Is A Dining Service Right For Your Camp?

By Amy Thompson

Fifteen-year-old Ian Martin was asked to give a presentation about his camp experience to a group of potential campers. The directors anticipated that he would talk about the high-ropes courses, swimming pool and new friends, but his first words were, “The camp food is awesome. You always know you will eat well at camp.” Ian’s comments emphasize the importance of having a high-quality dining experience and food program at your camp.


Camps must decide if they can deliver the best possible product by using a dining service, such as Creative Dining Services or Kandle Dining Services, or by managing the kitchen in-house. Understanding the benefits of the options will help decide what is best for your camp.

What Can A Dining Service Provide For Your Camp?
Dining services provide peace of mind, smooth accounting processes, high-quality meals and flexibility. Answering some questions can help determine if the food program at your camp has become a blessing or a burden:

Solving Staffing Issues
Have you ever lost sleep wondering if your kitchen staff will show up or quit during the heat of the summer? Do you worry about your cooks’ reactions to donor nights, staff appreciation banquets or themed meals? One great benefit from a contracted dining service is that it takes care of hiring the entire kitchen staff or working with pre-hired employees designated by the camp. Steve Renz, vice president of Creative Dining, says his staff is so flexible that the members are even willing to train young counselors to work alongside the professional staff. Leslie Gebhart, an associate of Kandle Dining, points out the company hires some international staffers to work with the camps, which adds a unique aspect to the program.

Because both companies are customer-service oriented and flexible, their staffs understand the last-minute changes and special requests that occur in camps and do not mind making changes to suit the needs of the campers. Most of the cooks enjoy having fun with special meals to the point they will even dress according to the theme. Chris Brockman, director of operations at Stepping Stones Camp Allyn in Cincinnati, says he does not have to worry about the day-to-day operations of the kitchen because he trusts the contracted dining service’s management team to troubleshoot if a kitchen worker does not show up, quits, or needs to be fired. Chris feels that the lead cook is part of the camp family, a true team player, and knows the campers and their special diets. Renz feels his service can be beneficial to camps dealing with transitions of key staff members, such as directors or kitchen managers, who can go about their business. Gerhart feels his service helps to restructure a program to make it efficient and effective.

The dining services also are flexible with camps’ schedules and willing to work with year-round facilities, summer-only camps or camps that run some weekend programs. A benefit to working with the dining services is that camps do not need to worry about finding kitchen staff during the more sporadic program season.

Balancing the Budget
Do you have a hard time keeping track of all the kitchen receipts, ordering the right amount of food and finding the right equipment? Dining services work with the camp to establish a budget and provide weekly or bi-weekly budget updates. Not only do the companies take care of the kitchen accounting practices, they also work with camps to provide the best prices. Creative Dining and Kandle Dining purchase food, supplies and equipment in bulk and are able to pass on a significant cost savings.

Monitoring The Menu
Do you ever worry about the safety of the food and the increasing number of allergies? The dining services are the experts and have numerous resources, such as access to health departments and dietitians. Both Kandle’s and Creative’s lead cooks are ServSafe-trained. Beyond ServSafe certification, both companies send their employees to workshops and conferences and hold numerous in-house training sessions. In addition, Kandle displays an allergy board in the dining hall that lists all the food at the meal and the ingredients to raise awareness for potential allergies. Both dining services also work with camp directors to provide all of the essential information to meet the American Camp Association standards and health department requirements.

What Are The Benefits Of Running A Self-Operated Kitchen?
Mike McGinty, executive director of Camp Joy in Clarksville, Ohio, has enjoyed working with a local kitchen staff because it is a great way for the camp to connect with the community. Being employed by the camp, the staff has a better understanding of the camp mission and how the food service connects to the bigger picture. Executive Director Jeff Merhige of the YMCA of Greater Dayton’s Camp Kern has enjoyed working with both contracted services and with self-operated kitchens, and sees the main benefit of self-operation is tighter expense control.

Although a dining service may not be for every camp, it could be right if you are nodding in agreement to the questions above. A wise man once said, “You can run a mediocre program and have great food, and the group will come back, but if you have an excellent program and horrible food, you may lose the group to another camp.” To learn if a dining service might be right for your camp, contact Leslie Gebhart of Kandle Dining at 888-591-6167 or Steve Renz of Creative Dining at 616-748-1700 or

Amy Thompson is the Camps and Retreats Director at Camp Joy (Joy Outdoor Education center) located in southwest Ohio. Amy also is the Education Co-Chair for the American Camp Association Ohio Section. She can be reached via e-mail at