to get to know more. Of the additional 200 student workers, he knows Hillside Caf’s crew best (he has to get his morning coffee somewhere, after all).
Posters from various dining programs line an otherwise typical office, though it’s peppered here and there by more personal mementos. A black leather jacket hangs on his coat hook. Several family photos stand out. He talks about his family with the delighted pride of a father of three grown boys and most especially of his year-old granddaughter (‘the light of our life”), pictured on his computer.
Last Friday marked the fourth year since Schauf arrived at UR, a veteran of Bryn Mawr College’s Auxiliary Services Department. His involvement in dining began during his undergraduate career at Duke University, working for a catering service he recalls fondly. He had the opportunities to serve such luminaries as George McGovern and Billy Graham. He got hooked; for nine years after graduation, Schauf stayed at Duke working in Dining Services and hasn’t stopped since, working at the University of Cincinnati and Clemson University before going to Bryn Mawr.
Schauf gives off the air of a kid trapped in an adult’s body. One of his favorite meals is beer and wings at the Otter Lodge near Twelve Corners. Though citing ‘Bridge on the River Kwai” as perhaps his favorite movie, he notes a soft spot for the guilty pleasures of Steven Seagal films. He goes to as many athletic events as possible (he wishes baseball could start later in the day because he’s at work during the games); he’s even been spotted at football games with a pom-pom hanging hair-like out of his baseball cap.
Schauf speaks methodically and thoughtfully, yet exudes a great vibrancy. One senses a vast reservoir of hidden energy. You’d need it to have the energy to handle 10- to 12-hour days or to tour campus first thing each and every morning and to make sure the muffins are stocked and the coffee is poured. He jokes that time requires him to eat standing up, which might help explain his affection for Danforth (the proximity helps, too).
But most of all, Schauf pours his energy into delighting as many students as possible.
‘I never take the attitude that “I can’t please everybody, so as long as 60 percent like me, I’m alright; the other 40 percent it’s all majority rules anyway, right?’ I’ve never been that kind of guy. If I had 1,000 people to please and 999 of them are satisfied, I’d still want to sit down and talk to that last one,” he said.
His efforts to please diners includes a major new push into sustainability, a hallmark of the last year, as well as a major wave of food diversification. In the last year alone, Dining Services oversaw the successful installation of Connections Caf, Pura Vida and Starbucks.
‘Four years ago, we had four or five locations that served coffee, and they were all Java City,” Schauf said. ‘Now you can get a different brand of coffee on almost every part of River Campus, and each place has its own identity and its own character.”
Additonally, Dining Services under Schauf has re-engineered the menus of virtually all previous dining establishments. Hillside baked goods now come from local Leo’s Bakery (if you haven’t tried the moon cookie or ‘black-and-white cookie,” for you ‘Seinfeld” aficionados treat yourself).
Southside Living Center now has its own convenience store, as well. Danforth Dining Center seems wonderfully unrecognizable from what it was three years ago, and Schauf notes that it’s not because the food is different so much as the preparation and visibility of that preparation is different.
He seems happiest about the inclusion of more locally grown foods. He sat on the board that helped establish the new West Side Farmers Market, which he says will probably end its first season Oct. 28. Not only does he cite the environmental benefits, but Schauf also notes that buying local lets people get more involved in what food they eat and thus leads them to enjoy it more.
While this is all well and good, students, too, recognize the ability to improve, and many students seize opportunities to tell Schauf exactly what they think. Detailed and specific comment cards adorn the walls of most establishments. E-mails encourage undergraduates to fill out online questionnaires. He arranges student panels to discuss dining policies, such as the one used when meal plans became location-based last year. Five students work in his office to help him grip what’s on other students’ minds, up from one student last year.
Then there are the Town Hall meetings. Dining Services’ open forums are almost the stuff of theater, with students on one side pelting him with questions and him attempting to knock them back. An army of other managers tend to sit on the sidelines, taking notes and watching their boss. He needs no assistance. Yet Schauf maintains that he generally enjoys such interactions it’s worse when it doesn’t happen.
‘I just get frustrated sometimes when people think that you know what they like and don’t like, and they’ve never shared it with you,” he said. ‘And sometimes it’s frustrating to try to figure out how to reach the students that don’t get involved in any of the avenues that you travel to try to get student feedback… I think that’s one of the things we continue to struggle with.”
His work ethic and quest for improvement have earned him glowing reviews from far more than one peer. The relentless networking with students he goes to as many open forums as possible, just to see what’s on students’ minds suggests he probably knows the undergraduate body better than the dean of students.
Obstacles seem to make Schauf’s day all the better; his favorite book, Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,” chronicles a modern-day American version of Odysseus. He is a man hell-bent on achieving the unachievable status of perfection. The ideal of high quality customer service, his number one concern, pervades almost every aspect of his work and interactions, including customer service training sessions held at the beginning of each semester.
A beige bag picked up at a conference Schauf attended in Seattle acts as a constant reminder of the importance of keeping that standard high. While at that particular conference, Schauf ventured to the infamous fresh fish market.
‘The way that they’ve made that fish market a success is a study in positive customer service and employee empowerment,” he said. ‘And I had seen the videos, and I had read the books, and then I went out there and visited, and it is the first time I have ever seen something like that actually be the way you read about it… I just stood there and gawked for probably a couple hours.”
The trip definitely left an impact, acting, perhaps, as a constant
reminder of what customer service can create. And that drives him toward an eventually obtainable goal of getting UR ranked as being one of the top food service organizations in the country.
All of Schauf’s experiences tie into his general philosophy of food.
‘Any food experience should have a story to it,” he said. ‘And it should be positive it shouldn’t just be there, it should be fun… for me, it’s the customer service experience that goes with it, and for me food is about people and a fun, positive experience… that’s why, when you asked my favorite food? It’s at a bar.”
Brenneman is a member of the class of 2009.