By Maj. Kevin Hynes, Nebraska National Guard
/ Published May 29, 2008
LINCOLN, Neb. -- -- New York. Paris. Rome.
When it comes to fine dining, some places are known for simply being the best. Add the Nebraska Air National Guard's dining facility to that list. That's because, when it comes to serving up a military meal in the Air National Guard, nobody does it better than the 155th Services Flight in Lincoln, Neb.
In February the Lincoln-based dining facility was named the recipient of the 2008 Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Kenneth W. Disney Food Service Excellence Award winner after being evaluated by a team of Air Guard dining facility inspectors in January.
According to Chief Master Sgt. Heidi Vontz, 155th Services Flight superintendant, the award is an unbelievable honor.
"I was pretty excited," said Vontz, laughing at how she reacted when she received an e-mail telling her that the flight had just won the award. "It was exciting, but I'm always here in the office by myself, so I was like, 'Okay, I don't have anybody to get excited with.'"
The award is indeed a huge honor, designed to recognize the one Air Guard dining facility that goes way beyond simply doing a 'good enough' job.
According to Vontz, the award is named after a member of the Tennessee Air Guard who helped improve what were then forgettable military meals.
"He was one of the first people who really tried to improve in the food service area... going from the metal plates and slopping food on, to making it a dining experience," said Vontz. Disney was later killed in a car accident.
This marked the third time that the Nebraska Air Guard attempted to win the annual award. As such, said Capt. Nicole McCoy, commander of the 23-person flight, members of the Dining Facility management staff were determined that the third time would indeed be the charm.
"The past years have kind of showed us where the weaknesses were," said McCoy. "So from there we just made continual improvements in our processes. We tried to get some new equipment through the unfunded (purchasing process) and we were successful in doing that. Heidi (Vontz) also went out on the Disney team as an inspector last year, so she really got a good idea of what they looked for. And then, we just really went through their checklists over and over."
Vontz said last year's experience played an important role in helping get the unit ready for the inspection, which occurred during the unit's January drill weekend.
"You get a good perspective of what they're looking for," she said about serving as Disney evaluator. "That really helped."
Still, there was a lot of work to be done before the January inspection, Vontz said.
"It is a lot of hard work," she said. "We put a lot of off time into it... meeting in the evenings in preparation for (the inspection) because you just don't have time during a Guard drill to do extra stuff."
During the inspection, said Vontz, the Disney team inspected an incredibly wide array of things, ranging from the unit's training and documentation, management, base involvement from the senior leadership level on down, to menu compliance, the products the Airmen and their contractor partners produce, cooking techniques, unit communication and teamwork.
"They look for coaching from your supervisors," said Vontz. "They want to see if your supervisors are really managing their people correctly and coaching them along and helping them."
McCoy and Vontz said that as the inspection approached, they were confident the facility was prepared to do well. Still, there was always the unknown.
"We have a lot of new members, so it was their first time getting an inspection" said McCoy. "I knew that they were very good troops... but I didn't know how they'd respond to an inspection."
McCoy said, even with the doubts, she expected the unit to perform well.
"We have a great team," she said. "They really work well together and they took it seriously."
"One of the things that we really stressed to them is, 'don't change what you're doing for the inspection,'" added McCoy.
"That's why over the last five years we've been continually trying to make those improvements, so we're doing the things that we need to be doing all along. That way, when an inspection comes, you're not trying to completely change your processes."
Since receiving notice that the unit has won the award, Vontz and McCoy said they've both been swamped by phone calls and e-mails from unit members, base officials and other Air Guard units they've worked with from across the United States.
The unit will be formally honored in May when the Guardsmen travel to Chicago for the National Restaurant Associ-ation's annual conference. There, they will receive the travelling trophy as well as an award that will stay permanently in Lincoln.
There's also a chance that a number of unit members will also have a chance to travel to California to attend a course at the National Culinary Arts Institute.
That's some pretty high praise for a unit that rarely draws much attention.
"I think it says we're hard workers... that we follow rules and guidelines," said Vontz. "Sometimes it kind of seems like that's for nothing because nobody ever checks your work. That's what's kind of great... having someone from the outside come in and tell you that you're doing a good job."
"And it's different when you people who are in services tell you that as opposed to base personnel because base personnel only see one side of it: what you're producing," she added. "When you have a team that comes in and looks at all of your paperwork and how you're following this or that... it's letting us know that we're doing things the right way."
And doing things the right way, said McCoy, is really what attracts people into the services career field in the first place.
"Services can really make or break the morale of a base," she said. "I think that services draws the types of people that want to make a difference for people. They're people focused. They're service focused. And they enjoy it. They want to make that difference."
And that's no more evident than at the best base dining facility in the Air Guard each and every drill weekend.