NACUFS’ 50th marks the start of a new journey

I’ve just returned from the National Association of College and University Food Services, or NACUFS, 50th Anniversary national conference, themed “Monumental Times,” in Washington, D.C. The event attracted some 800 school attendees and 800 manufacturer and supplier representatives spanning several generations from the association’s founders, now in their 80s, to students in their late teens. I still feel elated from taking part in this spectacular experience in which colleagues and friends came together to share, learn, laugh, honor achievement and fuel the passion for the hospitality industry that we can never take for granted.

The conference was a moment out of time to celebrate NACUFS’ longevity and the courage of volunteers and staff to climb to the heights of success and learn from the depths of folly. Five decades provide rich material for reminiscing about the growth of an association that began in 1958 when 62 college and university foodservice professionals came together in Chicago in conjunction with the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show. In the early years, NACUFS had little money, no office, no corporate participation or support, and just a few educational sessions.

The beginnings are a stark contrast to this year’s conference, which featured nearly 60 educational sessions, more than 200 exhibitors, a culinary competition sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation and numerous awards. The conference is just one of the association’s achievements. Today, NACUFS is a $3 million operation serving 656 member institutions, supporting a 10-member full-time staff, and offering many educational services.

While paying tribute to the past, the conference also focused on the present. Educational sessions featured such topics as sustainability, benchmarking, financial skills, technology and the role dining programs can play in combating escalating rates of obesity and diabetes worldwide. One of the most provocative sessions focused on rising food costs and managing in what one dining services director aptly called the 21st century’s first “perfect storm.”

The future was also a prevalent theme. The first general session speaker, Erik Wahl, presented “The Art of Vision.” While painting portraits of Bono, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein on stage, he put forward his philosophy about transcending mediocrity through creativity.

Later in the day, a session revealed proceedings from the two-day Visioning Summit hosted by NACUFS in late February to assess challenges facing college and university foodservices in the next 10 years. The inclusive report addresses trends in higher education, student expectations and the restaurant industry.

Another section identifies components of the campus-dining experience in the next decade, which emphasizes the radical shift from the institutional cafeterias and straight-line serveries of the late 1950s. Customers will have access to food and service providing anything, anytime, anywhere. They’ll dine in multifunctional, communal dining spaces where they’ll be offered customized culinary experiences featuring authentic and diverse ingredients. Integrated sustainable practices and seamless, unobtrusive delivery of food will be the norm. Technology will speed up and simplify service. Given that budgets will not be unlimited, the report emphasizes that generating revenues must be balanced against the competing objectives of meeting the expected financial contribution to a school’s core educational mission and customers’ service expectations.

The information culled from the Visioning Summit will be the basis for NACUFS’ strategic planning, which will commence this November. No doubt the challenges facing NACUFS to remain relevant in the future, as well as to attract new members and continue to disseminate top-level, cost-effective educational programs, are even more daunting than those the founders faced. We live in a more complex, competitive, global world. But that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to NACUFS participants. In fact, it is a call to heed Wahl’s advice to open the creative pathways that will transcend mediocre thinking and habitual lethargy. The next journey has begun.