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Behind The Scenes Of USC's Residential Dining Halls

Angela Shen |
December 8, 2014 | 5:27 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Many students don't consider what goes into preparing them three meals a day. (Angela Shen/Neon Tommy)
Many students don't consider what goes into preparing them three meals a day. (Angela Shen/Neon Tommy)

Students often complain about the food in the residential dining halls, but they most likely do not know about the amount of preparation and resources that go into serving them three meals a day.

"Sometimes I feel there are limited healthy options," Helen Carefoot, a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism, said. "I would like to know what's going into a lot of the food."

Each dining hall was designed to have its own culinary personality. “The goal is to differentiate all three of [the dining halls] with the type of food that we serve,” said Kris Klinger, Vice President of Retail Operations and Auxiliary Services. Everybody’s Kitchen (EVK) has a California vibe, while Parkside is known for its international cuisine and Café 84 has more of a health-conscious feel.


The dining halls get most of their ingredients from seven vendors, including U.S. Foods and L.A. Specialty. Ingredients are delivered daily and usually come in the day before they will be used for service.

USC Hospitality tries to utilize more local produce with a focus on seasonal, organic and sustainable products. “Over the years we try to reduce our carbon footprint, even with less trucks coming onto campus and wasting all that gas,” said Lindsey Pine, a nutritionist for USC Hospitality. The goal is to get local products from less than 50 miles away, and any other products from within 250 miles of the university.


Creating the menus is a collaborative effort among chefs, dietitians and recipe committees that include students. Recipes are established six to 12 months ahead of time, and chefs work to improve the menu year-round. Usually the menus rotate on a four-week cycle, and the dining halls try not to serve the same items in a day to avoid repetition.

Dining halls try to offer a little bit of everything to cater to students’ preferences, aiming to balance both variety and nutritional value. In terms of product placement, part of the design is to try to disperse the volume of customers, while some presentations are designed to encourage students to get more nutrients by eating vegetables. Some options, including the meats, are served by an employee behind the counter to ensure appropriate portion sizes.

READ MORE: Surviving Dining Halls: A Vegetarian’s Guide


When hiring staff, USC Hospitality focuses on culinary background and trainability. Managers expect prospective employees to have some prior experience and fundamental knowledge about food, such as what could make consumers sick. Applicants have to cook for the employers before being hired. Many workers are passionate about the culinary arts, and managers do emphasize training and developing employees to help them move up the ranks.

Within each dining hall, positions include guest service representatives, who clean the dining areas, stewards, who clean the cooking facilities, cashiers, culinary specialists (chefs), food preparation handlers, who support the chefs, station managers, kitchen supervisors and general managers.

There are approximately 75 workers per dining hall and about 250 employees total in all of residential dining. Most workers have eight hour shifts, though shifts may vary depending on special events or if a dining hall is understaffed on a given day. This is a challenge because of the length of time it takes to rehire if one worker leaves. The first staff members come in as early 4:30 a.m. to check the products and storage temperatures. Checking for freshness and expiration dates is an ongoing process. The last workers may leave around 11 p.m. to midnight.


Residential Dining reduces waste as much as possible by cooking in batches throughout the day. The dining halls track which foods are popular, how many guests come and what time of day they come to more accurately project what’s going to be served. Chefs cook in smaller batches as the day progresses, and at the latest hours they may just cook according to what students order.Waste usually doesn’t occur much in the back-end of production, except during the transition from breakfast to lunch, when leftover options from the first meal cannot be re-served.

The majority of waste comes from students’ leftovers. With approximately 3,300 customers per dining hall a day, there is approximately 10 pounds of daily waste, which translates to about $1,000 worth of waste a week. Rachel Paghunasan, Senior Kitchen Manager of Residential Dining, points out that these figures are relatively minor when compared to the grand scheme of operations.

READ MORE: Top 7 Healthiest College Campuses In The United States


All of the money from students’ meal plans goes towards food, employees’ salaries and maintenance. Residential dining works on a “zero-base budget,” which means that all money that comes in is reinvested so there is no profit.

Paghunasan estimates that each plate of food is calculated at about $2.30 - $2.70 and approximately 17% of revenue goes towards workers’ salaries. The budget varies by month, as students may not be at school for entire months during the beginning and end of semesters (i.e. August and December). Holiday breaks are also taken into consideration when estimating total finances.

Deanna Giles, Senior Manager of Everybody’s Kitchen, said that at EVK, about $300,000 goes towards salaries and food monthly. The cost for running EVK for one day is approximately $13,000, not including upkeep and maintenance.

Food: The Numbers

In all three dining halls combined, about 1,000 pounds of protein and 300 pounds of vegetables are used in a day.

Fruit cutters cut 200-300 pounds of fruit a day. (Angela Shen/Neon Tommy)
Fruit cutters cut 200-300 pounds of fruit a day. (Angela Shen/Neon Tommy)

At Parkside, one worker cuts about 20 pounds of meat a day. Two fruit cutters cut about 200-300 pounds of fruit, 40-50 pounds of which will go towards a faculty master dinner, and some of it is in preparation for the next day. Parkside goes through roughly 160 pounds of chicken for dinner entrées and another 150–200 pounds of other types of meat. The dining hall serves around 500–600 burgers and 180–230 pounds of potato fries a day. About 80–90 pizzas are made and served daily.

All foods are served completely fresh. For example, the pizzas aren’t kept warm for an extended period of time. They are served straight from the oven. The cookies are also all freshly made, and the supervising chefs taste everything to make sure each item is up to standard.

At EVK, chefs cook around 800 batches of food for breakfast and about 1,200 batches for both lunch and dinner. A single worker operates the sandwich grittle for hours; workers stay at the same job all day, whether that is washing produce, cutting it, or labeling. All pots and pans are washed by hand— the dishwasher may wash up to 200 pans a day, with the most stressful times being rush hour.


USC Hospitality upholds very high standards when it comes to sanitation. The managers conduct inspections every day; a third-party company will check every month to evaluate the standards and the L.A. County Health Department does inspections twice a year. The goal is to create a program that shows employees how they can continually improve.

The managerial staff emphasized that the dining halls really do work hard to cater to all students. For example, the number of vegetarian and vegan options have recently increased due to demand. Klinger said that they are always evolving and trying to improve the quality of food.

Paghunasan added that residential dining even employs students, not just for administrative work, but also for cooking if they are interested in learning. Ultimately, when asked if she thinks students appreciate the work required for daily food production, Giles said, “I think they don’t know [about it]. When you’re at home, someone’s always providing for you. Until you get behind the scenes, you really don’t know all that it takes in one day or even one hour.”

Reach Staff Reporter Angela Shen here.



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