The line stretches out the door, winding in roped-off sections like at an amusement park or movie theater. But the students flashing their wristbands and shuffling their feet from sticker to round, orange sticker on this Friday night are not waiting to ride the Whizzer or watch Tenet: they are waiting for dinner from Wheaton’s Café Bon Appétit food service, whose service has transformed to meet COVID-19 safety standards.
Once inside Anderson Commons, a masked greeter welcomes students to the Covid-safe dining hall, directing each to a hot food line. There, a server, also masked and shielded behind glass, loads rice and chicken fajitas into plastic containers and hands them over the counter. Students grab plastic salad boxes, survey the dessert table and try to keep their distance as they regroup with friends. Considering whether to navigate the maze of plexiglass and plastic curtains partitioning the dining room, they opt for a shady spot outside, laying out a picnic and swatting bees from their entrée.
“Dining [at Anderson Commons] has become a lot less of a communal activity,” said sophomore Sam Sparks. “You won’t run into someone you weren’t expecting to see. Every time you get a meal, it has to be planned.”
Although the process is complicated, students are used to it by now. The monotony makes it easy to glance over the cashiers, servers and chefs like scrolling names in movie credits. But the people working behind the scenes—and behind the counter—allow the show to go on even during these COVID times.
This fall, Bon Appétit has made Wheaton meals pandemic-proof. To reduce contact, faculty, staff, and off-campus guests are no longer allowed entrance. Assigned lunch times and extended meal hours minimize rushes. The dining hall that once thundered with conversation is eerily quiet.
The changes have most affected the nearly 100 Bon Appétit employees on campus. They check their temperatures and answer questions about symptoms before starting work. The dish crew has become a sanitation crew, collecting trash and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day. Specialty menus like “Cucina” and “Sabor” aren’t served, so the chefs focus on a single hot food menu. Cold station chefs now prepare individual salads instead of planning greens and toppings for a salad bar. A packaging team was assembled to compile the more than 5,000 single-serving dressings, salads, fruit boxes and desserts served each day.
“Some of the containers are biodegradable,” says Bon Appétit General Manager Raul Delgado, a small comfort in the face of so much plastic waste. “We’ve maintained some level of sustainability, but this is not, unfortunately, a sustainable-friendly pandemic.” His hands are tied: “For us, the safety of our students and our staff trumps everything.”
Of course, the stakes are high for the semester, which will test Bon Appétit’s relationship with the college. Bón Appétit suffered financially this spring, when students went home and meal plans were refunded, and this summer, as on-campus conferences were cancelled. Delgado had to furlough 90% of his staff in March.
“There’s a level of trust there,” Delgado emphasized. “They’re asking me, ‘Raul, can you serve 2,000 students? Because if we can’t serve 2,000 students, we can’t have them come back.’”
I had the chance to sit down with several of Delgado’s team members to learn what it’s taken to pull it off.
Account Bookkeeper Rosaura Grajeda rises between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. so she can get in a workout before her hour-long commute from her home near Cicero. Grajeda is responsible for hiring new employees and processing meal swipes, revenue and payroll. Although she studied computer science in college in Mexico, the programs she learned are outdated now, and she has relied on the lessons of job experience in her 22 years working at Bon Appétit.
Grajeda’s work at Bon Appétit was always in the office, but she misses helping Rosa at the cash register during lunch rushes. Now, “I’m not able to see anybody,” she said. “I just sit in my office all day.”
Off the clock, though, she likes to get outside. On weekends, she likes to visit nearby Chicago. “Downtown is my favorite place,” she said. “I love the architecture… the old and new buildings. I think we have an amazing downtown.”
Weekdays, she goes for walks, spends time in her yard, watches movies and researches topics that interest her. “If I’m interested in something, I go search for the subject and learn about it,” she said.
Grajeda has had more time to pursue her hobbies now that her three boys have moved out.“ Now that I’m older, I’m realizing we give so much time to the kids, to the family,” she said. Living on her own, she’s enjoyed having “time off work for me.”
Retail and Dining Room Supervisor Andrew Boston ’14 has hustle. That serves him well in his fast-paced, unpredictable job.
He says Thursdays are his favorite days. He arrives at 5 a.m. to take inventory. After counting every paper and food product in Bon Appétit-run Sam’s Café in Lower Beamer, he makes the necessary purchases and plans for the coming week. Throughout the rest of the day, he’ll handle invoices and pricing while making sure student employees are cared for, rocking his signature beret. If he’s working upstairs—which he’s been doing more since the Stupe is closed—he gets menus from the cooks and helps prepare for meals.
Boston says he loves the Wheaton College community. A graduate of the class of 2014, his mathematics degree equipped him with problem-solving skills he now uses in the job. As an undergrad, he worked as a Bon Appétit student employee.
“I worked my way up from server to shift leader,” he said, “and then to head of student employees.” In his senior year, the director of operations offered him a full-time job as supervisor. “I took him up on that,” said Boston, and he has continued to take on responsibilities in the six years since.
“I like the pace of things. I like always being busy, always having something to do, a new challenge to overcome,” he said. “My favorite times at Sam’s are always the big rushes we have, getting big lines of people and staying on top of things.”
He missed that environment in March when COVID-19 sent students home. Boston recalled, “It was very depressing to be around an empty café, because that’s not why I work here – to just take care of an empty place.”
Campus stayed lifeless over the summer without Wheaton’s usual summer conferences. After five long months, Boston is thrilled students have finally returned to campus.
“These students are a wonderful bunch,” said Boston, grinning. “They’re very grateful. Getting to serve them has been a blessing.”
Breakfast and lunch lines lead to personable cashier Rosa Kader, gatekeeper of Anderson Commons. Ever since I timidly greeted her in Spanish one day freshman year, I’ve looked forward to her “¿Qué tal, todo bien?” whenever I see her.
Fewer guests and shorter rush times this year have simplified her job. At breakfast, rather than swiping the ID cards of or accepting payment from 900 to 950 people, Rosa now greets 500 to 650 students who swipe their own IDs through the cash register. “The job is very easy now,” she said with a laugh.
Rosa grew up in Mexico, but she’s lived in the U.S. since she was 20. When she started working at Bon Appétit, she had just moved to Wheaton with her husband and elementary school-aged children. Her work schedule let her be with her children when they were not at school, something that was important to her as a mother.
“I never took my kids to a daycare” she said.
Family has always been important to Rosa. During school breaks, she calls her father and brother in Mexico every other day. When her children lived at home, she never took them to a daycare, but she did take them to visit her mother-in-law every other weekend for “family Sunday.” Now, all but one of her children has moved out.
“During the summer when I usually don’t work, I like to spend time with my grandkids,” she said. “When you guys have your breaks, we have our breaks, and I’m able to stay home.”
In March, when students and employees had to leave campus, Rosa said she enjoyed the extra time at home. “I like to be able to spend time with my family,” she said.
Committed to the Wheaton community as much as she is to her family, Rosa is again caring for students as she has for over 20 years, quick to offer a smile and a kind greeting—in English or Spanish.
Pantry Lead Martha Martinez worked as a general manager at a KFC before coming to work as a cook at Bon Appétit ten years ago.
Working in a restaurant, she said, is “very, very different, and I like this job [at Bon Appétit],” where the time passes faster. “We talk to the students, and the students come talk to us: That’s the best thing.”
Another highlight of her job, she said, is working with Raul and the rest of the team, who have stayed positive while transforming kitchen operations. “Nobody complains; everybody’s safe; everybody’s happy,” she said.
When Martinez arrives at work, she checks her temperature, washes her hands, changes into a clean uniform and washes her hands again before entering the kitchen. “We have to be safe,” she said, “especially with food.” As she prepares salads, cuts fruit, makes sandwiches and packages everything in plastic containers, she washes her knives, cutting board and hands periodically. Bon Appétit always took sanitation seriously, but the heightened precautions have made the job more hectic than past years. So has the threat of furlough if she tests positive or if there’s an outbreak:
“If we don’t have a job, we don’t have any money for the family,” she said. “There’s more stress, but you have to enjoy what you can.”
When the weather is nice, Martinez enjoys a twenty-minute walk home from work, but she’s not done working—or cooking. She makes dinner for her three children who live at home, grinding out long days to put food on the table literally and figuratively.
“Moms can never stop, believe me,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “Like I do in here: I take care of you guys like you’re my kids, you know? That’s why I’ve been here ten years.”
Wheaton College, IL