If you’ve been a student at UIndy in the last 40 years, or enjoyed the dining hall fare during that time, then you have an inkling of what it means that Ted Polk is retiring. The owner of Polk Food Services, Ted will retire in May. Recognizing a potential culinary crisis, administrators moved to maintain the standards UIndy has become accustomed to—but never seemed to take for granted. The University will assume control of the food service operation instead of turning to an outside contractor, ensuring that the favorite traditions and dedication to high-quality meals will continue.
When Ted started in 1973, the cafeteria was a much different venue. Students ate a lot of comfort foods. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Burgers and fries. Choices were few, and the cafeteria was limited and spare. The entire student population was around 1,200. Fast-forward to 2014: the enrollment is more than 5,000, the dining hall tends to be packed, and you probably wouldn’t even recognize the place. The pizza and burgers are still there, but now the choices include healthy options, gluten-free options, and international dishes. The shotgun style of the old cafeteria is gone, replaced with one that categorizes the food to create stations. The old side dining room (once separated from the main dining hall by accordion doors) is now an open space with salad bar, drinks, and desserts, something that Ted had wanted for a long time.
“When I took over the operations in 1984 and started Polk Food Services Inc.,” he says, “there wasn’t even a salad bar or many food options. Students are much more sophisticated now, and they are looking for more variety.” The cafeteria has undergone many renovations, but the biggest one occurred in 2009 when much of the Schwitzer Student Center was remodeled and greatly expanded. A new banquet room, UIndy Hall, allowed many special events to be moved out of the cafeteria. It also created a space for a Grab-N-Go option outside of the cafeteria (a newer version of Streets Corner, named in memory of long-time staffer Mary Streets) for kids who just needed a quick bite, as well as a coffee shop, the Perk.
“I always dreaded the faculty and staff lunch in August because we had to kick the students out of the cafeteria,” says Ted. “They got a boxed lunch in the hallway while we ate a wonderful meal. Now that we have UIndy Hall, we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” Ted’s care and concern for students is a trademark of his personality. He hires many international students to work for him, knowing that they need to have an on-campus job. Even the city’s Board of Health inspector noticed that all of the employees seemed happy. “I look at smiles and attitudes when I hire someone,” he says. “I can teach you to make pizza and teach you to serve, but I can’t teach you to smile. I try to make the cafeteria a happy place.” Chef Dan Phillips, who has worked with Ted for the past nine years, says that it’s clear that Ted wants what is best for the students. “He takes pride in serving the students and staff of UIndy,” he says. “I haven’t met anyone who has the amount of compassion that Ted has.”
Now Ted is getting to serve the kids of students that he worked with years ago. “I have parents come up to me and say, ‘You took such great care of me—please take good care of my daughter, too,’” he says. “Those are the things that mean so much to me. You want to have good food and good service, but you want students to be happy and to feel like they belong.” Ted has launched many campus traditions and been integral to many others, such as the former fall outing known as Brown County Day (where he and his staff prepared and hauled tons of food to the park, then spent hours over hot grills), the Midnight Breakfast during finals week (recruiting faculty and administrators as servers, and requiring even later hours than usual), and the popular “Tuesdays with Ted.” “I used to call them ‘Monotony Breakers,’” he says. “We do something special every week, such as a decorate-your-own-cupcake bar, and once a month we have a special meal or a themed night.”
The annual Thanksgiving dinner, where groups of students share an entire Thanksgiving meal—complete with an uncarved turkey and a whole pumpkin pie—was started before Ted arrived, and he was happy to continue the tradition. “Some of our students have never seen a full turkey before!” he says with a laugh. Ted and his staff cook more than 150 turkeys for the dinner, and he makes sure that some of the turkeys get sent to local food pantries and soup kitchens. He also packages leftover frozen food or unused food at the end of each week to send to a food pantry. “My mom and dad taught me to take care of people,” he says. “It’s part of my nature to help others and I’ve been that way my whole life.”
Ted also shares his generosity on campus, donating monthly pizza parties to the students in each dorm and letting students scan their ID cards at football and basketball games in order to get drinks and snacks. Students have brought Ted recipes from home that he has used to whip up their favorite dish—adjusting the recipes a bit to accommodate diners numbering in the hundreds. Ken Hottell ’62, long-time vice president for Business and Finance at UIndy who retired in 2002, knows about Ted’s philanthropy firsthand. “Ted always said ‘yes’ to any request,” he says. “In fact I often accused him of being too nice. He always places the student first, and when it came to renewing the food service contract for the coming year, our conversation would always begin with him apologizing for having to raise the cost the student would have to pay. There will never be another Ted Polk; a generous, kind, and thoughtful, Christian gentleman.”
President Robert Manuel agrees. In an email to the campus community, Manuel said, “It’s difficult to imagine the University without Ted or all of the traditions he has maintained over the years. Ted has embodied the best collective characteristics of UIndy—he is highly skilled, committed to the well being of those he serves, a caring philanthropist, and a true servant leader.”
As Ted looks forward to traveling and spending more time with his wife, Anne, and their four grandchildren, he knows that the food service will be in good hands. “The school wants the traditions to continue,” he says. “People care for each other on this campus and are friendly and kind to each other. I’ll miss the interaction with the students and their energy and enthusiasm, but I’m leaving with no regrets.
“I wanted to bring us forward, and now we are growing and doing so well. Great things are happening and will continue to happen.”