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Sal Rizzo is heading into his fifth year as the director of dining services for North Haven schools. (Photo courtesy of Sal Rizzo )
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Sal Rizzo is no stranger to food service, but after graduating from North Branford High School, he went to Quinnipiac University to study marketing and communication. He spent two summers in New York City interning in that field, discovering his true passion in the process.
“Halfway through the second summer I knew it wasn’t for me,” says Sal. “Growing up in Northford, I’m not a city person and I realized I couldn’t work in that environment. During high school and college, I always had jobs in restaurants, so after college, I decided to stick with it and open my own business.”
Sal opened a pizza restaurant in Branford and though he enjoyed having his own business, it wasn’t quite the right fit. After his lease expired, he was hired at Atria Senior Living as a multi-unit food service director. In 2015, he was hired by Chartwells as the director of dining services for North Haven Public Schools.
“Working in healthcare burns you out more and I knew I couldn’t do it long-term, but I wanted to stick with nutritional food service,” says Sal. “With K-12, a lot of the guidelines are the same but it offers a better lifestyle and schedule for starting a family.”
Sal and his wife Andrea were married in 2014 and they began looking for houses. They looked in several towns, but settled in Sal’s hometown of Northford. They now have a four-year-old daughter, Pietrina, and two-year-old twins, Salvatore and Vienna.
While his children will go to school in North Branford when they are old enough, Sal has also enjoyed his time getting to know the North Haven school district. The timing of starting with Chartwells worked out as North Haven’s previous food service director was hired in her hometown, leaving the North Haven position open after Sal completed Chartwells’ management and training program and then completed his training in South Windsor.
“I love working in North Haven,” says Sal. “The support up top—you can’t match it. I get all of the resources I need.”
Sal is quick to thank the Board of Education and the administration for their support, including Superintendent of Schools Patrick Stirk, Assistant Superintendent Melinda McKenna, Joyce Lepre, Robin Norup, Martha Butterworth, and Jenn Kozniewski. In addition to support from the administration, Sal credits the success of his department to his staff.
As the food service director, Sal oversees the system’s six schools and manages the staff of 25, who are “a great team.” In the time he has been director, he has not only seen no staff turnover, but has been able to add positions as well.
With COVID shutting down in-school operations since March, there have been some adjustments in Sal’s life, but throughout the pandemic, he has continued to work in order to provide meals to students, even throughout the summer.
“Patrick [Stirk] and I decided we wanted to feed the kids through the summer and continue to provide food to families who needed it,” says Sal. “After classes ended, many districts saw the number of meals served drop, but our numbers did not.”
Lunches continue to be available for pickup for North Haven students. They can be picked up at North Haven High School from 10 a.m. to noon. With the continued lunches and steady numbers, Sal has tried to offer a variety of items, while still providing student favorites, like pizza or chicken nuggets.
“The kids really look forward to certain meals like pizza on Friday,” says Sal. “We found a nice deep dish pizza that can be reheated. We have found different items that are easy for them to take home and reheat.”
In addition to finding different ways to shake up the to-go menus, Sal has also stayed in communication with his staff. He remembers the day in March that they were sent home, unsure of how things would move forward.
“There were still a lot of question marks and nervous employees and that really bothered me, but luckily the government came through with the stimulus,” says Sal. “I’ve had a dialog with most of them since then and they’re doing well. Everyone is excited to come back to work and as of now, we’ve got a full staff coming back.”
The fall semester is another question mark as plans and guidelines continue to shift based on numbers. Sal and his staff are preparing for different scenarios.
“We have a big eye on fall semester and how it’s going to change and how we’ll get ready,” says Sal. “There will be bumps in road because no one has gone through something like this before, but we are trying to do the best we can to get ready for the kids.”
Sal’s favorite part of his job is interacting with the students. As director, his workdays are spread out between the different schools, allowing him to interact with all of his staff and students at every level.
He notes that Chartwells is a “culinary-driven” company that uses a program called Webtrition, which offers recipes and nutritional parameters for meals. Sal enjoys being creative with the menu and giving students different options.
“We do a lot of promotion cooking to see what the students like and we do student choice where we offer samples and they vote and whatever wins is on the menu throughout the month,” says Sal. “We pride ourselves on staying on top of what’s popular instead of just offering the same menus.”
In addition to getting the students’ feedback through promotion cooking and samples, every cafeteria also has a suggestion box. Sal meets with parents three times a year as well. He and his staff have earned Chartwells’ Platinum Award for three years by meeting every district satisfaction goal as well as the company’s satisfaction and financial goals.
“Everyone on the staff is on board and willing to do extra to make sure the kids are happy,” says Sal. “We put the pieces in place, but the staff has prided themselves on giving the kids what they want within guidelines, offering a more culinary twist. We are busier now than when I started, we get a lot of positive remarks, and the kids are happy.”
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