Food Arts presents the April 1996 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Berry, the director of dining service at Harvard University whose innovative and profitable programs have changed the scope and image of on-campus dining.
Since arriving at Harvard in 1991, after serving four years as an administrator at the University of California, Irvine, Barry has won the affections of a student body that calls him the "Mealtime Messiah." The motto "Dedicated to the liberal art of eating" describes Berry's successful effort to fulfill the purpose of the Cambridge-Oxford model, which encourages interactions between professors and students during meals in Harvard's 13 undergraduate resident dining halls. "We are a residential college, and you can't have a quality experience if the food is no good," says Berry who oversees the preparation and delivery of 25,000 meals a day.
Pre-Berry Harvard was known for many outstanding things, but the food the nation's oldest foodservice operations offered its students and faculty was not one of them. Berry has changed that with a proactive program that includes 38 festive theme meals annually, such as a Mardi Gras dinner and a lobster/clambake; twice-weekly display-cooking stations; soliciting and cooking students' favorite recipes; light and healthy menu choices; vegetarian selections; kosher tables; full-flavored dishes; and ethnic cuisines. he arranges for acclaimed chefs to make campus appearances throughout the Best of Boston Restaurant Series and the James Beard Series, which brings Beard award winners to the school twice a year to produce meals and give demos.
In addition, Berry has directed the opening of eight cash restaurants housed in campus facilities, among them the Greenhouse Cafe in the Science Center, The Courtyard at Harvard Medical School, and A New Season at the School of Public Health. These restaurants offer a variety of food options, form California-style pizza to fine dining. Barry has also developed two campus catering concerns—the upscale crimson catering and Harvard express, a drop-off service featuring casual buffets, box lunches, and light fare.
Barry achieved his menu upgrades by applying savings form an 18 percent drop in labor costs and modest increases in board rates toward food costs, raising the average amount spent per meal from $1.41 to $1.98. Sales from undergrad and grad student board, campus restaurants, catering, summer school, and conferences have soared from $18 million in 1991 to $34 million in 1995, and the department's profit jumped from $20,000 to an incredible $1.6 million in the same period. Capital reserves set aside for plant maintenance and improvement have increased from $1.2 million to $4.1 million, and operating revenues have fully paid off six of the new restaurants.
"Mike is the only person I know in the university who gives students more and more, while amazingly increasing the department's profits," Fred Jewett said prior to his retirement as Dean of Harvard College last year.
A major part of Berry's success lies in the life he has given to a key departmental mission statement: "Our employees are our most important and valuable asset." His training and development budget is the largest of any service department's at Harvard, and it sends managers to seminars and conferences and funds the requirement that every cook, baker, and production manager attend the Culinary Arts Division of Johnson & Wales University in Providence for two weeks. This, Berry points out, is designed to build self-esteem and performance of the unionized workforce. Berry has also instituted a rewards and recognition program for the 500-plus members of his staff.
He motivates the workforce with three catchy phrases—"Wow," "Yes," "and "Give a damn." "Wow," Barry says must be the students reaction to the staff's innovative programs. "Yes," must be the outcome of every service transaction, no matter what the request (one student asked for and received the 1950s soft drink Moxie). And, "Give a damn," must be how workers feel about their jobs (as when only three staff members did not report for work during January's blizzard).
In its 1994 annual report, Harvard's Board of Overseers commended Dining Services for being "the best managed service department on the campus."
Says Berry, "It's clear that we have a huge impact on the quality of students life, and it's great to know that we are involved with future leaders."