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Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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April 15, 2024
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Where We Go From Here: A Hard Knox Cafe Story

Where+We+Go+From+Here%3A+A+Hard+Knox+Cafe+Story

At one point or another throughout the year, almost everyone has eaten at the Hard Knox Cafe. Students noticed and reported a decline in the quality of food throughout the terms. When proper dishware was changed to single use, students raised questions. Student workers and staff alike have been stretched thin because of staffing issues in the kitchen, which has prompted closures and hour changes of both the Gizmo and The Outpost.

With all of these changes and challenges, many students have been expressing their want for change in the way that dining services is being run. Some students also have issue with how the food itself is prepared.

“I think they should add more.. flavor. Because I know for a fact they have more spices, because I’ve seen the kitchen before because I worked for the I-Fair. So I think they should use them,” First-year Harini Gunasekaran said.

Covid-19 completely upturned dining services, leading to nationwide staff shortages and exposing the long trend in the modern era of poor working conditions and work culture kitchen staff experience.

“Lack of transparency about labor division. Pay. And their general workforce. Who they need, the hiring process, why certain things in the caf aren’t up to speed due to labor shortage,” Junior Eva Fuller said . “But also not explaining it as labor shortages and leaving it at that but actually going into the specifics of what that means. Because we can sit here and talk about terminology on what exactly we leave out when we say things. […] I would like to know more so I can advocate for the workers rights and needs.”

General Manager of Dining Services Doug Stenfeldt has been trying his best to react to the student complaints. 

“Our dining team currently consists of 4 managers, 5 Crew Leaders, 43 full time, and 4 part time staff,” Stenfeldt said. “Our menus are planned several weeks in advance, and we rely mostly on the feedback and interactions with our students to determine the menu options.” 

The Cafe serves approximately 1200 meals a day and is staffed by 34 people on two shifts. 

“It takes 8 full-time food service workers daily over the course of two shifts to be able to run a normal, fully-staffed dishwashing operation,” Stenfeldt said. “We are getting close to that staffing level, but need to fill two more openings.“

This is a large part of why the Cafe had disposable dishware for so long this year. 

“Full pre-pandemic, our operations required a staff of 54 Knox employees and around 100 work study students. Due to some retirements and staff finding other opportunities during the pandemic slowdown, we are currently at 41 staff members and less than half the number of work study students we normally have” he explains.

This means in March, the Hard Knox Cafe was operating with 75.9% of its usual Knox employees and less than 50% of student workers, totaling to 52.5% – 59% of its desired staff. That’s just above halfway. Student workers are also not able to do anything more than cutting vegetables due to their union contract.

“We started this year with 25 employees. […], we’ve had 110 interviews for dining services. The shortness isn’t entirely because of COVID, but in part it is,” Stenfeldt said. “We’re at 47/53 as of right now. […] If things are closed, we can often fill in those gaps now.” 

But, the Hard Knox Cafe is still understaffed. This understaffing leads to a lack of options – something that is both frustrating and difficult for many students. 

“One thing that I think that could be an improvement within the caf itself would be having the grill and pizza ovens open more often to offer more options to the caf,” First year Thomas Keegan said. 

Stenfeldt acknowledges student frustration, but says that the lack of variety is due to the pandemic caused by supply chain issues. Due to this, dining services workers  don’t always know in advance what will be out of stock. The lack of Halal options also stems from these issues.

“Pre-Pandemic we were getting chicken from Cisco in Georgia, and were able to order 70 cases a week. In December of 2018, our supply chain options have largely dried up. We’ve started working with a new company, but we can’t get those in the same quantities since they are processed through the mail room,” Stenfeldt said.

Many students are concerned about a lack of vegetarian and gluten-free options as well.Stenfeldt told Student Senate he’d work with Chef Lisa on those concerns. 

“I’ll work with Chef Lisa. Recently vegetables have been overcooked, soups not great, I’ll have [her] start working on that. As far as gluten free, if you communicate with us the specific things and brands you want we can order those. That allows us to get things which are sealed, which are safer,” Stenfeldt said. 

Other students are worried about Covid-19, and how many Cafe workers are no longer wearing masks. 

“Our procedures have evolved over the course of the pandemic, using CDC and local Health Department guidelines, as well as collaboration with other schools for best practices,” Stenfeldt said. “Currently, like the rest of the College, all members of our team are vaccinated and follow testing requirements.”

Despite the wide range of issues that Dining Services has been dealing with this year, some improvements have been made. The Gizmo has longer hours, and ice cream has returned to the Cafe. But, as of late, in order to keep the Caf open, The Outpost has closed early several times  and did not open some days. There have also been frequent closes of the burger bar and pizza sections in the Cafe this past term. 

“When combined with a few key team members taking time off for personal emergencies, it sometimes can affect our ability to cover all food areas. We do our best to shift our team around to avoid such shutdowns. Occasionally, however, we just don’t have enough people, or people with the right skills to cover all the food areas,” Stenfeldt said. 

Fuller, as a third year, has experience prior to the pandemic. 

“I think it’s better. But a lot of the changes are a little more ephemeral than we think, “ Fuller said. “When we call them improvements we mean they were staples prior to covid so it’s more that they were being reinstated. And these are more small increments towards what was pre-pandemic. I mean the hours [at the Gizmo] were extended but they used to be till 2am, pre-pandemic.”

Stenfeld’s goal is to reinstate many of the staples from before the pandemic. 

“We still have several areas, such as deli, smoothies, and stir fry that we need to restore to return to a pre-pandemic level of operations. We will add those areas back to our operations as we make these hires and get enough student staff,” Stenfeldt said.

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