With eyes on the fall semester, colleges and universities across the country are considering how they’ll bring back a sense of community for students and staff in the months ahead.
As part of an ongoing roundtable series in FoodService Director’s FSD Community, three dining directors from the Big Ten Conference shared how they’re aiming to build excitement and engagement after a school year like no other.
Here’s a sampling of what they discussed.
Making new efforts
At the University of Michigan, as on other campuses, the mission of the dining team has grown beyond getting good food in front of students, says Senior Director of Dining Steve Mangan.
Fostering a welcoming environment is part of that, but so is helping students learn how to improve their nutrition, navigate allergy concerns, eat more sustainably and tie dining into their academic programs.
The same goes at Indiana University, where Executive Director of IU Dining Rahul Shrivastav hopes a switch this fall from a primarily retail operation to an all-you-care-to-eat one will bring more opportunities for students to sit with friends and build connections over a meal.
Still, this year brings unique obstacles to that community building. “Our challenge this year is going to be a little different,” Mangan says. “We’ve lost connection with our freshman class of this year—our sophomore class now is last year’s freshmen—we’ve got a lot of work to do on every campus to re-engage with students who haven’t really experienced our dining system to its fullest.”
To that end, the dining team at the University of Maryland created a video to go out to students during orientation, something they “don’t typically do,” in an effort to build excitement, says Director of Dining Services Colleen Wright-Riva. Chefs have also been challenged to come up with new limited-time offers that could entice diners through the doors.
Adequate staffing is crucial to making a dining program exciting, Mangan says, noting that “we should be careful not to overlook our staff as part of the community that we need to rebuild.”
Beyond pay and benefits, marketing can play a big role in finding workers, especially given the current labor challenges.
“Part of the problem we have is the perception that campus dining isn’t as glorious as working in restaurants,” Mangan says, adding that it’s important for FSDs to share that campus dining is an appealing place to work, with a purpose-driven mission around sustainability, equity and accessibility that will likely resonate with younger workers and those starting out in a culinary career.
Plus, he says, “the food we’re doing is every bit as good as what’s going on in restaurants.”
Also key is finding ways to cultivate student employees. “I know there are some schools that get hundreds, thousands of them—we’re not one of those schools,” Wright-Riva says. “So we need to do a better job helping young students see a career path, see all the job skills that they can learn with us, and some of them … will get the foodservice bug and stay with us.”
Foodservice staffing in IU’s hometown of Bloomington, Ind., is “pretty dire,” says Shrivastav, noting that his team is pulling from the same talent pool as local restaurants, who are also struggling to find workers. “We are looking to train people, so we are taking people who don’t have the skills … and [we] develop those skills in them,” he says.
Going beyond the recruiting methods typically used by large institutions is one strategy the team at Michigan is trying, such as seeking out potential workers through local culinary groups on Facebook. “We have to go where the people are,” Mangan says.
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