We spoke with Michael Kosevich, Associate Director of Dining Halls at Montana State University in Bozeman about the challenges in today’s C&U dining centers and how grains are playing a big part on the menu.
What brought you to Montana State University?
I had a chance to move to a town in Germany, a resort town—skiing, mountain biking, all that. I worked in the ski lodge where the ski instructors talked about Bozeman and Big Sky. Then I met my wife, who used to vacation in Montana.
When her dad retired, we all moved out to Three Forks, a little town outside of Bozeman. I got hired at the university in 1994, started off as a cook and worked my way up through the ranks, and have been the Associate Director for the past 4 years.
What is your current dining hall setup like?
In 2015, we remodeled our existing Miller Dining Hall and 3 years later built a second dining hall called Rendezvous. We changed from the old steam lines to platform cooking, where you walk up to get more of the fresh, cooked-to-order foods. We have a full Mongolian grill, a rotisserie, a smoker, wood and stone pizza ovens. We press our own tortilla shells for our Mexican station.
Since then, everything has just taken off—our off-campus meal plans have increased, our on-campus meal plans too, our cash sales. The students have unlimited entry into either one. They can go in once or 100 times a day. Eat as much or as little as they want. They love it.
How many meals do you serve each day?
Next year, we’re expecting record enrollment, around 17,000 students. With that, we’ll serve around 15,000 meals per day. Everyone is pretty excited. A little nervous too!
What trends in the past 5 years have you seen impact student dining?
Of course, local food sourcing is always a big one. We go to the 4-H fairs across the state to buy pigs, goats. We also work with our agriculture department and their Steer-a-Year program. They have, like, 30 donated cattle that the students raise, study, and then we buy them and serve them in the dining halls.
Another trend is raising bees. We’re trying to grow that program. We had to put it on hold with COVID of course, so hopefully we’ll gain some ground on that in the next couple of years.
All-in-all, about 25% of our menu is made from local foods.
For us being in Montana, the Indigenous foods initiative has been a really big deal. In fact, Chef Sean Sherman from Minneapolis—he’s known as “Sioux Chef”—visited MSU and worked with our chefs on Indigenous foods.
Do you use InHarvest grains in those Indigenous recipes?
Yeah, there are about 15 or 20 grains that we’re currently using from InHarvest in those: the Ruby Wild Rice Blend, Pearled Couscous, Black Pearl Medley, Jasmine Rice, Mountain Red Blend, Jade Blend, Golden Jewel Blend, Lentils, Bamboo Rice, Greenwheat Freekeh, Bulgur, Sunrise Blend, and the Aztec Blend.
I think there are about 50 recipes that we use those grains in throughout the dining halls—anywhere from Israeli quinoa orzo couscous, cilantro-lime rice, a whole variety of recipes that we’re currently using the InHarvest grains in.
How do you stay on top of current food trends?
Our Executive Chef Jill is very involved with conferences and seminars, especially through NACUFs (National Association of College and University Food Services). Carol Landolfi, our Supply Chain Manager, is passionate about it too. They keep up on all the trends.
Student feedback is huge. Students can give immediate feedback on our tablets in the dining halls. Or they come to us and say, “Hey, what about this? What about that?” It’s interesting—I’ve talked to other schools whose students aren’t interested in new trends. Ethnic foods, sustainability. It’s sad to hear. Their directors look at us and wonder how we make it work, but it’s our students who really drive it.
And Bozeman is very unique. We have a very wide, diverse choice, which I think helps us also.
It sounds like your students are hungry for new and unique foods.
It’s funny, isn’t it? You hear Montana and think “meat and potatoes,” pretty simple. But our students are very sophisticated with food these days. They know trends. They know taste. They know different cultures.
We introduced lamb a couple years back and I thought it wouldn’t last, but it’s very popular here. The students have a very diverse palate.
Where do you go to find new products or new menu ideas?
We talk with distributors, or reps at food shows. Personally, I’ve spoken with Chef Jason Ziobrowski at InHarvest a lot. We had some folks from InHarvest come visit and talk with us about the program. With COVID, a lot of this has been put on hold, but we’re hoping to do more of it.
Do grains help your operation when you’re low-staffed?
We’re struggling to get students to work. For us, it’s usually September into October. The trend is that the students come on campus, get settled with classes, get through Labor Day weekend, then they take a breath and say, “OK, now I can take on a job. I’ve got more time.”
But we know we’ve got to get through those first six or eight weeks before they start to filter into the to the dining halls for jobs. We probably hire about 200 students in each hall.
That’s where grains help. When you’re in a pinch, a labor shortage, it’s easy. It’s a quick go-to.
Are there any global flavor trends that you see becoming more popular?
Yeah, in fact our chef and our retail manager both brought up Mediterranean. They see that coming back. And Asian. That one still going very strong. And then again for us, Indigenous cuisine is big. InHarvest grains help support all those flavor profiles pretty well.
Did you shift towards grab & go during the pandemic?
In past years, we didn’t do grab & go in our dining halls. But obviously with COVID, we had to change everything to to-go. We just went back to self-serve in April, which was amazing because our students had really gotten tired of the whole “everything in a box.”
We thought in the fall, we’d move away from grab & go altogether. But then we realized with our record enrollment, our seating capacity is maxed out. Now in the dining halls, we’re going to do a to-go program from 11 to 2 PM. Students can come in, grab a clamshell container, grab a meal, and then walk out. We’re using InHarvest grains in these types of dishes—our Israeli lemon herb pasta, our tabbouli grain salad.
Which trends do you want to explore more in the future?
We’re trying to move toward cleaner labels. We have our own bakery on campus, and they were using a cake mix out of a box. Well, in some of these mixes and frostings there are 50 ingredients.
So we challenged our bakery to come up with some cleaner labels—eight to ten ingredients. Now we do a lot more scratch cooking for cakes and muffins. We’re aiming for cleaner labels on frostings, pie fillings.
We’re also doing more gluten free items. Our bakery makes gluten-free brownies, beet brownies, zucchini brownies. I’m a big proponent.
Campus bakeries aren’t very common across the country.
I think we’re one of very few that have their own bakery, so I like to show it off. The pastries, the donuts, the hamburger buns, the breads, everything comes out of our own bakery. We use InHarvest grains there.
Do you use grain to help support allergen-free dishes?
We have a concept called Crossroads that we opened in 2018 which has our allergen-free menu. We put many of those allergen-free grains from InHarvest into that area. Allergen-free options have become a big area of importance for us.
Finally, why would you suggest other C&U Foodservice Directors add grains to their menus?
Students are asking for it. I think it goes towards the requests for cleaner labels. It’s a healthy option. It’s diverse. It’s easy. It can be used in a lot of different recipes.
Grains are going to be a trend that keeps growing throughout the years.