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UNH Runs On Dining

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
April 4, 2007

[Editors note: this is the first in a series on the services it takes to keep UNH going, day in and day out]

Bill Cason’s job is all about being clean. Mike Desjardins’ focus is on getting folks fed.

Without the two, and the other 360 like them, the university dining halls would not be able to put out the 72,000 meals they provide each week.

Holloway Commons, which can seat 800, serves 40,700 of those. Stillings Marketplace serves 15,000 and Philbrook, 17,700.

As the dish room supervisor in Holloway Commons, Cason is tasked with making sure diners can walk in at any time and find stacks of yellow and orange and blue plates, racks of plastic glasses, and the necessary assortment of silverware at their disposal.

“Provide a service to our guests, a clean and sanitized product—that’s my primary job,” Cason says. “The biggest challenge is keeping enough racks open for all the dirty dishes that come in. A lot of the time, people get up all at once and then it fills right up.”

To keep things running smoothly, he needs workers on the breakdown station who are “very, very mobile and very, very fast.” Then, once the dishes are clean, the ‘truckers’ have to get them out to the dining room just as quickly.

Desjardins works in the Elements at Philbrook Hall as a cook III, a position that involves chef and supervisory duties. Keeping pace requires co-workers who are cross-trained and can jump in to any position that needs to be filled. Using standardized recipes makes that possible, meaning his baker could step in and prepare dishes like the sausage and marinara sauce lunch special Philbrook served earlier this week.

On this busy morning, he slathers a grill with oil and when it’s hot, adds 15 pounds of Bermuda onions and red and green peppers. The vegetables sit for a minute while he swaps trays of fresh-baked cookies with those waiting to go in the oven. Some 1,200 will be cooked just for the day.

He returns to the nearby grill and gives the vegetables a stir before answering a buzzing timer on a steamer where fat link sausage has been being precooked. These he slices into small pieces before returning to his sautéing.

“I like to do several things at once,” Desjardins says. “I’m hands-on as well as a supervisor. It can be kind of a balancing act.”

That act involves everything from cooking the meals to evaluating the staff to assisting with menu planning. Lunchtime often finds Desjardins walking between Philbrook’s

six 100-seat eating areas where he talks with students to learn about their dining experiences.

Depending on the meal, it takes about three hours to get ready for lunch. Breakfast is a little easier and can be prepared and set up for in half the time. Philbrook’s eight cooks are busy in the kitchen from 5:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night. There are eight other cooks who work in the dining hall concept areas—the stir-fry station, for example-along with 10 to 15 student assistants.

“One of the biggest problems is, with a staff this size, you’re always going to have someone out sick or on vacation. You have to balance: who’s not here today and what do I have to do about that,” Desjardins says.

Cason has to juggle when he is shorthanded, too. When fully staffed, the dish room has 12 employees working. During peak hours, four of them are at the line, emptying the shelves.

“When it gets busy, I have to go where everyone is the busiest,” Cason says. “It’s very hard to look at that belt completely full.”

“Everybody doesn’t have the same talents,” he continues. “They’re not all going to be good at the same thing. I learn a little bit from every one in here. They have good ideas and I encourage them to express them.”

He says he thinks it’s easier for him, maybe, than some of the other workers because “I’ve got a little age on me.” He’s been doing this job for 17 years, starting at Philbook and then moving to Holloway when it opened in 2003.

With a cart stacked with clean plates, Cason makes his way around the first floor of the dining hall, quickly spying the spots where the dish stacks are low.

“Not every job is this easy and most of them aren’t as clean,” he says as he darts from one spot to another. “Overall, it’s very challenging.”

Cason works four 10-hour days. On Saturdays, he comes in early in the morning to distill all of the machines. The food compost collector is cleaned and sanitized nightly.

Desjardins, who attended Rhode Island’s Johnson and Wales and worked at several restaurants before coming to UNH last year, says serving so many people makes it easier to be organized.

“One of the challenges is to always be thinking ahead; not just thinking about today but thinking so tomorrow goes smoothly, too,” Desjardins says. “It’s very easy to forget that when you’re serving such large amount of food. If I have an extra 20 minutes, I’m thinking what can I do to make tomorrow go smoother?”

“Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely hard. But it’s a different kind of challenge that makes it almost easier to stay organized,” he says. “We’re not happy with what we have been doing all right; we strive to do better.”

Adds Cason, “I look forward to coming to work every day. I like working with people. This is a good place to be.”

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