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Food service teams heat up the dining experience

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - RANDOLPH, Texas -- Good food is big business and nobody knows that better than Bill Spencer, Air Force Personnel Center appropriated funds food operations section chief, who last year faced the daunting task of introducing epicurean variety to a culture rooted in traditional fare.

According to Spencer, Air Force dining facility customer feedback indicated dissatisfaction with old, over used menu options. Customers wanted more variety with fresh and healthier options, and fewer bland entrees. In response, Services initiated "Operation Refresh," an enterprise-level initiative to improve the dining experience at the Air Force's 277 dining facilities.

"We have several objectives for this program; the most important being to improve the dining experience for our customers," said Spencer. "We want to provide great tasting and visually appealing foods while meeting the high demand for a variety of healthy options. It is an ongoing process, but we accomplished this by a combination of creating new recipes and incorporating new cooking methods such as oven cooking, poaching or grilling versus frying and deep fat frying. "

Services also needed a way to ensure new preparation methods made it to the field. Introducing new recipes and cooking methods made the training piece of the initiative particularly critical, he explained.

"New items prepared poorly would not improve the dining experience, and seafood is particularly sensitive, so we developed online instructional videos and graphic recipe cards to help food service specialists learn to prepare the new menu items," he said.

Training topics include cooking techniques, as well, such as roasting, grilling, poaching and other healthy cooking methods. Recipes are developed in coordination with industry chefs and captured on videos featuring Tech. Sgt. Amanda Hass and Tech. Sgt. ShaErica Waters, members of Spencer's staff.

Hass and Waters were far from simple on-air talent. According to Spencer, they not only demonstrated the various techniques and food preparation methods in the videos, they developed and tested the recipes using those techniques and methods, and worked with the production team to develop storyboards and scripts that would best illustrate the process for food prep teams in the field.

"My staff has exceeded every expectation, including the original goal of introducing one new item to the core menu every month. They released 18 intriguing, new or modified items in less than a year," Spencer said.

Successes notwithstanding, Operation Refresh still faces numerous hurdles.

The logistics involved in adding an entrée to the menu of a global food enterprise are staggering. Each change requires food vendors be able to provide necessary ingredients in adequate quantities, and the warehouses that support the food distribution must be able and willing to maintain that supply.

"For a new item that may or may not be popular, it is risky for everyone involved. We must be very sure with each item that it will meet both our standards and the customers' expectations," said Spencer.

In addition to the field training requirement, every new menu item must meet stringent government nutritional content requirements, and every dining facility needs marketing materials to help advertise the new items and a data collection method to objectively measure popularity - or lack of it.

Food consumption trends are evolving, and where "chili mac" and "S.O.S" once reigned supreme, dishes like roasted pork Cubano with mojito dip and wild Pacific salmon in fresh citrus butter now tantalize the imagination. The snack line menu reads like a Route 66 excursion with such options as the el pollo pesto sandwich and California veggie quesadilla. Now, popular snack line sandwich options include garden fresh chicken salad and tuna salad on a tortilla or lettuce wrap.

"The plain baked fish option has been replaced with a variety of flavorful fish entrees." Spencer said. "The feedback on those has been very positive."

New food service specialists attend technical school with sister-service members in Virginia. During the 8-week program, trainees develop basic skills that will provide a foundation for growth in the field.

"They don't really get much full-menu experience until they reach their first duty station," Spencer explained. "So the Operation Refresh training videos are very helpful for them as well."

Operation Refresh is one of several enterprise initiatives to improve the dining experience while focusing on health. In addition, the Air Force and Army have implemented the "Go for Green" program, which helps diners make healthy selections based on a color-coding process.

Menu items are identified on menu boards and on the serving line with green, yellow or red markers, depending on their overall health benefits. Items are assessed to determine fat, sodium and calories per serving and the colors tell diners which selections are the most healthful.

According to Spencer, green markers are for entrees with fewer than 300 calories and 10 or fewer grams of fat, and they should represent the bulk of lifestyle choices. Yellow markers identify foods with 300-500 calories and 10-15 grams of fat. They can be eaten occasionally, but not as a regular diet. Red marked items - with more than 500 calories and 15 or more grams of fat - should be eaten infrequently, he said.

Operation Refresh isn't just about new menu items.

"It is about giving our patrons what they want and that is a variety of tasty, healthy options that will satisfy and nourish them," Spencer said. "Our plan for the next year is to continue to introduce new items, and work to refine the program. We continue to look at industry to benchmark their successes, and we're developing a merchandising plan that will allow us to work with manufacturers to market the program."

Challenges will continue as the food service team works to streamline the supply system and develop a comprehensive customer feedback process, but past successes have given them a taste for victory.

"Don't feel like your ideas don't count," Spencer tells customers. "We want your feedback, and we need it to be able to improve."

To provide feedback on Operation Refresh, diners can complete a comment card (available in every dining facility) and drop it in the feedback box located in the dining facility or give it to a food service team member.

For more information about other quality of life programs visit www.usafservices.com or www.myairforcelife.com.