A chorus of oohs and ahs erupted from the room last winter when Joseph Cavanaugh revealed Gourmet Dining Services’ (GDS) next feat: a waffle iron complete with an NJIT logo. The students could barely contain themselves.
Who would’ve thought the idea of creating a school-spirited custom design on one’s breakfast would beget such wide-eyed enthusiasm?
This is precisely why, each Friday, Cavanaugh, director of student relations, attended the Residence Hall Association (RHA) meeting in the Campus Center, where students are offered the opportunity to voice their opinion on the food quality and service at NJIT.
One student showered GDS with praise. “I’d like to say that the tables in the Continuous Dining Hall have been a lot cleaner this semester.”
“That’s great to hear,” said Cavanaugh. “We hired more help in that area after receiving some complaints last year.”
Said another student, “Can you guys bring back the mac and cheese bar more often? It’s so good.”
A student from the back of the room chimed in: “I heard about that. But by the time I got there, it was all gone. I didn’t get to have any. Now I know why,” she quiped.
This weekly exchange of culinary worship…and constructive criticism—someone complained about the quality of the cucumbers at the salad bar—isn’t just a formality. GDS, New Jersey’s largest regional dining service, takes the students’ gastronomic questions and concerns seriously, and rightly so.
Millennials spend over $96 billion a year on food. And more than any other generation, they are educated and increasingly persnickety about about what they eat, which is why there’s no shortage of dining options at NJIT.
In addition to the full service interactive food stations in the main dining hall, the Starbucks coffee perked at Tech Café, the convenient Grab-n-Go sandwiches that line the shelves of the C-Store, GDS added several new items to the gluten-free menu, ramped up the vegan and vegetarian selections, and promised to offer patrons of the Village Market the convenience of online ordering through an app.
And there's a Smashburger on the first floor of the Albert Dorman Honors College residence hall on Warren Street.
While this wide array of selections certainly whets the appetite of the university’s diverse student body, GDS still makes an effort to leave room for improvement and measure student satisfaction and perception by showing up to RHA meetings to obtain feedback directly.
“I love it. If the students don’t like something, it gives us room to fix things. It’s a critique that will help us grow,” said Tyshon Gardner, known affectionately as TJ, NJIT’s resident baker and cook. “I ask students to give me feedback every now and then when I try a new recipe because I don’t want to keep doing it if they don’t really like it.”
Adept at both cooking and baking, on his busiest days, TJ stocks the bakery casing with sweet treats—cakes, cookies and decadent brownies topped with Oreo cookie crumbles—and mans the grill, sets up the carving and fajita stations, and preps other specialty food bars.
“It feels really good when someone comes up to you and says, ‘You know what? You made a really good fajita,’” he laughed. “I take pride in my work.”
TJ learned the ins and outs of the kitchen by studying his mother, a chef, who taught him everything from sanitation to flavor building. “When she became a chef—that motivated me to get into the cooking field,” he said.
His adoration of food led to a job at NJIT, where he’s worked for three years. Although it’s a gig he loves, he’s the first to admit that preparing and dishing up sustenance for thousands of students (also known as a high-risk population) can be challenging.
“Institutionalized food isn’t really what people think it is,” he said. “You have to go through so much to have a food-service operation inside of a school.” The rigors of assuring safe and healthful working conditions include maintaining a well-defined Integrated Pest Management program and passing ServSafe, FDA and OSHA’s stringent certification requirements.
Sure, it’s a lot of work. But at the end of the day, it’s all about putting a smile on the students’ faces.
“This isn’t just a job,” said TJ. “It’s love."
"I find a love in what I do through the people that I serve.”