If it's true that the way to a person's heart is through the stomach, then Richard Berlin could become campus sweetheart. He's MIT's new director of dining, responsible for all the food and dining programs on campus.
Gastronomically speaking, Mr. Berlin knows his stuff. He trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at a handful of fine restaurants before going over to the management side of food at two major universities.
He came to MIT in May to become director of dining, a newly created position advocated by the Institute Dining Review, a November 1997 report issued by the Institute Dining Review Committee in conjunction with the Planning Office. His mission here is to help fulfill the community-building goals of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning by improving campus dining choices and facilities so they play an active, positive role in bringing people together.
"The office [of director of dining] was established as a conduit for change," said Mr. Berlin, who was assistant director of dining services at Duke University before being hired by MIT. Before that, he was the financial and purchasing manager for the department that encompassed dining, housing and conference services at Cornell University.
"People at MIT are really interested in improving dining services, because they realize that dining is an important component of community building. We'd like to turn our dining facilities into warm, attractive places with a good variety of food as a means of bringing people together -- to promote better student-student and student-faculty interactions," he said.
Mr. Berlin reports to Phillip Walsh, director of the Campus Activities Complex, which falls under the umbrella of the Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education (ODSUE).
"Rich's position is fundamental to the Institute's response to the Dining Review," said Mr. Walsh. "That's one piece of a large food puzzle. Another will be creation of the Campus Dining Board, an advisory organization called for by the Dining Review Report. That group will help to make sure that there is systemized community input into all areas of dining decision making. And that's new to MIT.
"We were looking for a director who would oversee the new office and not have it as one area among many responsibilities within somebody's job description," he said. "Rich's background is at Duke and Cornell, two of our peers where satisfaction with dining is quite high. He can speak from his knowledge of food and food issues but he also knows how to administer the program as well."
Mr. Berlin has an associate's degree from the Culinary Institute of America, a BS in finance from the University of Connecticut and graduate work in the business school at Cornell. He has 12 years experience in university dining services, nine years at Cornell and three at Duke.
He wants to get campus dining facilities up to a level where people choose to meet on campus for a meal rather than heading into the city.
"Cambridge and Boston offer a wonderful variety of good food, but going off campus for dinner doesn't really bring MIT together as a community," he said. "We need people to get together on campus to build community. Dining isn't really playing a very good role in that yet."
LISTENING TO STUDENTS
Student input was very important to the success of the dining facilities at Duke University, according to Mr. Berlin, and he plans to incorporate students into the decision-making processes at MIT. One way will be the creation of a student committee to help with fine-tuning menu choices.
"The student committee will be a touchstone for testing new ideas," he said. "The worst thing is to throw new ideas out there without getting feedback ahead of time.
"At Duke, we wanted to bring a Chinese restaurant onto campus to fill an unused facility. The student dining committee visited all the Chinese restaurants in town, then made the choice. That restaurant contractor was a huge success; it turned into a million-dollar business in the first year," he said.
Aramark, which signed a new three-year contract with MIT effective July 1, is now the primary food contractor on campus, with the exception of the food trucks, LaVerde's Market and Toscanini's.
Though Duke hired independent contractors to manage some of its facilities, Mr. Berlin doesn't see having just one contractor at MIT as a problem.
"Direction and innovation in campus dining will come from within the MIT community," he said. "The means of delivering innovation and service improvement is not important as long as our goals of quality, convenience, value and community-building are achieved. Much of Aramark's management staff at MIT is new. I see this as a real positive to bringing in new ideas and helping us to infuse entrepreneurial spirit in campus dining."
One of his first decisions at MIT is to get new chairs for Lobdell this fall.
"We're going for something more contemporary and warm," he said. "The spaces here have a lot of glass and stone and plastic, but there's not a lot of warmth in them. And that's not good for bringing people together for eating. I'd like to make changes to the lighting -- which has been done in the past solely for efficiency. But we're saving pennies on electricity and losing customers."
He describes Lobdell as "homogenous -- lots of white tile. The stations all have the same faï¿½ï¿½ade. I'd like to see a facility where each station has a look and feel to it that is unique and represents the food it's serving."
Mr. Berlin plans to redesign Networks, the cafï¿½ on the first floor of the Student Center, in the spring. "It has good-quality food but it's slow, and I'm not a big fan of the microphone system of announcing when an order is ready."
As for upcoming changes, he said, "I'm not worried about trying new things. We're talking about food; I'm not building nuclear weapons."ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 1999.