Five questions for Janice Torkildsen

Marketing and customer experience manager, Dining Services, CU-Boulder
Janice Torkildsen at the atrium in the new Center for Community, which she helped develop

Janice Torkildsen at the atrium in the new Center for Community, which she helped develop

"Lucky" is a word Janice Torkildsen uses often to describe herself when it comes to life and love: Lucky because she has worked with administrators who encouraged her talents and creativity, and lucky because she's married to the man of her dreams.

Destiny might have intervened, but more likely it's Torkildsen's passion and caring attitude that have helped shape her life and career.

She's the marketing and customer experience manager for Dining Services at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She came to CU in 1986, working at Sewall Hall as an assistant manager, taking care of staff, ordering food and overseeing the daily operations of the dining center. Since then she's performed numerous jobs including serving on the committee of Global Jam, an event that has celebrated different cultures for the past 20 years. The annual picnic for new students attracts as many as 8,000 for a sampling of a variety of ethnic foods.

In the early '90s, she developed a student care-package service called Home Comforts, in which parents would send students gifts for birthdays or stress relief. Sometimes, parents sent a grocery list and Torkildsen would do the shopping and make a delivery to grateful students. Though successful, the program was cut from the budget, but Torkildsen hopes to reincarnate it in the near future.

She also was instrumental in the opening of convenience stores (C-stores) on campus, followed by Piazanos, a grab-n-go that serves natural and organic items and is a student favorite. It's an endeavor she calls one of the highlights of her career.

Most recently, she played varied roles in the opening of the Center for Community building. "I have a creative edge and luckily I have been fortunate enough to have folks in upper administration recognize that and give me the opportunity to create. I have always been a bit of a free spirit."

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. What was your role in the new Center for Community (C4C) building?

My role varied day to day, from co-chairing a few design committees to selecting art to creating marketing pieces and all the signage you see in C4C. I created logos and branding and designed articles for publications. I also worked closely with the management team to name the food venues, select uniforms, and work wherever I was needed to get the building open.

I established relations with other campus departments because I didn't want to just buy a piece of art, I wanted to put up art that staff or students or alumni created. I wanted to make this a real community center. I worked with plant sciences to get plants for the space, the art department and the alumni association. Many of our alumni who go abroad will be sending me some of their photos to be used in the space. I am also trying to create a venue where faculty, students and staff from the music school can perform.

We want this to be educational, too. At each of the food venues, you'll find flat-screen TVs. At the Italian venue, for instance, you won't find the menu on the TV, but the culture of Italy, the food of Italy, the music of Italy.

We have a Black Coat station, where celebrity chefs will cook. Coach Hawk (Dan Hawkins) was the first to appear, cooking mussels. And we're gearing up to bring in more local celebrities.

It goes back to the community idea. Athletes eat here. Faculty and staff eat with us. Before, if there was a faculty or staff person in the dining center, it was kind of like, "Who is that old person?" Now we have faculty and staff bringing in families. In fact, I just ordered high chairs. It's a really, really fun thing to see.

2. C4C has been open only a short time, but have there been any surprises?

Surprisingly, the Persian Station has turned out to be one of the most popular. I don't think many of our students have been exposed to Persian food and it gives us great pleasure to go beyond the ordinary and what's expected and help our students develop a taste for foods of different cultures. We brought in a chef from a local Persian restaurant as a consultant and we serve a special Persian tea brewed in a Samovar.

The Smoke and Grill is a place that students really like with comfort food like mac and cheese, burgers and brats, and the salad bar area, which is 60 feet long, always is packed.

The number of guests has far exceeded our expectations. We serve upwards of 5,800 customers a day at C4C. We're a meal plan facility, that's the bulk of our business, but we just happened to create a place where everyone wants to eat. The number of people who pay for meals, rather than those on a meal plan, has increased greatly.

There's always something open until 8 p.m. One venue, a retail operation called the Weather Tech Cafe, is open until 2 a.m. We had a lot of input from students asking to have something open later. It's quite busy in there.

We also have an A9-free area where we serve food that does not contain the nine allergens, such as tree nuts, berries, milk, fish, gluten. It's pretty groundbreaking as far as universities go.

We had a group of students actually find our office (which is a bit out of the way) to say, "Thank you for opening this great place for us." That's a first and it certainly made my day!

3. Part of your job is "customer experience." It seems the idea of "customer as key" faded a bit but is now returning. Is this true?

I don't think customer services faded, I just think that we drifted away from the personalization of things and now we have done a complete 180-degree turn. One of the most exciting things about my current position is that I get to chat with our students on a daily basis, hold focus groups, and really get to know them. If I see a student sitting alone at a table I just sit myself down, introduce myself and let that student know that we really do care about each and every one of them. Customer Care, as I like to call it, is creating memories that last a lifetime. A lot of my favorite personal memories have been centered on a family meal or a special occasion or celebration that has involved a great meal. Our dining centers are our students' kitchens and living rooms. I can honestly say that our customer service is great and everyone that works in dining services goes out of his or her way to make sure our students have the best experience when they dine with us.

4. Tell me a little about you personally. Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

My greatest joy outside of work is my 33-year marriage. I was lucky to marry the man of my dreams. I know it sounds a bit sappy, but I count my blessings every day. We met when we were 18. We both were working at a little job; I was the sales girl and he was the stock boy.

I like to travel, read, garden and paint, and we have a 1962 Airstream trailer that we are restoring. Last year we went to Italy; that was lovely. We're kind of groupies for George Strait, a country musician we first saw in 1978. Now we travel all over the country to see him. We were just in Seattle for a concert and next we go to Minnesota. We also have a son who lives in L.A., so we like to hop on a plane for long weekends.

When my husband told me he was getting a motorcycle, I said it was a midlife crisis thing. Then he took me up to the mountains and now I want to go every weekend. It's amazing, the smells and the senses you have. The funniest thing about it is that I actually fall asleep when I'm on the back. It's so relaxing to me to be on those beautiful mountain roads.

5. What is a goal or dream you hope to achieve either professionally or personally?

One of my professional goals is to assist as many students as I can in getting prepared for life after college. I have supervised hundreds of students, jobwise. At this point in my career, I've become a mother figure. I bring them to my home for dinners where we have a tradition. Their moms send their favorite recipes and I buy all the ingredients – they are college students on a budget – and they come to my house and cook. I keep in touch with many of the students who have worked with me and have been told by them that I have made a difference in their lives. Talk about a dream come true! To know you are respected, loved and appreciated. It can't get better than that.

Personally, when I retire I would love to travel the back roads of our country in our Airstream, enjoy my family and have good health.