Take 943 hungry students and employees with taste buds that range from plain pasta with butter to sushi. Add a twist by giving a wide variety of food allergies to 15% of those hungry diners. Design a menu such that total costs (labor, food, operating costs) do not exceed total fee revenue. Then, with a team of just 6 people and 5 hours on the clock, prepare a meal that everyone loves. Sound like a new Food Network competition show? Nope-it’s just a regular pre-pandemic lunch day at Cary Academy.
Now add in having to prepare, individually package and stage 1545 main entrees, 325 sandwiches, 130 fresh salads, 250 yogurts, 225 cups of prepared salads, 100 pounds of fruit, and 1600 desserts by 11:30 a.m. each day. Then serve 400-500 people at a time in two 15-minute serving windows in a way that allows the food to be safely and cleanly transported to a variety of locations across campus since eating in the dining hall right now isn’t an option. Do all of this while wearing masks and other COVID-safe equipment and uniforms. We’ve now gone from a culinary competition to a Marvel Universe superhero episode.
This is what a day in the life of our dining team looks like right now. While many things have started to transition back to what we used to consider normal, this has not yet happened with lunch.
Serving lunch has truly been one of our greatest challenges as we have transitioned everyone back to on-campus learning. We started figuring it out last year as we returned to campus in cohorts. Even so, this year has been like going from having one to two children. We know it hasn’t been smooth going. Everyone is missing how “easy” lunch used to be. But that said, we are determined to make it work.
Seven weeks in, we are still learning as we go and here’s what we’ve learned so far:
- If you package it, they will eat it. With all of our food being individually packaged and with a “no food limits” policy in place, we’ve gone from serving 900+ meals pre-COVID to a current 1500+ meals a day. Right now, we’re going through as much sandwich ingredients in one day as we used to go through in a whole week.
- If you engage in a battle between a French Fry and Styrofoam, Styrofoam always wins. Maintaining food quality is a challenge when everything needs to be packaged ahead of time to go.
- Even if you’re a not-for-profit, you’re not sheltered from the current economic market forces at play. On a daily basis, we are having to work around supplier shortages for both food and supplies, including the disposable serving ware we are needing to use right now. Food costs have gone up dramatically and paper-based/eco-friendly serving products have become virtually impossible to obtain. Maintaining a full Dining Services team is a challenge, even with employee benefits and higher pay rates in place.
Here’s what we haven’t changed:
- Health remains our top priority. We continue to give the highest level of attention to current health protocols as well as healthy choices and allergy accommodations.
- We continue to remain dedicated to food quality. SAGE and Cary Academy has not changed its standards regarding using fresh and real ingredients and avoiding processed foods.
- Budget is not a driving force in what we do. We did and will continue to incur losses in the program so that we are not sacrificing quality.
- Food quantity for students is not limited. Students are permitted to take as much as they would like at lunch. Our dining services team is doing everything in their power to make sure that the last student in line has just as much selection as the first.
- Customer feedback is important; we want to hear from you regarding what is and is not working.
And here’s what we’re working on to get better:
- We’re working with the menu so we can make it as student friendly as possible while at the same time determining which menu items lend themselves best to our current take and go service style. We’ve had some successes and at the same time, we’ve had some misses. We’re really trying hard to make the misses go away.
- We’re continuing to research and attempt to source packaging and food transport methods that will help us maintain safe food temperatures and not adversely impact food quality. We’re concerned with the environmental impact of disposables and that remains a consideration as well in this area.
- We’re tweaking individual portion size so students have the option of taking both smaller and larger quantities of food, based on their personal preferences.
- We’re experimenting with how we are setting up the serving lines and stations in the Dining Hall to allow for faster service and shorter lines.
- We’re developing additional communications aimed at students so they are aware of their food choices, know how to best navigate lunch this year and feel empowered to provide feedback.
- We’re working on setting up more feedback opportunities so that we can get more input on what’s working and what’s not working. Students and employees will be seeing a survey in the near future. Zak Coolbaugh, our Dining Services Manager, has been out front as much as he can during lunch so he can chat with students about their dining experiences. And finally, we’ve set up a direct way for students, parents and employees to email feedback on an ongoing basis (email@example.com). We’re still looking at other ways to engage; if you have any ideas, please email us.
We want to take a moment to thank everyone for being patient as we navigate the new normal. We do hope you make use of firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how we’re doing-the good and the not so good. And if you have ideas to help make lunch better, we do hope you’ll share those as well!