Omelet Guy Optimizes University of Montana Foodservice Ops with Green, Fun
By Kevin Campbell
While he's affectionately known as the "World Famous Omelet Guy" when he's running the omelet bar inside the University of Montana's Food Zoo cafeteria, Mark LoParco has been much more than a line cook in his 19 years at the school in Missoula, MT. If not spearheading a campaign, LoParco, the director, university dining services, has played a major role in several efforts to improve foodservice operations at the school of about 14,000 students.
Cook's Direct ran into LoParco at the National Association of College and University Food Services' Continental Region annual conference, held March 27 to 30 at the Coeur d'Alene Golf and Spa Resort in Coeur d'Alene, ID.
LoParco is an ardent promoter of sustainable practices, in particular the use of local ingredients wherever and whenever possible. His most recent effort is the construction of a sustainable garden, to be built where a large concrete slab, previously used as a patio and for waste collection, sat adjacent to the Food Zoo.
"I've watched this space for 19 years," LoParco told the Missoulian in an interview last week. "There's been nothing more than bike racks, skateboards and smokers."
Produce grown in the garden will supplement the fruit and vegetables already used (and many locally produced) in the kitchen. Ground was broken last week and construction began immediately.
The garden goes hand-in-hand with another project that LoParco has been a big part of: the Farm to College program. The effort brings together local producers of livestock and produce and large-volume buyers, helping rejuvenate what had become a moribund agriculture industry. Started by the student-led Montana Mornings breakfast in 2003, the UM Farm to College program is one of more than 140 similar programs run at colleges and universities throughout the nation.
Along with these programs, LoParco and his staff are also thinking green inside the kitchen. According to the Montana Kaimin, the university newspaper, two new eCorect waste reducer machines were rolled into the Food Zoo's dishroom last summer. These machines turn post-consumer waste, including food scraps and compostable, corn-based cups and utensils, into high-density, sterile biomass particles that can then be used as fertilizer. Waste is first run through the kitchen's food pulper and then into the waste reducers.
"This reduces the amount of product going to the landfill in a way that in a 24-hour period can go directly into the soil," LoParco told the Kaimin.
The machines use a proprietary dehydration process that does not require fresh water, enzymes or venting to convert the waste, completing a cycle in less than 24 hours with minimal energy use, according to machine manufacturer Eco Bay Solutions. What comes out is a dry, fluffy, mulch-like material that can be immediately turned into the soil. In a presentation as part of the Sustainable Business Council Missoula Montana's Sustainability Lecture Series, LoParco said the machines have reduced the Food Zoo's waste stream by 62 percent.
In that presentation, titled "Greening Food Services," LoParco talks at length about the sustainable efforts in the Food Zoo and other foodservice venues around campus.
With all of these pans in the fire, you might think LoParco is all business. But don't take his hard-hitting approach to kitchen operations as his only focus. While his professional expertise is food systems management, a field he received a degree in from Syracuse University and has been in for more than 30 years, he hasn't forgotten who his clientele is. That's where the gregarious personality of the World Famous Omelet Guy emerges.
LoParco and his crew of Food Zoo chefs are known around campus for their entertaining bits as a karaoke quintet. From time to time, they pull out the karaoke machine and assume their alter egos as The Baldinis, putting on a show for Food Zoo patrons. Their repertoire includes fun renditions of The Temptations' "My Girl" and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock." It's definitely worth a watch.
Much of what LoParco and the foodservice crew at UM are doing is blazing a new trail for the college and university foodservice industry. But foodservice operators of any kind would be wise to keep an eye on their results. While much of it clearly requires investments of time and capital, the benefits to the bottom line, and to the environment, are clear. Operators could realize significant, long-term savings in money and substantially reduce their waste streams, which in the end is good for everyone.