Summer at UO means big changes for campus dining halls and their staff

For dining halls at the University of Oregon, the end of spring term signals the disappearance of waves of thousands of hungry students and their stockpiles of meal points. Most of these students will move on to different places for the summer — places without the Cheesy Grillers and Whammies they so often consumed on campus.

So what goes on in those dining halls during the summer? And what happens to the full-time employees there who no longer have so many students to feed?

Tom Driscoll probably knows the answers to these questions better than anyone else. As both the associate director of housing and the director of Dining Services at UO, some of his job responsibilities include overseeing and helping plan much of the campus dining operations during the summer months.

“Our goal is to try to fill [the dining halls] as much as we can so that we can keep our staff working as much as possible throughout the summer,” said Driscoll.

In order to use what would otherwise be dormant dining facilities, the university recruits numerous conference groups to stay and eat on campus when they visit Eugene in the summer. These conference groups include events like sports camps, Oregon Bach Festival musicians, and Cycle Oregon — an annual, week-long bicycle ride through various parts of Oregon.

Driscoll estimates that only 110 to 150 students live on campus at any given time during the summer, and unlike students living on campus during the school year, they aren’t required to purchase meal plans. Accordingly, the conference attendees comprise the vast majority of summer dining hall customers.

One of the most challenging aspects of serving the conferences is preparing for the drastic day-to-day fluctuations in volumes of customers.

“During the summer you may have a day where you’re doing a couple hundred meals and the very next day you may do 8,000 meals,” Driscoll said.

While 8,000 meals is still far less than what is prepared on a typical day during the school year, the sudden changes present problems for Driscoll and the dining hall staffs.

“As a dining operation, the biggest challenge is the lack of consistency in what you’re doing,” he said. “We’re really prepared and staffed to do 12,000 to 15,000 meals a day, every day, for 33 weeks. And that’s what we do well.”

Because the school year dining staff is far larger than what is needed for the summer, many of the employees are faced with making new work arrangements.

One of these employees is 28-year-old Stephen Levy, who began working for UO Dining Services in 2008. Levy hopes to eventually be promoted to a coordinator at one of the UO dining halls, but this past school year he worked mostly at Big Mouth Burrito in Hamilton Dining Hall as a food service worker 2 — meaning that he supervises student food service workers, but is not at the level of a manager.

Levy said he enjoys the flexibility of his job and getting to know the students who frequent Big Mouth Burrito.

“During the year you get to build a relationship with the students who live here and eat here every day,” he said. “I’ll recognize people and I’ll know what they want. There’s a guy who comes and gets a quesadilla every day. I know his name, what he gets on his quesadilla, and what he gets on the side.”

Although Levy still gets 40 hours of work per-week during the summer, his responsibilities are quite different from the rest of the year.

“I’m what we call a ‘nine-month employee,’ so I work here in food service nine months out of the year,” he said. “People who are 12-month employees usually go to Carson or Dux [dining halls]. But with me what they do is after the summer camps are over they send me to custodial, where I’ll clean dorms for the rest of the summer.”

Nine-month employees have the option of taking the summer off but are also offered temporary positions at UO, such as helping with food service for large conferences or doing custodial and maintenance work.

Levy said the custodial work is more physically intensive than his food service work, but that he doesn’t mind it too much. However, he finds that the change from an evening work schedule to an early morning work schedule can be challenging.

“It’s a big adjustment for me because naturally I’ll stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning. So having to go to bed at 10 in the night, that’s an adjustment,” he said.

Stanley Hicks, 27, works as a line cook at Gastro Kitchen in Hamilton Dining. After accumulating about seven years of experience in food service, Hicks was hired by UO in 2016 as a cook 1, which is also a position with only nine months of guaranteed work in the dining halls.

“I started out at a resort in Cottage Grove washing dishes. That’s where they taught me how to cook the line,” he said. “And I basically moved to a long-term care facility after that, and worked quite a few years there before coming here.”

Hicks said he was ready for a more challenging cooking position and that he enjoys the faster paced work environment of the Gastro Kitchen.

“Honestly, I really like the intensity and challenging aspects of the Gastro line,” he said. “It’s one of the more high-paced environments that I’ve seen here on campus, and for me, [someone] who likes the high-energy, high-stress environments, it’s one of my favorite places to work.”

Last summer Hicks opted not to work, which allowed him time for a memorable wedding vacation to Italy. This summer he requested to do custodial work at UO, but as of early July he had only been scheduled for one week at Dux Dining Hall and hadn’t received confirmation from the university about the rest of his summer employment.

“I assume I’m going to be going to custodial, but I have not been informed of such, and it’s not really something that they tell you outright,” he said. “They schedule you week by week, so depending on what you are trying to do around that, it becomes a difficult thing to plan around.”

Hicks is interested in being promoted to the position of cook 2, which would come with a pay raise, a 12-month contract and the assurance of food service work at UO during the summer, but he has other aspirations as well.

“I have hopes of taking classes towards a degree at some point, so that will definitely be my main focus,” he said. “But of course I’ll still be working hard towards what I’m doing here. If that means that I’ll be a cook 2 in the future, then that’s what I’ll set myself up to be.”

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