An Interview with Shawn LaPean, director of Cal Dining at UC Berkeley

An Interview with Shawn LaPean, director of Cal Dining at UC Berkeley

Food & Drink

An Interview with Shawn LaPean, director of Cal Dining at UC Berkeley


Shawn Lapean
Shawn LaPean

Shawn LaPean is the director of Cal Dining at UC Berkeley where he is responsible for serving some 35,000 students with a staff of more than 700 employees. With revenues tallying more than $50 million annually, LaPean oversees vending, all you can eat, retail, catering, faculty clubs, athletic dining and summer conferences. During his career LaPean has developed and managed more than 70 branded concepts at four universities. Prior to joining Cal Dining LaPean was director of operations at Vanderbilt University and held executive posts at the University of Minnesota and San Diego University. A former Silver Plate recipient in the Colleges and Universities category, LaPean is actively involved in numerous industry groups including the National Association of University Food Services (NACUFS).

Title: Director of Cal Dining, UC, Berkeley

Age: 51 on December 30

Headquarters location: Berkeley, CA

Newest Ventures: We are not an “exclusive” food provider on our campus and have a great deal of competition; however we are only one of two operators. Everything else is contract or commercial lease space. Hence I spend a great deal of time building on campus relationships hoping to convince other departments to contract “in” with Cal Dining vs. contracting out.

Hometown: Bloomington, Minnesota

Education: BA in Political Science

First Restaurant Job: Grill cook at Edenvale golf club in MN

Restaurant Light Bulb Moment: Build a core value system and stick with it

Heroes: Richard Melman LEYE

What Do You Cook at Home: I whip up a mean breakfast. There is something therapeutic about cooking breakfast on the weekends.

Pick Your Final Meal: An In & Out Double/Double with grilled onions

First Dish Prepared as a Child: Campbell’s Tomato Soup

Favorite TV, Movie, Music: A Laker’s game. For music everything from the Beatles to The XX (

Favorite Part of the Job: Innovating every single day

Guilty Pleasure: French Fries

Best Stress Management: Spin class or a great hike

Career Highlights: Ivy Award-2007, Silver Plate-2008

Best Advice Ever Received: “It’s sometimes better to receive forgiveness than permission!”

Best Advice Ever Given to Someone Else: “It’s sometimes better to receive forgiveness than permission!”

Favorite Book: Currently Malcolm Caldwell’s “Outliers”

Hobbies: Outdoor recreation of almost any kind. Camping, hiking, travel 

What is the biggest difference between college foodservice today and college foodservice 20 years ago?
When I started we were about only providing sustenance. Now with new learning from student life professionals “learning outside the classroom” is sometimes more important than academic learning when taking a “whole person” perspective. A college dining enterprise facilitates that learning outside the classroom. If your food and service are good enough students will gather, socialize, study and interact at a higher level. This strategy takes us beyond mere sustenance.

Your career has taken you to quite a few states. How much have you learned by working in the different locales?
I’ve learned that the basic rules of the food business from a financial perspective don’t change much, even outside the college channel. That each market has it’s own perspectives and that by developing methods to listen to customers’ wants, needs, wishes and then acting upon them is paramount to meeting the market head on. That you have to build trust with customers and that by using this equation you should be successful:


If customers don’t trust your food and services they won’t be back.

You were the 2010 chair for the national conference of the National Association of University Food Services (NACUFS). What was that experience like and how time consuming was it?
I had an absolute blast as both conference chair and sponsorship chair. I had an incredible team that created what I believed was one of NACUFS best nationals! The time commitment was not too extreme for me and I did not feel I lost any focus of my primary job duties. In fact Cal Dining had a great financial year last fiscal year. One of the best parts besides building the overall theme was networking with manufacturers and vendors on their goals and helping to deliver methods to reach out to NACUFS operators.

Berkeley, CA has the reputation for being one of the most liberal places in America. Was it a noticeable difference in culture from your previous home in Nashville, TN?
UC, Berkeley in my opinion gets most of its reputation from the city of Berkeley, and the campus has a different culture. While liberal one of our largest student groups is the College Republicans. I do have to point out that the geography of the bay area and surrounding Central and Salinas valley contribute greatly towards our ability to be one of the “greenest” campus programs in the country and there is wide spread student and staff support for what we do in that regard.

You manage an enormous budget and hundreds of employees. How do you wrap your arms around so many moving parts in your organization?
I either had or hired a great team of management and chefs that are leaders in their own right. 

Cal Berkeley is close to many great local food providers. Do your menus reflect more of a locavore perspective than most college dining programs because of the proximity to such a rich store of farms and ranches?
Yes, again due to our proximity and volume (we are one of the largest college food services in terms of food “buy”) we can work with brands like Niman Ranch, Deistel Turkey and Mary’s chicken. The “real food challenge” where students want 20% sustainable purchasing by 2020. This is defined as local, ecological (organic), humane and fair trade. While the metric is not perfect we are 27% sustainable in our procurement in a solid fashion with approximately another 20% in a gray area that we believe should be counted.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What is your biggest challenge in business?
Working with academic centered human resource standards, policies and procedures can be challenging. They are lengthier in time, process and opportunity cost than what would be optimum in a food environment. On the other hand I’m glad we pay our staff a “living wage” plus benefits that they may not enjoy in other foodservice channels.

How do you stay ahead of the trends affecting the tastes of the college students that you serve?
I’m asked this all the time and it is really having a great network.

Since the school is so close to such great Bay Area dining, do you do anything special to keep faculty and staff dining on campus?
Our catering services are the best in the East Bay!

What is the busiest time of the year for you and is there a slow period?
August and January as we ramp up operations for the semester. We will grow from the last Friday of summer with about 5,000 transactions to over 30,000 the following Monday.

How much interaction do you have with the president of the UC Berkeley?
I have very little myself.

What kinds of mentoring programs do you have in your organization?

What methods do you have for tracking feedback from your customers?
We have a bi-weekly student dining committee made up of students from both residential and off campus housing, student government, etc. We have online and in unit comment cards. We respond to those within a 24 hour window and I see everyone as well as my leadership team. We participate in the NACUFS customer service benchmarking survey each year to track results. We do a number of focus groups and other “monkey” surveys during the semester usually on a single subject. We utilize our own version of same store sales as customers generally “vote with their fee.” We expect onsite management to interact with customers during service times to the greatest extent possible. My team and I attend student government meetings and other campus meetings to hear from our customers directly.

Are college students more health conscious than in years’ past?
They are modeling healthy behaviors more often, but still seem to focus on not so healthy foods late at night. We work to educate students that all food “fits”- pizza is ok, but not every day.

How involved in marketing do you get and what kinds of marketing strategies do you use?
Very. I was lucky to be at San Diego State, which was one of the first universities to have a marketing department. Now everyone has one. We focus on too many to list but focus on building and maintaining a brand as any other foodservice operation does. Right now we are attempting to figure out the best practice use of social media. I have attended the Marketing Executive Group (MEG) by the National Restaurant Association meeting a couple times myself.

You received the Silver Plate Award in 2008 from the International Foodservice Manufacturers’ Association. What was that experience like for you?
It was the highlight of my professional career and have to thank IFMA for supporting such a great award and ceremony.

Do you find it difficult to recruit good employees because of the high cost of living in Berkeley and the surrounding areas?
In the current economy we are finding many good candidates for all our positions and as I mentioned we pay well. We pay a $13.34 minimum plus benefits for career employees and $11.25 for students. We seem to be able to hire the cream of the foodservice crop if you will. In fact I was told we would not be able to hire students, we had less than 30, most in office work, when I got here 8 years ago, now we have more than 350.

How were you able to more than double revenues in five years at Cal Dining?
I’ve had success at every university I’ve worked for. I see it as one of my best attributes. Begin with core values, standards and don’t look back; constant growth focus is all I know.

How involved are you in menu ideation and how much food tasting do you do on a weekly basis?
At this point I would have to say none, really. I have a great team of chefs that know way more than I do. I give them a budget and let them have at it under general principles and the results have been unbelievable. This is another Bay area attribute.

Cal Berkeley is a very diverse student body from many different cultures and countries. How do you provide food for such a diverse market?
Again, chef driven food and focus on the customer. We have some students who tell us our ethnic food almost tastes like their Mother’s!

What is the typical job track for foodservice workers employed at colleges and universities and how do you attract top talent?
We had many cooks move to chef supervisors and then on to management. We like to provide those opportunities whenever and wherever we can. 

What are your goals for the next five years at Cal Dining?
Grow in quality, build more on campus relationships, maintain financial stability during difficult times (that may last 5 years), and continue leading the college channel in sustainable approaches that don’t break the bank. I also want to continue to grade myself on how many leaders I help develop.


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