Dining Hall Open Forums: Harvest Table
Harvest Table Culinary Group, a subsidiary of Aramark Corporation, presented as the third Request For Proposals presentation on Thursday in Sherman Function Hall. After the members of the Harvest Table team introduced themselves, they began to present their vision for Brandeis Dining Services.
Harvest Table’s Director of Partnership Development Juliann Green started by answering the question, “What are those top three areas we feel require immediate focus?”
Before suggesting ideas, the vendor looked at what was and was not working now at Brandeis. Green said they read University President Ron Liebowitz’s “Framework for the Future,” which guided how Harvest Table could build its program. First, they want to embrace Brandeis’ values and traditions, including its diversity. Green also highlighted how she saw sustainability as an important part of Brandeis’ dining culture and one of Harvest Table’s founding values. Harvest Table seeks to be hospitable and wants to improve students’ dining experience.
Harvest Table’s President and Founder Mary Thorton detailed what its prospective dining program would look like. The program is based on Harvest Table’s philosophy — “fresh, vibrant food,” “personalized service” and “connected communities,” meaning greater connectivity between Brandeis students and faculty but also with dining employees and the local economy, Thorton said.
The company’s chief culinary officer, Matthew Thompson, said that its food is additive-free, because “going back to the way ingredients should be” is one of its guiding principles. He said Harvest Table also looks at the animal welfare policies of its food producers and if farmers make a living wage. Thompson also said that Harvest Table looks at whether or not women and people of color are treated fairly by its suppliers.
Harvest Table has a philosophy of being scratch-made, where recipes that will be served on campus are developed on campus so students will have input, Thompson added. In terms of nutrition, they seek to use natural ingredients to make food flavorful, without simply adding sugars and fats.
Allison West, a registered dietician for Harvest Table, talked about the transparency of what goes into Harvest Table’s recipes. “We deserve to know what is in our food,” she said. All locations have registered dieticians as a resource to answer questions about ingredients in recipes, and Harvest Table uses digital media so students know what is in the food. If any meal items change, the digital screens and website will be updated in real time. West highlighted “Tru,” which she likes to call, “a restaurant inside of a restaurant or a kitchen within a kitchen.” Food at that station eliminates seven of the eight most common food allergens — milk, eggs, wheat/gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and soybeans. The eighth food allergen is finned fish.
Senate Dining Committee Chair Nancy Zhai ’22 said in an interview with the Justice, “I think they can greatly improve allergen awareness and customer service substantially [on campus], but me and many other students are concerned about their relationship with Aramark, private prison, etc.”
If Brandeis were to partner with Harvest Table, the University’s District Manager would be Christian Wise. He elaborated on six aspects of the potential partnership — “engage with the community,” “collaborate openly,” “communicate often,” “innovate nimbly,” “measure deliberately” and “share the results.”
Thorton said that every four to six weeks, Brandeis would meet with Harvest Table to evaluate what changes need to be made and to discuss future goals. Harvest Table would also send a report to the University regarding what happened and any feedback that was received on events being run.
The vendor’s Director of Guest Experience, Kate Williams, described the systems Harvest Table uses to communicate with students and how those will influence the Brandeis dining program. She said what came up through their visits to campus was that there needed to be authentic Asian food. Representatives from one of the Harvest Table partners, Bento Sushi, was at the presentation and will offer sushi, poke bowls and ramen. Harvest Table uses a “your feedback matters” platform to allow for action to be taken quickly on concerns. Guest Experience Manager Casey Claflin said that “napkin talk walls” are another way students can contribute to the dining experience. They can write ideas on the wall and managers and chefs in the locations can make changes quickly.
Thorton said that Harvest Table will conduct training to ensure that these programs are possible. Its philosophy is the word “yes,” Thorton said. She highlighted that the company has turned jobs into careers that staff members love. According to the company’s PowerPoint, hospitality is created through a familial atmosphere, daily huddles to go over safety, service and ingredients in the food each day, allergen awareness, growth and development and recognition and rewards for stand-out work. Harvest Table’s guiding values as hospitality professionals are “take a chance” and “always be yourself.”
Thompson explained how Harvest Table would enhance Brandeis’ sustainability initiatives. This will manifest itself in composting and recycling, as well as a plant-forward restaurant in the non-kosher section of Sherman dining hall.
To combat food waste, Harvest Table has started using unconventional components of foods, such as “broccoli leaves and the stems from brussels sprouts.” It also uses reusable boxes to transport produce to campuses instead of cardboard, wax-lined boxes.
Harvest Table also partners with Farm Forward, which recognizes efforts to source locally. Thompson said that Farm Forward recognizes Harvest Table for having “the highest purchasing standards in the industry.” It is recognized for beef, poultry and pork, and for only purchasing third-party welfare-certified products. Harvest Table is the first to meet those standards in all three categories, according to Thompson.
Green talked about how Harvest Table could invigorate the University’s dining program and students’ perceptions of dining. She highlighted that Harvest Table is “By students, For Students.” The community will grow internally, but also with partnerships with local farmers and resources. She said that they push boundaries with the mentality, so that the best ingredients are artfully prepared, yielding the best results. It was with this that Green shared a diagram of what food would be served at each of the dining locations around campus. Examples include Bento and TomaTillos in Upper Usdan and Rotir Rotisserie and Fuze in Lower Usdan. She said that Louis’ Deli would be moved to Lower Usdan to add seating and make it a place where people can relax and enjoy the dining experience. She added that the 781 Market, an extension of the Hoot Market, will be a place where students can get food or drinks any time of the day or night. Green said that Harvest Table wants each dining center on campus to feel like a different dining experience.
During the Q&A session, one student asked about Harvest Table’s operation, given student concerns about better supporting community farms and farmers and fishers of color, animal welfare and reducing carbon emissions — for which there was a demonstration outside of the Aramark Philadelphia office. Thorton said that although Harvest Table is a part of Aramark, it is an independent division and has its own policies. Thorton was not aware of the Philadelphia demonstration. Harvest Table develops its own supply chain in the areas where it has accounts. Thompson said that Harvest Table had committed to meeting these demands, such as by only purchasing meat from third-party certified sources to improve animal welfare. He said that Harvest Table prides itself on its commitment to transparency.
Another student asked about worker retention. Thorton said that the workers’ contracts will be honored and their jobs guaranteed both because of the collective bargaining agreement with UNITE HERE Local #26, but also from a humanitarian perspective.