Mohamed Ali: A force for change at ISU Dining


An artist rendition of the Friley Windows Dining Facility renovation. 

Tyler Worsham

As the old saying goes, the only true constant is change, and that has certainly proven true for dining services at Iowa State University over the last couple years.

Having found itself without a director in December 2014, ISU Dining spent the greater part of 2015 head hunting for potential candidates to fill the much-needed position.

At the time, Mohamed Ali was serving as director of auxiliary operations at Ohio University. Looking for new and different career opportunities, he heard about the open position as the director of dining services at Iowa State and investigated whether he would be a good fit.

“I came here and I was really impressed with the school, the students and the staff here at dining,” Ali said. “That’s what really attracted me. One of the things that really also surprised me was the city of Ames. It’s an amazing small town.”

Liking what he saw and feeling that he was the right man for the job, he applied for the position. He was hired to be the university’s new director of dining services in January 2016.

Marketing coordinator Brittney Rutherford said she was glad to see the director role finally filled.

“Dining was without a permanent director for a while, so when a new person was hired, it was really encouraging to have that permanent leadership because when you’re under transitional leadership it’s just a little harder to operate,” Rutherford said.

Despite 24 years of experience in the food service industry, it would be a mistake to assume that being in food service was always his first choice. In fact, Ali said he initially hoped to be an industrial engineer when he first came to the United States.

Plans changed, however, and even though life took him down a different path, he doesn’t wish for what could have been. Food service became a passion.

“My father used to own a restaurant at one time, and my uncle owned restaurants,” Ali said. “I realized that food was in my blood system. That’s how it started, and I never left it. Now I’ve been working for so many years that it’s a part of me I think.”

Coming into his role as director, Ali’s ultimate goal at Iowa State was to promote his vision for constant improvement and innovation in the quality of food and the services that allow them to make dining at Iowa State one of the best in the nation.

Ali’s experience in the industry has taught him that providing the best food and service possible is about understanding that “food is about people.”

For Ali, getting to know the students, staff, faculty and culture is essential to understanding and meeting their needs. Ali said that even though this can oftentimes be one of the greatest challenges of the job, it is one of its greatest rewards. 

Joseph Bergstrand, who has worked in management at various ISU Dining centers since Ali’s appointment, agreed that Ali’s greatest concern is for his customers and that the food is of the highest quality.

“My experience working with [Ali] has shown that he is very focused on our customers and puts a lot of importance on listening to students and working to meet their needs,” Bergstrand said.

Attending hall meetings and receiving direct feedback from students became essential to the changes that have been made and will continue to be made in the future, Ali said.

One of the ways in which ISU Dining has changed to reflect student feedback is in its changing menus, meal plans and operating hours.

Ali received complaints that students were losing meals and that some dining centers were not open as long as they needed to be, so he made changes to dining menus and food preparation to better reflect the wants and needs of the various student customers.

Ali emphasized that Friley Windows, one of the upcoming projects to be completed for the 2017 fall semester, will have a section at its Friley Hall location dedicated entirely to meeting the special dietary needs of students.

“We are also working on policies and guidelines to make sure that we separate vegetarian and vegan foods, as well as halal foods and stuff like that,” Ali said. 

Bergstrand, manager of the soon-to-open Friley Windows, said other notable features of the dining center will include its “two main venues centered on street food and European cuisine.”

Windows will also have daily, freshly made pizza, grilled meats, roasted vegetables, soup and dessert stations.

ISU Dining has taken advantage of the services provided by its staff dietitian to identify the needs of those with food allergies and strict diets and help make sure those needs are met.

“We ensure there is no cross-contact between foods,” Ali said.

In order to best meet the various needs of the student body, Ali believes that it is also important to work closely with the staff to see where new training and equipment is needed to ensure that operations and quality of food are the best they can be.

“He challenged many of our dining areas to improve the quality of food by re-evaluating recipes, focusing on higher quality ingredients and rethinking our menus,” Bergstrand said.

Rutherford said making sure there are fresh, homemade foods with more natural ingredients that are prepared as efficiently as possible are very important to Ali’s agenda.

But it is not always as easy as it sounds. Not everything is as fresh and natural as one might think.

“As a student, you want food your way, quickly, fast, but you might not necessarily know and understand where it all came from,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford explained how important the bakery and commissary are as a support structure onto which Ali is devoting great time and effort to ensure that all of these goods are made with homemade, natural ingredients.

“We know we can use that bakery and commissary to get our students food that’s made here every day,” she said. “If we didn’t have that option and didn’t have a director who has this as a value, that food would have to come from somewhere and it would probably be from a mass kitchen from who knows where.”

For all of the plans in place for the future, Ali emphasized the constant need for student feedback.

“If our customers are not happy, then we are in trouble,” Ali said. “The goal is for there to be customer satisfaction.”