Meet Steve Mangan, Senior Director, University of Michigan Dining Services. Steve received the 2021 Silver Plate Award in the Colleges & Universities category, and was nominated by Ecolab & Kellogg's Away From Home.
Interview: What Drives the Nation's Top Foodservice Operators?
We asked the 2021 Silver Plate Class to share some perspectives and words of wisdom with the industry. Find out what they have to say about their passion for foodservice, career accomplishments and what it means to be part of a legendary group of operators.
How did you get your start in the foodservice industry?
My first job in the foodservice industry was at my town’s local Howard Johnson restaurant. It was a busy, busy place with constant activity. I started as a dishwasher and my boss, Mr. Stockman, quickly promoted me to working at the fountain counter when he realized I could get things done.
From that moment, I was hooked on foodservice, though it took me a bit longer to embrace it as a career. I started in the sciences as a student at Michigan State University. At one point, I was enrolled in a doctoral program, but after a few years, realized it wasn’t the right fit for me. I took a position at Syracuse University doing animal behavioral research and spent a lot of time soul searching and thinking “What do I do now?”
I still remember the conversation with my wife that really started my foodservice career. We were exiting a highway when I first brought up the idea of culinary school. We had always made our own bread, celebrated with food, and appreciated good food. It felt like a natural fit.
I started knocking on local restaurants’ doors so I could get the experience I needed to apply to culinary school. Once I found a restaurant to start working from the bottom-up, I never looked back.
Now, I can’t imagine working in any other industry. There’s no greater satisfaction than pulling off a busy shift or getting customers what they need, when they need it.
When the hoods go off, it’s a moment to think about what the team has accomplished and then get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
What do you enjoy most about your career in foodservice?
It’s hard to narrow it down because there are so many aspects that I love about our industry. One of my favorite parts of working in foodservice are the places it’s taken me and the people I’ve met through my work. Every place I’ve worked, I always say it’s the best team I’ve ever had - and it’s always true. Of course, my current team at Michigan Dining is now the best group I’ve worked alongside.
Another aspect of foodservice that I enjoy is helping our campus customers connect with the food on their plates and being able to see the impact we have on our campus customers. Our team invests a lot of energy and care into helping our customers learn about where their food comes from, learn more about healthy lifestyles, and help them think differently about their food.
For me, if we can impact our current students, we also have a chance to positively influence the next generation of consumers. Those of us who are in campus dining are having an impact on the food system, which as a restaurant chef, I had never considered being able to make this type of impact. Campus dining is a leader in this space, so it’s fun to be in that seat at this moment.
Tell us about your biggest career accomplishment.
There are a few standout moments that I’ve been lucky enough to experience during my career. Each is meaningful for different reasons. When I was competing in chef competitions, I earned a few gold medals that are meaningful because they reflect on good, hard work.
Another experience that I’m particularly proud of is my time working at a restaurant in Connecticut called Fresh Fields Country Bistro. It was really a restaurant that was ahead of its time. We were doing what is known as “nose-to-tail cuisine” back then without realizing it. We sourced all our ingredients from the local farms and suppliers around us in northwest Connecticut. We’d buy whole sides of animals--like lamb and rabbit--from our local suppliers and we’d process them in our restaurant. We’d use everything, and it really drove an interesting menu. We created seasonal, local food not because we were trying to do it, but because we could. I’m proud of that effort.
How have you kept yourself and your team motivated this past year?
It comes down to sharing your own vulnerability and your own concerns and doubts of whether you can pull off service in a setting that operates differently compared to pre-pandemic times.
You go with the ups and downs of the business. You listen to your people, you coach when you need to, you kick butt when you need to, and you have to be a cheerleader whether you want to be or not. However, at the same time, as the leader, you also have to ask for help when you need it. By doing that, people realize that we are all in this together.
At Michigan, we’re also fortunate to have a leadership that has been very concerned about our people and supported us in a way that’s focused on keeping us as safe and well as possible.
Throughout the pandemic, my approach to leading has been that if my team is here, then I’m here. I have made sure to have a presence on campus, while following all public health guidance, as often as I could. As a leader, it’s important to me to be there with my people. When I go into a unit, I’m in the kitchen saying hello to people and touching base. They know that I can do what they do, that I have done it, and I would do it tomorrow if they asked me.
What advice do you have for someone new to the foodservice industry?
My advice really depends on why someone is in the industry. Are you here to build a career? Or are you in a position, working for $10 to $15 an hour, as a bridge to another industry?
If you want a foodservice career, my advice is to always do more than your basic job responsibilities. Tap into your curiosity and seek out opportunities to learn as much as you can about all parts of the business operations. If you can position yourself as your unit’s go-to person, doors will open for you.
What does being an IFMA Silver Plate recipient mean to you?
It’s certainly humbling to be recognized by my peers in the food industry for me and my team’s work, especially when it’s for doing something that I love. It’s an awesome feeling.
For me, this recognition also makes me think of all the people who helped me get here, and there’s so many, like Mr. Stockman at the Howard Johnson restaurant. He showed me how to run the dish machine and then quickly moved me to more complex tasks than simply starting the dish machine. That experience also translates into all the mentors I’ve had who coached me and counseled me on how to do a better job managing people or sales presentations.
Conversely, this honor makes me think of all my current and past sous chefs who have supported and who now have their own restaurants.
What is your favorite meal?
Oh, I’ve had so many great plates of food. What makes a meal memorable goes beyond the food on the plate, though that’s certainly an important component. For me, it’s also about the experience.
I can remember a meal my wife and I had after a theater show in New York at a little French bistro. The night, the company, and the food were awesome.
I can remember another meal in an Irish pub in Berlin during the 1996 Culinary Olympics, where our team was celebrating the work we’d just done. We had all these close-knit members of this culinary team. The food was just endless and the chefs there were so happy to serve us.
Another great memory is one where my kids, my wife and I were in Ireland. We got into a Michelin-starred restaurant and the food was awesome, the company was great, and it was a part of a memorable event. We got to spend some time with the kitchen staff and let them know their work was appreciated.
I could go on and on. My most memorable meals are really built more around the environment than necessarily the food. I can have a great meal with burgers or macaroni and cheese if the company is right, the food is right, and the event just rings the bells for memories.
Watch IFMA's live conversation with Steve Mangan, Senior Director, University of Michigan Dining Services. Hear Steve's story and learn what drives one of the nation’s top foodservice operators.
This live conversation is brought to you with the support of Ecolab.