Flik crew overcomes staffing, supply, and COVID issues to feed students and staff.
Many members of the Stevenson community are aware of everyday lunchtime struggles, from long lines to the forever-popular french fries vanishing from the menu. But, the dining staff also faces hidden economic and health-and-safety struggles created by the pandemic. These problems are forcing the workers to reimagine what dining practices look like in Reid Hall and work hard to keep things moving swiftly throughout the hectic lunch period.
Due to the pandemic, many businesses are facing a shortage of workers. This recurring pattern has affected dining services throughout the country as well as the eating experience at Stevenson. “You can read it in the news that people have left the workplace,” explains Marc Matyas, Head of Dining Services at Stevenson since 2018. The kitchen staff has lost about eight workers—25% of its normal crew size—yet they still have to provide meals for 200 to 700 or so people three times a day. In addition to a staffing shortage, and many other problems created by the pandemic, the cost of living has risen during this past year. Matyas expands, “This is not a cheap place to live. So [some] associates...have chosen not to come back.” Regardless of ongoing efforts to hire new employees, Flik has had a hard time finding workers. This leaves the 17-person dining team a grand task of feeding around 200 people in the morning, 700 hungry Stevenson-goers for lunch, and 240-250 for dinner.
With 700 people all headed towards one area, lunch service is bound to be the busiest time of day, putting all of the stress on the shoulders of the Flik dining crew. The Flik staff has gotten good at high-speed service: after going through this pattern of serve-repeat on a daily basis, the workers are prepared for the mad dash of students they are about to serve. Matyas observes, “Well the first rush is obviously the most intense, and it runs from right around 11:25 and it goes solid to around 12... For about 45 minutes … it’s non-stop.”
The pandemic continues to affect the lunch service in other ways. Since both the server and the diner are wearing a face mask, communication is muddled, especially since the cafeteria is a naturally loud setting. The plexiglass protection shield blocks sound, demanding diners to be even louder in their instructions. The kitchen staff even makes a big sacrifice to their own comfort to try and hear students and teachers better. “We turn off the hood fans, which helps us keep the kitchen cool,” Matyas says. “We turn those off just so we can hear you guys. And that’s a challenge.” Somehow, this does not slow down the lines too much, for the kitchen staff is still running at top speed. One day, Matyas did the calculations and reported, “We were processing 13 people a minute, and that’s pretty good. You can’t get much faster than that.” He jokes, “We call it go-time because we got to go.”
Since lunch is the busiest time of day, the shifts of the lunch workers overlap so that all staff members are present during lunch. The first shift is from about 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. to cover breakfast; the second shift starts at 11 a.m and goes until 7:30 p.m. to cover dinner. In addition, both crews perform about half an hour of overtime every day. These periods overlap from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., which is of course the terribly hectic lunch period. Matyas positions two people serving food side-by-side along with other workers who continue to supply the food. He explains, “What we do is we resupply all the food, so those two people do not step away from that line. Because if they step away from that line, the line stops: it freezes.”
Regardless of the kitchen staff working at top speed, there sometimes can be a frustrating 10-minute wait in line. Matyas says “action stations,” a type of self-serve station that was used in the cafeteria pre-pandemic, would ease traffic in the dining hall. This station can be a pasta bar, a panini station, a salad bar, or anything allowing those self-serve practices. These types of stations easily pull away a good percentage of students from the mainstream lunch line. Due to COVID-19, systems like this have not been in use; however, as of mid-October the salad bar and a drink station have returned to almost universal enthusiasm by students and faculty. These systems now continue to make the line shorter by persuading students to not filter into the main lunch line. The line is still made longer by students who pass through the hot lunch line just to sit down and pick at their food. Matyas gives an example: “The kids are coming through the line, getting a full lunch, going out there — grabbing a salad, and a sandwich. Going and sitting down, having 2 bites of the salad, not even touching the sandwich, and it's all being thrown away.”
Interestingly enough, product shortages and delivery hold-ups greatly affect dining hall operations. Even the largest of food providers don’t receive all their produce in a timely manner, which creates a prolonged delay for consumers like Stevenson. Even seasonings like black pepper become in high demand and unavailable for the Stevenson staff. Matyas comments, “We will order, and there's no rhyme or reason [for delays]. I’ll order hamburger buns, you would think there's no reason for hamburger buns to be out. Well, I ordered 500 and none came in. So then, what do I do about the hamburgers on Tuesday?” This unpredictable snafu leaves the kitchen staff scrambling to find a relatively easy meal to execute for a large number of people. This problem isn’t as easy as it seems to fix, Matyas explains, “I can’t run to Safeway or Lucky every time I run out of something. It doesn’t work that way.” Although some might suggest ordering products in advance, the area for storing food and supplies isn’t incredibly spacious. Not to mention the confusing dance of keeping track of expiration dates, quantities of ingredients, and what ingredients will be used with which meals.
The busy lunch period occupies a different place in the lives of various members of Stevenson School under the 70-minute class schedule (see related story about how students contend with their impacted lunch periods), especially for the newly busy dining hall staff who have been facing extra challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The staff are simply trying to do the same job with a much smaller staff and utterly unpredictable food deliveries due to ongoing supply and demand issues. The solution? For the time being, patience is more than a virtue—it is a necessity.