Featuring Wesley Turnage, Tulane Dining Services by Sodexo
At Tulane, Wesley Turnage and his team understand that students’ lives often revolve around technology. Find out why he believes technology also plays a role in delivering the quality and consistency that contribute to a great dining experience.
Rochelle Well, welcome, everyone. This is Rochelle Berry. I’m with Apex. Today, we’re talking to Wesley Turnage, general manager of Tulane Dining Services by Sodexo. I’m very excited to talk to Wesley today because collegiate dining is something that is very near and dear to my heart and I have a long history with it. So, Wesley, welcome and thank you so much for your time today.
Wesley Yeah, no problem. Thank you.
Rochelle I’d like to start with you telling us a little bit about your professional journey.
Wesley My professional journey starts a long time ago. Number one, you know, I grew up in central Mississippi. I never really had a lot of exposure to culinary or dining or food or anything. I used to watch great chefs on the Travel Channel and a couple other shows and stuff like that and was really interested in it, and thought it might be something I was interested in. I ended up playing sports in high school and college, so I was into that and then once I was done, I ended up going just to regular college and finishing my education and I started working at a restaurant at that time.
I just got a lot of exposure, a lot of experience, moved all over the country, worked in a lot of different areas from Biltmore Estate to the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. I worked for the PGA Tour. I worked in private clubs, hotels, resorts, you name it. I’ve kind of done a little bit of everything. I joined Sodexo almost seven years ago and was just kind of brought in on a whim as a campus chef at a large university and really enjoyed the platform engaging the students. It was a really exciting platform. I took a small stint away from college dining and went to health care. And then I came back here as the previous position as the regional executive chef for Sodexo over this part of the world.
And then, you know, family happens. I have four kids. I have a wife, and mom was tired of me being traveling on the road all the time. So, an opportunity came up at Tulane and a year and a half ago I took it to become the GM here. So, it’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it. It gives me a lot of freedom. And Tulane is an amazing partner to work with. Sodexo has some great programs and innovation and we kind of like to be the test ground for a lot of those things and try to bring a lot of innovation to our dining program through lots of different facets and mediums.
Rochelle Wow, that is quite the journey. What do you think throughout all of your different experiences was a common thread for what you were bringing to the table?
Wesley It’s all about quality and consistency. So, no matter what level of food service you’re at, whether you’re doing fine dining with French master chefs or you’re doing, you know, kind of like that middle level service, casual, fast service, all the way down to fine dining to catering. It doesn’t matter what you do from a food service standpoint. It’s got to be quality and it’s got to be consistent. And that’s not only with the food products, but the people who are serving it and the customer service engagement. If it’s consistent and it’s quality, people are going to come back. And the food, I’ve said this a lot of times to staff members and coworkers and stuff over the years, but you know a decent meal served with a smile tastes just as good as a really good meal, served with a frown. So, you know, you have to make sure that people understand that it’s a full experience. And like I said, I think it’s all about that quality and consistency.
Rochelle Yeah, well, and thinking back to what everyone has gone through since Covid and I know specifically with collegiate dining, because that was a world I was in pretty deeply at that time. How nice to be able to see the smiles again and not be masked up. But can you talk a little bit about how that changed for you and the trends that you’re seeing now that maybe the impetus was Covid?
Wesley Yeah, I do. I mean, I think dining as a whole is shifting massively. I mean, this is your new virtual spot ’cause everything’s on your phone, everything’s technology driven, you know, that’s the way I think we like to get out and we like to go dine and we like to go to those experience and have that experiential service piece to it. But for the normal day-to-day diner or shopper or whatever, it’s all right there in your hand.
So, you know, that’s kind of the way that a lot of our students here at Tulane see it, too, is, you know, they’re busy. They’re going from class to class or they’re going from group study to meeting with their friends or whatever. They’re always on the go. They’re not just lounging around most of the time. So, they’re very busy students and they’re very driven students. So, you know, them being able to access a menu and order food and have it ready to pick up or deliver it or whatever it is. That’s extremely convenient for them.
Rochelle Well, I was just wondering what you’ve heard from your peers and is there a healthy competition or what are the big innovations, just what’s trending right now in your conversations?
Wesley In our conversations right now within Sodexo it’s the virtual dining pieces. I think those are the most important because they’re a way we can bring brands to the table without having these huge buildouts and long lead times on, you know, forward-facing millwork and all that kind of stuff, signage. It saves us a lot and it makes you nimble, too, when you’re able to have virtual dining brands that change or can might then evolve, I guess, over time into what the needs of the students are.
You can start with a base brand, which one of the ones we started with here was Mr. Beast Burger. You know, we’ve kind of evolved that into adding some of our own pieces to that. And we’ve added a Vietnamese cafe and we’ve added a late-night breakfast. We’ve added a lot of different features to that virtual dining aspect, and it’s been very, very well received by the students.
Rochelle Great. And I know, you know, obviously, we’re talking to you because you’re working with Apex. Can you talk a little bit about how you got introduced to the lockers and what problems or practical problems you were trying to solve for?
Wesley Well, number one is trying to reduce traffic in our main food court. We’ve got more students on a meal plan this semester in the spring than we’ve ever had in the history of Tulane. We’re growing massively. They do Spring Scholars where we actually rise in numbers in the spring. We’re actually higher than we are in the fall, which is very unheard of from a meal plan standpoint. But, you know, we just see in the growing need for space and people to be able to have access to food.
You know, long lines, being able to schedule things and saying, I’m getting out of class at 12:50, you know, I want my food ready for me to go pick up by 1:30 or something ‘cause I got to go to another class at 2. You know, having that availability, that was really the reason for looking for the solution like Apex.
We also do a late-night dining portion that’s pickup only. So that’s another reason that we kind of went with the Apex style system here was just the convenience. It’s safe, it’s easy, and it helps depopulate some of that those lines in those retail food court areas.
Rochelle Okay. Where are they located exactly on your campus, the lockers?
Wesley They’re in the entrance of the retail food court.
Rochelle Okay. So, it’s servicing multiple locations?
Wesley Yes. So, we have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight brands in that space. Plus, we have four virtual brands occupying that space.
Rochelle Okay. Very good. And then what other technology are you utilizing along with the lockers?
Wesley This past fall, we introduced Kiwibot to the campus. And so, they’ve done really well with the Kiwibot program, we’ve sold subscriptions, made a lot of deliveries. Our clients were so committed to it that they gave away some free deliveries to everybody who had a meal plan on campus and paid for that as part of their meal plan. So far, so good. It’s been really, really convenient for the students. They love the little robots buzzing around campus and delivering food. That’s been a really big change for them.
The other thing that we’ve got coming, we’ve got a frictionless store where you just walk in, walk out market like an Amazon Go style store. That will open in the fall. And you know, we’re going to expand on our virtual dining platforms going into next fall, adding some more branding and some different brands to the portfolio, probably switching it up a little bit and then looking into possibly replacing some of our brick-and-mortar style locations with some more virtual dining locations just to kind of spread the campus out a little bit.
Rochelle Great. So, with the impact of the increased meal plans, what’s happening in your world to plan for that? And I’m sure that’s increased revenue. It’s also increased capacity to be able to service everybody. So, what other things are happening operationally and how is the data that you’re gathering from the technology helping you with that?
Wesley I would say that, you know, Tulane and Sodexo were probably very forward thinking when we opened a brand-new dining hall here in 2019. It’s two stories, has about 1,200 seats. So, capacity-wise, we’re doing really, really well there. Even though it’s packed at times, you know those heavy days at lunchtime, they’re packed at times.
But we’ve also expanded, and we’ve opened a second resident dining location in the stadium. A lot of our student athletes who are down there for training or practices or classes, they choose to eat down there. It’s not technically an athletic performance dining, any student can dine down there. So, we’ve seen a massive influx of students move to that space and dine in that space more than we ever have before. So, I think it just depends on where they live on campus and so on and so forth. Maybe they want a change from some of that, that stuff.
But as far as like the data we’re getting, I mean, knowing where our Kiwibot deliveries are going and where they’re being picked up, what those top items are that’s being ordered. We added our C-store to the mobile order through Kiwibot delivery for this year, for this semester. That’s something brand new. And I think that’s going to just increase the frequency of deliveries and it’s going to enhance the student experience when they don’t have to run out for sundry items. So, we’ve gone with kind of those top 25, top 50 items out of the store and made those available through our Everyday app, which is Sodexo’s proprietary mobile order menu app.
Rochelle Very good. Now I know with collegiate dining, meal plans is one major KPI that everyone looks at to measure success. One thing that’s a little bit more subjective, though, is the sense of community and how you are both bringing people and attracting students in for enrollment right at the beginning of their student career and also holding them there to feel a sense of a home away from home. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you feel? The dining services at Tulane is doing a good job with that.
Wesley Yeah, I would say that your Tulane student is probably not your typical student. A lot of our students are not from here. So, understanding who our students are and where they come from is very important. You know, Louisiana, although we’re in the heart of New Orleans, Louisiana is like number seven on the list of where students are from. So, most of our students are from the Northeast, upper Midwest, California. We have a huge international student base here. So, it’s all about creating those experiences around comfort.
And comfort can mean a lot of things, whether it’s not just mac and cheese and fried chicken or something like that. Comfort can mean, a Sunday casserole that they’re used to eating. That’s part of their culture. And maybe they’re from New Jersey or they’re from Connecticut. You know, what are those types of things? You know, maybe it’s having an international feature in it. And we’ve partnered with one of the student groups that’s Hindu or something like that. And we created this experience for them. So, we do a lot of that kind of stuff to try to connect food and students, you know, to make sure that we don’t lose sight of what’s important and what creates that comfortable atmosphere for a student.
And one other thing is the students don’t really go home from here, so they come in a suitcase, not in a car most times. So, it’s a different type of campus. We have pretty heavy traffic patterns even through the weekends. Whereas a lot of schools you’ll see Friday night, it just drops off and then you don’t see students again until Monday morning or sometime Sunday night. It’s a little bit different here because they all we have a ton of students live on campus or nearby in the in the neighborhoods.
Rochelle Hmm. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about where everybody’s coming from, but you’re absolutely right. If you’ve homed in on your audience. That’s right. That’s key to any marketing of any product. Have you done any surveying or even just in passing hear specific feedback?
Wesley Yeah, we’ve gotten a good bit of feedback. We have somebody there at that station kind of running around, picking up food at all the different locations Monday through Friday, so they get a lot of feedback from it. It’s super convenient is really the overall, overarching message that we’re getting from students is, you know, they get their code, they scan their code, the locker opens, they walk out with their food. It’s that kind of frictionless, I don’t have to talk to anybody. I don’t have to engage. I don’t have to stand in line. I can just go get my food that I ordered that’s made for me. That’s the most important thing.
Rochelle So, with other peers in the collegiate dining and even in other hospitality arenas, what do you think that they can best learn from Tulane with all that you’ve done with order pickup?
Wesley It’s here. It’s here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to get bigger from here. You know, I made the comment that I think back over the summer, we were talking about the food court and how would we rebranded and redo the whole food court if we were going to do it? I was like, I’d shut it down, I’d put lockers on each side, and I’d have about 15 different brands coming out of out of the space that you just come get it out of your locker. And we’d have walls of lockers and maybe a pickup counter so you could have a customer service interaction in case something’s wrong.
That’s kind of the wave of the future. You see that in a lot of airports. You see that in a lot of large facilities where they have people coming and going all the time. You used to I think it’s the one airport, the one of the airports in Houston, not Hobby, the other one. They have a very similar system where you might sit down at a restaurant and you might order something, but it’s all coming out of like a large kitchen in the back. And there could be multiple things are being made in one location. So, I think that’s kind of the wave of the future is adding some of that.
I think there is a place for that face-to-face, that walk up, that human interaction, that friction between two. I think there is a place for that. But I do see as students are becoming more and more ingrained with their cell phones, and it’s a necessity that we have to be on that phone, helping direct the traffic.
Rochelle Well, it sounds like you have done a lot in a very short period of time. I’m really impressed, and I can’t wait to follow up with you in the near future and see where you’re at. But Wesley, I really appreciate your time today. Can’t wait again to follow up and see what’s next.
Rochelle Thank you so much.