Finding the CCUFoodManby Derrick Bracey
Jeffrey Stone, aka CCUFoodMan, is an elusive figure. He roves Coastal Carolina University’s campus like a mad man on a golf cart, going off the designated paths, navigating his way around crowds and trees along the way. He calls out to the people he passes, stops to talk to students, gives them rides to one of his 10 food outlets around campus.
Stone is the food service director at CCU and he knows everyone’s name, eats standing up, uses his Twitter account to spread his food news and asks everyone he sees, “How you doing?” But good luck trying to pin him down and ask him some questions. Some days it would be easier to catch sunshine in a box or wind in a birdcage. And if you make contact, don’t turn away or he may leave you in his dust.
At first glance, Stone appears to be all business with his soft-spoken manner and business suit. But when he makes contact with his customers, he kicks into action—throws high-fives and has lively conversations with those who cross the path of his golf cart or his enthusiasm. Helen Felder, who has worked in Food Service at CCU for six years, says Stone is “a strict boss, but he’s a good boss.”
As Stone mingles with the diners, Felder says, “Quite a bit of the students know him. He’s the Food Man. If something ain’t right, they tell him and he makes it right.” And it has been this way since he became CCU’s food service director in June of 2010.
Stone has made it his mission to reach out to the CCU community. He’s always looking to expand and create new avenues for the students, faculty and staff to get good food. But beyond that, he wants to establish a relationship with his customers. To build these relationships, he maneuvers between dining rooms and student activities like a celebrity, tweeting all the while. He has meetings with students about improving menus and listens earnestly whenever anyone pitches him an idea.
In a crowded dining hall, students throw ideas at him. “You should serve frog legs and coon and deer and squirrel and chicken bog. Everything fried, a redneck menu.”
And Stone responds with a nod. “We served frog legs and chicken bog last semester. Maybe we can do it again.”
There’s no bad idea with Stone. “It’s important to connect with students, know their likes and dislikes, get feedback, so they do not just think, ‘There’s the guy in the suit who’s always eating,’” he says. And he is always eating. All for the sake of quality assurance, he says.
This is the same philosophy he applies to his Twitter account. “I get a large variety of responses, questions and comments,” he says. “They vary from questions about hours of operations to ‘What is on the menu?’ to ‘My coffee tastes bad, can you fix it?’ If it’s a serious issue, I’m able to email my managers and investigate, see if the student was just having a bad day or if we were in the wrong. Then I can email the students back a reply the same day.”
It’s this kind of “right now” approach that Stone uses in his development of Food Service on campus. In two years, he has brought in Subway and Einstein Bros, instituted vegetarian and allergy-free menus, added new features to existing food outlets like loyalty programs, kiosks, salad and pasta bars. The Food Man has worked hard to make his menus something to look forward to, instead of just something to be digested.
Originally from Boston, Stone grew up on a working farm in New Hampshire where he learned about food preparation from the ground up. He has worked with Aramark Food Service for 16 years. Before CCU, he worked at Simmons College in Boston. He says, “I was pretty popular, but I didn’t have a Twitter account.” Stone came to South Carolina with his wife and daughter in 2010, and in late 2011 he started CCUFoodMan on Twitter. He has amassed more than 1,400 followers. The online buzz is a direct result of his reputation as an energetic purveyor of good food, a friend on campus and a job provider—40 of his 200 employees are students. That’s 20 percent of his workforce. These are the results of his success in reaching out to his audience/customers and letting them know he cares. CCU student Garrison Carruth says, “He’s just really good at publicizing.”
Visiting the Einstein Bagel Coffee Shop, Stone notices the line is a bit long and tells one of the students, “I want you to time how long you’re in line. Then time how long it takes to get your food after you order. Then tweet it to me.” He says, “When 500 kids are all getting out of class at the same time, what are you going to do? But we try to keep a balance.”
Stone says, “For the most part, our customers stay satisfied because they know we’re looking out for them.” And all of the customers asked felt that way, even those who haven’t made a close connection with him. Student Marisa Remley does not follow Stone on Twitter but says, “I know of him. I see him around, yelling from his golf cart. He’s very excited about his food. It’s cool he gets that excited about making better food.”
Stone walks up to two students eating lunch. He asks Cassandra Smith and Brieanda Porcher how classes are going and how their lunch is. Stone walks away, and Smith says, “He keeps it working properly. He comes around and samples food from our plate. But he keeps us happy, gives the students what they want.” Porcher adds, “He’s the most popular member of the staff, riding around on his pimped-out golf cart. He just knows how to make people smile.”