The Cafe Column: A bi-weekly review of the Allen Dining Hall
By Clay Dubberly, Editor-In-Chief
The Allen Dining Hall, commonly referred to on campus simply as ‘the Cafe,’ provides food for Shenandoah University (SU) students daily — from mashed potatoes to grits, cheese burgers to tacos, and on very rare occasions, steamed red lobster and mouth-watering venison. When you walk in, a smiling face is there to greet you as you swipe your ID. The customer service is usually impeccable. Usually. But as a student and a journalist, it’s my responsibility to be honest, direct, and to inspire change. Right now, what needs to change is the quality of the food.
We understand that Sodexo is on a limited plan; on top of that, the kitchen is old and more modern resources are needed. A large number of students have to be fed in a small amount of time by a much, much smaller amount of people. But it’s, quite frankly, the duty of that small group of people – the culinary team – to make manna materialize out of thin air and feed thousands, literally, per day. It’s a daunting task, but one that must be done nonetheless. And not simply done, as in completed, but finished with an excellent end product.
To get answers, I spoke to Peter Labrecque, General Manager of Sodexo, and Donnie Hawkins, Executive Chief of Sodexo. Peter’s role is overseeing the entire operation at the Dining Hall, which encompasses retail and board operations as well as other areas such as catering services. Donnie is in charge of food ordering, preparation and service, training of the Cafe culinary team, and hiring and firing as well.
My questions weren’t intended to gain information as much as they were intended to cause action. Here are some questions I asked:
“Are you aware that a lot of students complain about the quality of food offered at the Cafe?”
“If you’re asking has anyone come forward this year, the answer would be no,” Donnie began. “We do hear rumors, but no one actually comes to us or sends us emails.” Peter added onto Donnie’s comments: “We have our comment card box, and no one has voiced any concerns. Usually when we see something we try to react to it. One of the things we try to keep in tune with students is our annual surveys which we just completed,” he said, adding that once the Cafe receives them back they decide on an action plan. “One of the biggest challenges is preparing 1500 meals and keeping everybody happy with what they get,” Peter said. “Students are only happy with what they like, not necessarily what we are offering.” I disagreed with him here, saying that the Cafe offers a diverse range of foods, but that what is in question is the quality of the foods. Donnie helped close the question: “Walk right in there and find me if you don’t feel comfortable. Students need to raise their hand and let us know, because we’re here for you to do the best job that we can do. We try very hard, but we can’t always see it.”
“Do you know it’s common to pick up dirty utensils?”
Peter began this answer: “I don’t think that’s accurate. Again, with 1500 meals per day you’re not gonna be 100 percent all the time.” I’m going to interject before I carry on with what Peter had to say. I don’t think that less than 100% is acceptable, and I don’t think that we should settle for that. While I understand that providing for hundreds of students per meal is a challenge, it’s a challenge that I am certain the staff of the dining hall are capable of overcoming. We pay for the food, and I’ll go so far as to say that we pay for one hundred percent, all the time. Certainly when it comes to whether or not food and napkin bits are scraped off of the utensils which we use.
Peter went on describing the cleaning process. “If you had a chance to see the facility we work out of (later, I was actually given a tour of the facility) it’s a challenge to do that, but just so you understand the silverware gets presoaked in a chemical soapy bath water, and once it’s soaked it’s pulled out of that and pulled of a flat rack and washed with a spray hose, run through the dish machine, and then racked into the silverware wax rack. Once it’s racked, it goes through the dish machine a second time and that’s when it’s brought into the dining room.” Peter went in depth with the cleaning process for a little bit longer, describing how the utensils are washed in 185 degree water, but I brought up some experiences I’ve had where bits of napkins were stuck on my fork or the cups seemed dirty. “It’s not sightly, and we try to look for that, but I’m dealing with utility staff that doesn’t necessarily look at it the same way. They try to do a great job in a very difficult situation.” But he admitted, “We can be better.”
“Last year I skipped a lot of meals because the quality of food was so poor. Do you have any comments?”
Donnie: “That’s very unfortunate, and you know, it’s like I feel my stomach is turning a little bit and it’s disheartening to have to hear that that’s the way you felt but I didn’t know it, I didn’t know it, I didn’t know.” Donnie was visibly disturbed and even appeared somewhat disheartened by my question. He continued, “I have kids your age, and I have them out in college and I wanna know they’re being taken care of. I can relate to you, but if you don’t tell me what’s wrong or what you’re feeling, then you’re helpless.”
Peter adjusted himself in his seat, and began his answer. “I think the biggest picture is that Sodexo is a big organization. If we are short staffed, we can bring in our district chef to support us for menu development in the recipe structure. All of that is done for us. The fundamentals of running our business is pretty awesome from a company’s perspective, and I’m not saying that because I work for them but because I’ve been around. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, Donnie is an executive chef, David graduated from the Culinary Institute of Rhode Island, so we have a phenomenal team that has a passion for food and we’re all in the same mindset from that perspective. Can other operations say that? No, they don’t have that support, and we do a very good job. I think our customer service rating was high even when the food was low. A lot of what is seen is mandated by our contract, so like Donnie says, we go above and beyond in a lot of respects on what the contract requires us to do because we want to do a great job for you guys. We understand we’re not gonna please everybody, but I think we’re gonna do a good job with what we’re doing and I think we care.”
“The Cafe has shown that it can produce good, high quality food. Why isn’t the quality consistent?”
“Students might not understand that we live underneath a contract which mandates what we are required to do in our program in a lot of respects, so that platforms that you see out there from the salad bar to the deli bar are specifically contracted requirements. A weekly monotony breaker, and a once-a-month themed dinner.” Donnie explained, saying that sometimes he takes down the deli and does a taco or burrito bar three times a week — an example of doing something which isn’t in the contract.
This shows that the Cafe can offer more than what is provided in the contract, which gives students hope that the food can improve.
Returning students have noted that the quality of the food has gone up from last year. What has the Dining Hall been doing to increase the quality of the food?
Peter: “I think we hired some really good people this year. We actually had open positions last year so weren’t fully staffed, but we are fully staffed now so we have some great cooks working in the kitchen.”
Donnie helped answer the question, admitting that the Cafe could have done better last year. “The second semester last year we were stretched a little thin and did the best we could do, and I’m not gonna say we were up to snuff, probably not as good as we could have been. I was really fortunate to make some very good hires and that enabled me to spend more time with each individual at each one of their stations. It gave me the opportunity to do some one-on-one training and I think the end result is better quality food.”
To answer my next question, Peter brought up on the Culinary Council, which is a group he formed to help assist Campus Dining in gaining insight into student expectations and their views about services, menus, food quality, customer service, and overall dining experience.
“What can students do to help The Cafe?”
“The Culinary Council is the next big step,” Peter said. “We have students that work with us on a regular basis, and we have student marketing coordinators that help us, so I think that we need communication where we can say something whether it’s negative or positive about what we’re doing so we can fix it.”
The last question I asked Peter and Donnie was to see what they’ll do differently in the future to help increase the quality of food.
“What will you do to help increase the quality of food?”
“I think the biggest thing is supervising the process,” Peter began. “We’re involved everyday, we’re out working the line out there, you know–it’s all about touching it and feeling it and asking if we’re in tuned with what customers want. I sit down and talk with customers on a daily basis, they approach us with issues like ‘the milk’s out.’ Let us know; we’re here to respond and take care of the students needs. I think we do a really good job of it.”
Donnie closed the question: “Overall, we have genuine care, we want to do the best job we can for you. Sometimes you aren’t able to see the circumstances we have to deal with, that’s not your fault as a student or the editor of The ‘Doah or anything like that, but sometimes it’s a little more forgiving to see both excuses. But sometimes, if you’re able to see the operation, you’d have a better understanding of what happens.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Peter and Donnie took me into the operational area of the Cafe so that I saw what they work with, day in and day out. I wanted to get an understanding of the environment where they work and a sense of what they deal with everyday. Peter led the tour, and showed me the area where the Cafe staff works. It was a little cramped, but everything was organized and stored away. I looked for things that would fail an inspection, but found nothing. It all was good to go; clean, orderly — and sightly, even. Peter informed me that the Cafe has an open door policy, which I understood to mean that any student is able to walk into the working area of the Cafe to look around.
This unusual and commendable level of transparency displayed by the Cafe helped reaffirm my confidence that they’re doing everything they can to preserve a clean environment.
I asked Christopher Johnson, a sophomore acting major at SU, what he thinks about the customer service and quality of the Cafe. “The Dining Hall is my preferred place to eat on campus,” he said. Corroborating with a question I asked Peter and Donnie earlier concerning the improvement of food quality, Chris said “The quality of the food has increased significantly from last year. Also, the customer service I receive is generally positive this year.” He did, however, have one negative encounter last year. “Last semester, I ordered an egg for breakfast and politely asked the employee preparing the eggs that morning if I could have mine prepared a specific way. They then responded with an attitude and began fixing my egg. After receiving my egg, I said a sincere “thank you” and only received a disgusted grunt in return. After sitting down to eat my meal, I realized it was poorly prepared, so I was forced to toss it out and eat a bowl of cereal, instead.”
Chris ended by saying that “there is always room for improvement. When I go in to eat a meal my expectations of finding something I want to eat are almost always met.”
Email Peter Labrecque if you’re interested in participating directly in the change process and want to join the Culinary Council. Voice concerns in the comment boxes found in the Cafe, send emails, find managers. If you experience something subpar, ask a Cafe employee for their manager. One thing is clear – judging by how Donnie, the Executive Chief, and Peter, the General Manager, seemed mostly oblivious to how often we as SU students complain about our food, it became clear that we are complaining to the wrong people. If we have complaints, we need to direct them to the Cafe executives in a respectful, constructive way, so that we can create change conducive to a helpful and supportive environment.
Overall, the Cafe has been producing better food than last year when they were understaffed. They’ve shown their potential, and it is our responsibility to hold them to the highest level of excellence. If we see a dirty plate, if we see napkin bits on our knives, if the food doesn’t taste good, it’s our responsibility to tell a manager just as much as it’s their responsibility to prevent that from happening. We pay enough here to eat good food, but you can’t fix what you don’t know, which is precisely why we need to let the Cafe know when something is wrong. You can’t expect change without action. This year, they have a “phenomenal staff,” according to Peter, and now the food is better. The quality of the food can always increase, because there’s always room to improve, and I think it will. Action creates change — let’s take action.