There is an ol’ world charm to Bharathidasan Institute of Management (BIM), Trichy’s campus. A huge playground on one side and little hostel buildings with quaint balconies on the other. At one corner is the mess, which is nestled among trees and partly open air so it gives the feeling of dining in the outdoors.
But what is more fascinating about the mess is that it is entirely run by the students. Only short of trudging back to school with sacks of onions and potatoes, the students manage every bit of the mess work be it going into the market and selecting vendors and supplies to signing off procurement bills every single day and paying salaries of the employees. And employees are many, be it the cooks, the supervisor, the people who clean the dishes to those who clean up the table and the lady who cleans up the place.
No wonder that even the director and the faculty of the institute actually pay the students to eat there. The practice of running the mess in this fashion was first put into force in 1984 by the erstwhile batch of students. Krishnan Jeesha (who looks after the public relations, health, hygiene and grievances with regards to the mess) told PaGaLGuY that the motive was the same 27 years ago as it is now. There is so much to learn from running a canteen down to the details. Our management lessons start here.
It’s a daily job
The mess is run by a committee of 17 students called the MESSCOMM. Of these, 8 are from the second year (MESSCOMM 27)and the remaining from the first (MESSCOMM 2. For all, work in the MESSCOMM committee is a daily affair. Jagannathan R who looks after the accounts said that the system was run like a small business venture. We go to the market periodically to check on vendors and compare prices with other vendors. We also invite quotes from vendors who are interested. And once we are satisfied with the price and quality of the vendors, the MESSCOM gets into an agreement with the them to supply groceries to our college. And they bring it to college every day.
Priyadarshini K who looks after the vegetables and groceries procurement said that one MESSCOMM member religiously signs off the procurement slips every day. This is after minutely checking the quantity and quality, she added. While the gorceries are procured on a daily basis as per the requirement, durables like rice, dal are purchased in bulk. There are many vendors the students keep in touch with and they are selected and rejected regularly depending on their pricing and quality.
What to cook?
Ramkumar R, who looks after the human resources of the MESSCOMM says that the menu was changed every trimester after getting the opinions and suggestions from all the students using Google Docs. We consolidate the opinions, finalise the menu and give it to the mess supervisor and communicate it to the mess employees. Also in next two weeks we analyse which dishes are moving and which are not well received. Based on this, we streamline and tweak the menu again to keep everyone happy, explains Ramkumar.
Since the entire mess is fully student run, the cost of employee wages, groceries and snacks is divided among the students equally. But for special items like chicken, mutton, vegan specials (Gobi 65, Paneer masala) the students are charged extra. According to Saikat M who handles snacks for MESSCOMM, the estimate of specials required is taken the day before by asking the students to fill in a sheet. We then get an idea of the raw material to buy for next day. So contribution of each student again varies from month to month based on the market prices.
On an average a student contributes Rs 2,500-3,000 per month while the management on the whole contributes Rs 20,000 per month. The director and faculty have to buy coupons, individually worth Rs 17 to eat at the mess. One coupon is equal to one meal.
Lessons in management
Students who are part of the MESSCOMM say that running the canteen is a lesson in management. “It would be unfair on my part if we were to quantify the learning from this exercise, which is never exhausted until you graduate from the institute and even after that it stays with you. Still, managing the mess on a day-to-day basis for two years is a learning far greater than what any summer internship can teach you in a couple or more months,” says Krishnan.
James Jacob who handles the non-vegetarian procurement says that the learning is not restricted to just one aspect of management, “We get to learn all aspects of management as we study be it human resources, operations, finance or even marketing. We have learnt the art of negotiation, performance management, event co-ordination, supply chain management, outsourcing, grievance handling, inventory management, brand building and loads more first hand in practice while the rest of the students would have only bookish knowledge of these things.”
The students work to precision the most when it comes to supplies and demands but sometimes errors do creep in. Explains SreeRajeshwari, who looks after the vegetables and groceries in the mess, “Errors usually never happen since we procure the raw materials on a day-to-day basis and the years of experience which has been passed down from one MESSCOM to another helps us to almost accurately predict the requirements. But at times there has been shortage for days when we interrupt common eats such as Maggi, egg masala whose demand keeps fluctuating. But for us the more pertinent problem is waste management, as in some days there seem to be a lot of wastage and some students are also indiscriminate in wasting food.”
There are other issues as well. Especially, with the north-south diversity prevalent in the batch, differences in food tastes crop up. Adds Ramumar, “While the south Indians want more Pongal, the north Indians want more chapati and dal. We strive to strike a balance between all groups of students and staff. We provide dal every day as an backup for north Indians to any other dish they might not like.”
The committee also has a complaint redressal process in place where any complaint is attended to within 24 hrs.
What else is part of learning?
The MESSCOMM has assigned health and hygiene to one of its members, who has to make sure that everything from plates to spoons is clean. “We enforce that the workers use gloves and head gears while serving and cooking. We check that the storage place is clean. The mess premises must be cleaned after every meal. We check that the oil is not reused. We make sure the amount of oil used is not unhealthy. Even while deciding the menu, health considerations are kept in mind,” informs James.
Sree Rajeshwari adds that those in charge face fresh challenges everyday. “So many issues to look into, be it HR, or students unsatisfied or supply issues you have to face it and solve it yourself, its like a real-time application of whatever we learn in class then and there.”
Students add that mess work also keeps them busy all the time so they have less time for leisure, be it playing games or watching movies but none are complaining because of what it gives them in return. In fact, they are not even awarded extra marks in class for being in the mess committee, but it does not matter. “When we are asked application-based questions we are better placed to relate to some of them and give more relevant and practical answers which might translate to better marks,” answers Saikat.
So, aren’t the women better than the men in the kitchen?
There are two women each in MESSCOM 27 and MESSCOM 28. “It is a common notion that women can manage the kitchen better but in our tenure here we have seen men who are capable and maybe at times even better than some of the women. Although maybe when it comes to the particular matter of cooking in specific, women still hold the upper hand over most of the guys, but even here some guys in MESSCOM can give them a run for their money,” quips Jagannathan.
Krishnan said that they started an initiative in which cup noodles were procured at wholesale rates and supplied to students at the same rate at anytime of the day or night. “It has been received well especially during exam time when people skip dinners — we are called saviours for providing them the noodles at just Rs 17 when the market rates is Rs 20.”
There is also a ‘Mess Topper of the month’ title for a student who draws the biggest bill. Since some non-vegetarian items and sweet dishes such as ice-cream cost extra, the student who draws the highest bill every month is treated to a grand price of one cold drink, one non-vegetarian extra and one cup noodles. “We encourage our top customers,” says Jaganathan who adds that the catchline for the mess topper is, “For people who couldnt top in class we give you another opportunity.