Quick, what are the most popular foods served on the OES campus?
"Tater tots and Pirate's Booty," said Bon Appetit General Manager Beth LaFond, with zero hesitation. "I had never even heard of Pirate's Booty before I came to this school, but you should hear the kids squeal when it's served for snack. We go through a lot of tater tots. Grab-and-Go salads are a big hit so far, and we also get compliments every time we serve green beans!"
Bon Appetit has been OES's dining hall coordinator since 2011, said Chief Financial Officer Gretchen Reed. The on-site restaurant company—known for introducing fresh, made-from-scratch food and pioneering environmentally and socially responsible practices—provides food service to 1,000-plus cafés located at corporations, universities, and museums in 33 states.
Previous to Covid, the OES dining hall was regularly serving meals to nearly 1,000 people a day in all divisions, as well as catering meetings and campus events of all sizes. In March of 2020, when the pandemic hit and the dining hall closed, a number of Bon Appetit staff moved to other positions. By July of 2020, the remaining crew were charged with making sack lunches for summer camps and, from September to March, the Emergency Child Care Essential Worker program.
"And then when more students started coming back [in the spring of 2021], we did the sack lunches across the board, about 750 to 800 sack lunches each day, taking into account dietary restrictions such as gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian," said LaFond. "We literally had to make the sandwiches the night before to stay a day ahead. It was a non-stop kind of rotation of making sandwiches."
Reed estimated that more than 50,000 sandwiches were made during the 2020-21 school year.
When school started in September of 2021, the approximately 350 Lower School students were asked to bring their own lunches daily to lessen the impact on LaFond's dwindling staff, an unpredictable food supply chain, and Covid.
"The food service industry has always been notorious for labor shortages, but I've never seen anything to this extent," said LaFond, who's been in the business for 16 years and said she needs at least three full-time cooks, two-to-three part-time servers, and a full-time dishwasher to open the Lower School kitchen. "The labor shortage is full on here. I've had ads up for cooks, dishwashers, and servers since June with no applicants. That is a huge hurdle.
"If you'd asked me six months ago if we'd be serving the Lower School by now, I would have said 'yes' thinking we'd be able to have a staff. I've never seen a labor shortage like this one."
Adding to the challenge of a dearth of job applicants, said LaFond is the dicey supply chain and slower deliveries.
"We put orders in," she said. "Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't. We get shorted on a lot of what we order but we don't necessarily know what items we'll be shorted on until the driver shows up. So we have a multi-layered situation where we're bound by our storage and cooler space and the equipment we can use to execute a meal accordingly with the minimal staff and food supplies we have, and then you have Covid restrictions on top of that and new food codes that come into play with dining. It's been tough."
Students have asked how they can help to reduce waste in the dining hall and better care for the planet. LaFond said she would love for students to bring their own cups for water, and have utensils handy from their own kitchens to minimize the use of plastic used.
"With Covid, we have to be careful how many touches we have to the plates and food," said LaFond. "So another piece to reducing the waste is eating what you take, and not returning food that has already been touched because health-wise, we can't serve it again." Students who want seconds also will be given a new plate, per health code. Made food that is unused is donated daily to Blanchet House.
Though taters are popular, LaFond said she hopes to see a day soon when serving is more than about tots.
"My hope is to get to a place where we can do different and specialty menu items or themes going on around school," she said. "I'd like to see some Eat Local challenges, and more waste training." LaFond said diners should also feel comfortable in sharing with her any dietary needs.
The best part about being at OES? "I think it's the community and the energy around food," said LaFond, who was previously at OMSI. "Even though we are Bon Appetit, we are very much absorbed into the community and appreciated, which is really lovely."