Q&A with Food Consultant Ray E. Petit

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Ray E. Petit from Petit Consulting LLC is the food consultant hired by Linda McDougall, Dining Services director, and Stu Hain, to provide an objective view of Swarthmore’s dining program. His study will include an assessment of the dining program at Swarthmore, which includes the residential dining facility Sharples and the retail operations Essie Mae’s and the two coffee shops.

Petit recently spent two days on campus, touring dining facilities and meeting with Dining Services focus groups. These focus groups were comprised entirely of students, with the exception of Petit and McDougall, who want to voice their opinions about the upcoming changes.

Ray E. Petit is the founder of Petit Consulting LLC, which assists college and university campuses with their dining programs and facilities. Petit has been doing this type of consulting for over 30 years.

We spoke with Petit about what his work will entail at Swarthmore and how it will impact the college in the future.

 What aspects of Dining Services will you assess?

 The assessment of the dining program will look at both the residential and retail dining operations. We will also look at catering, the physical facilities that support all those operations, and the pros and cons. Furthermore, I’m looking at what the college is doing in terms of the Master Plan for the campus, for Clothier, and the potential of adding news beds to campus as enrollment increases and the impact it will have on the meal plan.

 The types of things I look at, in particular at Sharples, are the menu offerings and the cycle menu that is offered week over week, as well as the days of operations. I also look at the staffing, how adequate is the staff in serving the students needs. I’ll also assist Linda with looking at the whole budget; how the budget is developed and prepared, and how she and her team forecast operating costs to run the program and how it matches up in terms of financial measures of other colleges. I’ll also make some comment on the physical plan of the facilities.

What will be the end result of your study?

The outcome of my initial scope of work will be a narrative report with observations and findings based on my visits to Swarthmore, a review of historical data that [McDougall] has provided me with, the outcome of the focus group sessions, and the meetings I’ve had with senior administrators here at the college. My observations will result in recommendations on how to improve the dining program.

 To what degree will you take the Campus Master Plan into consideration in your study?

I sat in on the last presentation the architect hired by the College to work on the Master Plan gave, and I understood that Sharples renovations are aligned in the architect’s list of action steps. Whether it is prioritized by the College I don’t know because I am not involved in that work. I would say my study would at some later time recommend potential changes in Sharples but the architect’s work and my study are not technically connected. Hopefully, the College will have the benefit of my observations before the architect’s recommendations for Sharples, and between the two of them make a decision on how to renovate the Sharples facility.

What was a recent project that is comparable to the one being done here? In that project, what did you recommend and what actually changed? Did the college implement those changes in a couple of months or years?

R.P: The study at Amherst College in fall 2009 was aimed at identifying what the College could do, or needed to do, to improve its residential dining program, similar to the study being done at Swarthmore.

The study looked at operating hours, menu offerings, facility layout and design, staff capabilities, overall operating costs, comparison to peer institutions, and additional resources needed to enhance the dining program. The study in fall 2012 was a follow-up to the study three years earlier with the College desiring to identify, define, and quantify steps needed to take the program “to the next level.”

Recommendations made to Amherst that were acted on included: introducing an Executive Chef to the culinary staff, expanding selections of international cuisines and menu items, improving food displays and presentation, acquiring and implementing an automated menu and food inventory management system, expanding dinner service hours, and increasing students’ access to meal exchanges at retail food-service outlets on campus.

The proposal from fall 2009 was implemented in a sequenced manner over two years. Student participation at Valentine Dining Hall is up, satisfaction levels are reportedly higher than in past years, the ‘level’ of menu and food quality has been upgraded through the presence of the Executive Chef, and students have options now during peak demand periods when class schedules give them little time to use the dining hall.

Photo courtesy of Petit Consulting LLC

Featured image courtesy of Brendan Work ’10/The Daily Gazette


  1. I was hoping that the consultants hired would also put emphasis on sustainable food purchasing policies that aid local food economies and emphasize fresh healthy food, animal welfare, and green procurement. Ideally, the college should not be associated with companies that utilize the conventional food systems dominated by agribusiness. These systems, based on economies of scale, have a terrible environmental impact (fossil fuel dependency) and an equally terrible record treating farm workers and farmers. Social and environmental factors should rank high on any analysis of our current dining programs.

    • You know Sharples already makes an effort to provide local and sustainable food, right? They’re already doing impressive work with the resources of a small school to provide us with food that is ethically produced. We can ask for more, but we should acknowledge the Sharples staff for the concerted effort they have already made, and remember how fortunate we are as well.

  2. If Sharples placed the silverware at the flanks where we exit (where the fruit currently is), people would be less likely to take silverware they don’t need. How many of us have taken spoons when we enter the servery, only to return it to the conveyor belt, unused, because we never picked up soup (or other liquid items)? Small steps to reducing our waste and energy consumption!

  3. yay, finally sharples will get a makeover!
    -natural light, lots of it! and also good evening lighting (hard to see food, let alone people during dinner)
    -expanded, vertically and horizontally, serving area
    -toss out all of the salad dressings in favor of homemade ones? (do we really need all those salad dressings and also all those condiments?)
    -i think sharples is trying to hard to please everyone and that comes at a significant monetary cost. i would rather see sharples be more efficient, be excellent in a couple of items at each meal rather than be mediocre in all of them.
    -wish we could have improved juice machines, like at bryn mawr (they have lemon-lime water for goodness sake!)
    -local, organic, sustainable vendors!
    -hopefully this study also sees the crazy inflation occurring at Essie Mae’s…

    -the current business mentality at Sharples is to make a profit off of the dining enterprise…which leads to a subpar dining experience for students. I hope Sharples realigns and refocuses its efforts to focus on the students rather than the profits (the college should be happy just with breaking even)…

    -anyway, Linda is doing a pretty good job, but I think there are lots of room for improvement in efficiency and quality

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