Eating with Tory Hill – The New Food Service Provider

Mike Webster is the Director of Dining Services at Hotchkiss. He has been with the school for four years, formerly in partnership with Sodexo. This year, the School changed its provider from Sodexo to Tory Hill LLC, a new company founded by Webster. Outside of the dining hall, Webster works with the Real Food Club, which serves as the primary means of communication between the dining hall and the student body. He is also the faculty advisor for the Hotchkiss Sporting Clays Club. In this interview, the Features section speaks to Webster about the switch from Sodexo to Tory Hill, the upcoming dining hall renovations, and the current state of the dining services at the school.
Why did the school choose to switch food service providers?
For the last five years, we, the management team of the dining services, have really geared [the food] more and more towards the farm [and] the curriculum. Basically, we built a program that was no longer being supported by Sodexo, the previous food provider. They did a great job of getting us to where we were, but we got to a point where the school wanted to do more and we hit a roadblock. Collectively, we (Sodexo, Hotchkiss, and [I]) worked on a deal to be able to [leave] Sodexo.
[This allowed me] and the management team to start a company named Tory Hill, and we signed a contract with the school to provide the dining services. Because Sodexo is a very large, national corporation, they have goals and initiatives, [and] they have their company culture, but we at Hotchkiss have our own company culture and goals. So now Tory Hill has unilaterally aligned itself with Hotchkiss and [its] mission statement, with [its] strategic plan and [its] growth, with [its] farm and sustainability.
How were students involved in the change?
Our goal as Tory Hill is to feed and educate, which aligns with the student vision of [their] experience, to educate them about food and where it comes from and why that’s important. One of the primary reasons for us switching was how we play a role in that whole system and our ability to spend more time and energy on student-centered and community-centered events.
What has been working and what challenges have the dining hall staff faced during the transition?
What has been working is being able to get everyone fed and everyone paid.
Currently, our biggest challenge is our current space and [finding] the humans to run the space. Being in a pretty rural place and a really wealthy area makes it hard to find affordable housing for people to want to work [in dining services]. I’ve been here for about five years and we’ve never been fully staffed in the Dining Hall, which is why we always have to work with what we have so that all the stations are covered and food is available. We [also] have some operational challenges…from the infrastructure, because our dining hall is seventy-two years old, so electricity often becomes a challenge. I would love to have more stir fry stations, but we don’t have the space to support that.
As we look towards a new dining hall, we are going to invest in those spaces and make sure we are building a modular dining room that will allow us to grow in the next 50-60 years.
What improvements have you made as the new service provider?
The improvements we’ve made aren’t really noticeable on the surface but [relate to] our ability to take care of our employees. We were able to lay out a pathway to a $15 minimum wage, so we gave our employees a raise this year. With a department this size, it was a monumental cost impact, so breaking [the raises] up over several years to meet that goal is a great accomplishment.
We also offer our employees a great health care [plan] that they can afford to use, because when you make $30,000 a year with a $10,000 deductible [it] is almost like not having insurance; that’s one-third of your annual pay, and that is really hard on people. Health care [with] only [a] $1,000 or $2,000 deductible really allows them to use their health care and benefits.
What we have found is that when our employees are happier and healthier, they are more productive and they come to work. They are better humans when they feel good rather than when they are sick.
Of course, we are [also] encouraging them to save up for their retirement, so we’ve offered them a competitive retirement plan – a $401K – and now they have a personalized list of financial advisers. We have hired a financial consultant to give them some support and education on how they can improve their financial lives.
They don’t have to wash their own uniforms anymore; we launder them now for them. So we just try and make lives a little bit better for our employees and hope that it makes our community better as a whole.
How do you think students feel about the change?
I always hope that the students will be happy. So far, I think students have been pretty pleased, but I’m always hoping for more student feedback and engagement, like writing a quick note or an email or just pop[ing] in[to] the office. I had a student from Texas who wanted to make a bunch of smoked food in the smoker out back; from our perspective, the more engagement we have [the easier it is].
It [is] easier for us when [students] tell us what [they] like and think of how to do it rather than us just guess what [they] like and have to figure out how to do it.
We have a lot of constraints because of our infrastructure, [but] we are always trying to think of ways to serve our community.