As catering service manager for Campus Dining, Gerardo Torres-Ochoa must face the daily ebb and flow of business in the Loker Student Union’s (LSU) restaurants, all the while keeping top-drawer customer service and the warmth of hospitality on the menu. The winner of the first ever Excellence in Customer Service Award at last month’s inaugural Staff Awards of Excellence, shares his marketing philosophy for for Tully’s, Toro Takeout, the DH Sports Bar, and Club 1910.
“If you know that someone has a caramel macchiato at Tully’s every day, and you have it ready for them, that means a lot because they know you’re paying attention,” says Torres-Ochoa. “Or if there’s a line, a simple, ‘I’ll be right with you’ means so much. It’s not about posters or advertising. It’s about the relationship between you and the customer.”
Fostering that relationship began while he was still a student at California State University, Dominguez Hills. The recent graduate (Class of ’11, B.S., business administration) supported himself through college by working at LSU, and in the process was able to combine his in-class learning to the professional development he gained on the job. In selecting him for the award, the selection committee noted his role in assisting with more than 250 events during the university’s 50th Anniversary celebration and raising the profit margin for Campus Dining.
Torres-Ochoa’s day starts with the opening of Tully’s, the LSU’s coffee concession, and ends with the last catered event of the day. In between, he has to oversee and if needed pitch in, for the operations of each of Campus Dining’s services, which is why customers will often see him running the register in Club 1910 or tending bar at a reception in the University Library.
“I never have the attitude that, ‘I’m a manager, that’s not my job,’” he says. “That’s just what I do.”
In managing 30 to 40 kitchen staff, cashiers, food servers, and other positions, with approximately half being students at CSU Dominguez Hills, Torres-Ochoa adheres to a supportive but firm management style. As a recent student himself, he is empathetic to the demands of class schedules and assignments that might conflict with a part-time job. However, he regards his staff’s employment as part of their educational experience.
“It may be just a job for them to get through school,” he says. “But I always emphasize the importance of a job, the responsibility, punctuality, and most importantly, work ethic. If you build a good work ethic [now], I don’t care if it’s not something you’ll do for the rest of your life. Those are transferrable skills that you will carry to another job. If you slack here, you’re going to slack elsewhere.”
Torres-Ochoa, who began working at CSU Dominguez Hills in the University Bookstore while a student, says that he was recruited by Ricardo Mosqueda to assist the former chef of Campus Dining at catering events. Impressed by his work ethic and willingness to learn the business, Mosqueda offered him a permanent position managing Tully’s, from which he worked his way up. Although Torres-Ochoa had some management skills from a previous position at Loehmann’s, he says that he never anticipated a career in running food services and notes that although the transition was difficult, he was determined to meet the challenge.
“I like to be a leader and confident of what I do,” he says. “It was a pretty awkward transition at the beginning but then I started to enjoy it. Ricardo also gave me some [training] videos, and I would come in and help him during big events for free. It took me about six or seven months to get the hang of things, which [management] thought was really fast for someone who had just come in.”
Initially a kinesiology major, Torres-Ochoa eventually switched to business administration with an emphasis on sports, entertainment, and hospitality when he realized the complementary effect that his on-campus job had on his studies.
“After I started getting the hang of this, I thought, ‘Why not get a business degree?’” he says. “Like I tell my student employees now, it was the best thing that happened to me.
“Unfortunately, I had to rush through college, and I didn’t really dedicate as much time because I was always [working] at events. I had to skip tons of classes in the evening. I never got to pick and choose my classes, but would have to take whatever was available. Sometimes, I would be here at six in the morning, all the way to 11 p.m. But I learned a lot and grew professionally as well. I’m glad I came across this opportunity because it really helped me out, not only on the professional side, but as an individual.”
While Torres-Ochoa has had a variety of experiences in Campus Dining, he marvels at the fact that “there are so many components, and it’s such a large industry, that to this day I’ve never met anyone who can say they know everything about it. Things keep moving and you never learn everything.”
One thing that Torres-Ochoa has learned is how to maximize business when catering engagements are down. By featuring informal events like Taco Tuesday and the Waffle Bar, he raises the bottom line for Campus Dining while providing an enjoyable and collegial atmosphere for students, faculty, and staff.
“It brings everybody together,” he says of these special services. “You get to see who’s in Welch Hall, you get to interact with them. If you have a mentor, you can meet them there. Students come along and have their breakfast.
“That’s what this university has for me that beats any other university,” he says. “Not only is it very diverse, but you get to work closely with the [community]. At events like this, you get to see people, serve them, and be social.”
Torres-Ochoa’s sense of hospitality is another natural asset.
“My mother, she’s a great cook,” he says. “My father is very energetic. They both have great personalities. We always have people coming to our house, they enjoy it.”
The oldest of three children, Torres-Ochoa is the first to attend college and the first on his father’s side of the family to achieve a degree. He is a graduate of Belmont High School in Los Angeles and often visits his parents and two sisters in Las Vegas. With his ever-evolving interests, he says that he aspires to a master’s degree in either occupational therapy or social work.
“I love customer service, I enjoy doing it,” he says. “But I really want to do something rewarding, making a difference. Whether working with kids or elderly people, [these fields] also deal with different situations and issues everyday. But you’re dealing with people’s lives, it would be very rewarding.”