On August 23, an email from Auxiliary Services went out to all students, staff and faculty urging them to remain patient as the college’s food service, Bon Appetit, deals with “serious disruptions due to labor and supply chain shortages” and significant short staffing. The email announced several modifications to normal operations at the Anderson Commons cafeteria and Sam’s café in light of these unexpected challenges.
Auxiliary Services announced that The Stupe restaurant in Lower Beamer, which was planned to reopen this year due to the lightening of COVID-19 protocols, will remain closed indefinitely until new student and full-time employees can be hired and trained. Because none of the few employees already hired could be spared for dishwashing, the staffing shortages have also had an environmental impact.
“Labor shortages have not allowed us to properly staff our dish room. You will see us using more plastic plates, paper cups and bowls to help alleviate the monumental pressure and work it takes to clean, sort, and stack all of those pieces,” said Raul Delgado, the general manager of Bon Appetit, in the email. “It is not what we want to do, but is what we have to do to ensure we can properly execute our program.”
Bon Appetit hired 37 new student employees within the first two weeks of classes, and Delgado said they would ideally have hired 8-10 more if the Stupe was open. But challenges remain as the foodservice needs to hire additional full-time employees after 90% of the staff were furloughed when students were sent home in March 2020.
“I could probably use at least four more cooks and two people in the bakery,” said Delgado in an interview. “To open the dishroom completely, I’d probably need eight more dishwashers. I also have some other management positions that I’m hoping to fill as well.”
The staffing shortages have put strain on the core group of Bon Appetit employees that remain. Many are working significantly more hours in order to keep up with the thousands of meals Bon Appetit serves every day.
“A student enjoying a great meal in our café is a bigger blessing than ever before. What many may not know today is what it took to make it happen,” said Delgado. “We may have had to go to a restaurant supply house in our car to pick up some ingredients that we were shorted on a delivery. The person who made that dish is for sure working six days a week, and another employee may have been working a double shift. Virtually everyone on this team, including me, are doing jobs they do not normally do in order to ensure the student, faculty, staff, and guest experience remains the very best. I am so proud of everyone on our team.”
Bon Appetit’s struggle to fill these positions reflects a recent nationwide trend in the food and hospitality industries. In June, the Labor Department reported a record of 10.1 million unfilled job openings in the US. Many restaurant and grocery store chains have created new employee benefits in an attempt to attract workers. Target announced that it would fully cover employee college tuition costs for certain degrees, while Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Chipotle announced pay increases as the fast-food companies compete for the scarce workers available to fill empty shifts.
The national scale of the staffing issue also means that Bon Appetit’s food suppliers are struggling to keep their operations on schedule. This has caused shortages of certain food items, including days where flour and chicken fail to be delivered to the Anderson Commons kitchens. Bon Appetit relies on their stocks of these critical foodstuffs whenever this situation occurs. But for less essential items like orange juice or milk, Bon Appetit often faces shortages outside of their control.
“We have a local milk company that does all of our milk. They have milk, but they don’t have the special dispenser bags because their supplier of bags can’t get a bag until October. So we use another supplier, but sometimes they have shortages too. In that case, you’ll see cartons of milk out there instead,” said Delgado. “[All these shortages] are kind of like a domino effect that is happening because no one has enough workers.”
Despite these limitations, the lifting of some COVID-19 related restrictions meant the return of certain food options after a year-long absence. The soft-serve ice-cream machines and the pizza and pasta section returned this semester for the first time since March 2020. And instead of being limited to one or two main food options, students can now choose between the recently-reopened Classics, Pan Asian, or Sabor sections.
“Bon Appetit has done a great job mitigating their staffing challenges,” said Tony Dawson, Director of Auxiliary Services, the department to which Bon Appetit reports, in an email. “Raul and his team are doing all they can to minimize the impact on our students, and I’m sure they will return to normal operations as soon as possible.”
Staffing and supply problems are not the only challenges facing Delgado and the Bon Appetit employees this year. Processing issues with the cash registers have led to unusually long wait times to enter Anderson Commons.
Two new processing systems installed on the registers—one to manage meal cards, the other to serve as a point-of-sale system—have struggled to work together and reliably connect to the College’s WiFi. This situation often forces Bon Appetit staff members and student employees to rely only on one register when the other crashes. The issue affects registers in both Anderson Commons and at Sam’s Cafe.
Several Bon Appetit student employees expressed frustration with the slow system.
“[The new registers] have been miserable to say the least,” said Isabella Sperduto, a junior nursing major. “The one we normally use crashes frequently. In one of them, the card reader doesn’t always work.”
Katia Quintanilla, a sophomore Biology and Spanish major, blames the recent lines at Anderson Commons on this processing issue. “[The registers] are a really big reason why the lines are so long,” she said. “If they were just fast, then everyone could go through. But then when there’s [an issue with one of the registers], everyone just starts accumulating. When you see the students in line start going out the door, it’s scary.”
Delgado acknowledged the register issue, saying that Bon Appetit is currently working with the software companies on a solution. And in an email sent after the interview, Sperduto did admit that the register problem has recently gotten much better.
In the meantime, Delgado encouraged students to take advantage of the new system’s benefits.
“If they’re on a meal plan, they can go to wheatonstudentlink.atriumcampus.com,” said Delgado. “Once on the site, they can log in using their Wheaton credentials and then manage their Thunderbucks, meal swipe history, balance, and even invite parents to add more Thunderbucks to the account.”
With all the challenges that Bon Appetit faces this year, Delgado encouraged students to remain patient.
“Just have patience and grace with everything and everyone. Bon Appetit is doing the best that we can given this situation, but I promise you so is every department on this campus,” said Delgado. “This is not just a Bon Appetit issue since it impacts whoever helps or serves you including facilities, custodial, faculty, or IT. If you can show gratitude, do it because those people are working as hard as they’ve ever worked.”
Wheaton College, IL