Though many of NC State’s facilities were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, much like the student body itself, not many are quite as important as NC State Dining. With essentially two classes of freshmen on campus for the first time ever, the Pack’s restaurants — from Talley Student Union and the Atrium Food Court to dining halls such as Fountain — have geared up and augmented their menus and safety protocols alike.
At the forefront of Dining’s planning for this calendar year is the reopening of both Red Sky Pizza Company and 1887 Bistro. According to Jennifer Gilmore, NC State Dining’s director of marketing and communication, both have been struggling to find employees who will allow them to reopen. Gilmore also said that the University lost almost all of its temporary and student employees due to the pandemic.
“I don't know if students are afraid that the University is going to shut down and they're going to spend the only three weeks they had working in the dish room,” Gilmore said. “But I've heard zero discussion about sending anybody home. We would love for more students to come in and work for us. We've adjusted some wages, we're looking at other incentives to get students [working]. ...we are definitely trying to attend to the needs of our staff.”
Staff retention has been a major roadblock for the unit across the last year, as is the case with several restaurants around the country. In fact, despite restaurants and bars adding 176,000 jobs, the sector was still 1.8 million jobs below the pre-pandemic line.
“Well, we are running into the same issues that you see nationwide,” Gilmore said. “There is a severe shortage of food service. … It's been a struggle, we're way down on our temporary and student employment, and we have a significant number of permanent positions that are open right now so we're doing everything we can to recruit.”
An easy way to keep employees happy and onboard was to ensure their safety amid working during a pandemic, and NC State Dining took extra steps to ensure that both staff and students could work together to create a secure environment across every establishment on campus. In coordination with the University, NC State Dining set up the arrows you may find on the ground at each restaurant, along with dedicated entrances and exits.
In addition, masks and social distancing are required, per government mandates, and disposable utensils and containers saw an increase in production.
“It's important to note that none of us have ever experienced a pandemic before,” Gilmore said. “So we were working very closely with the leadership of the University on what kind of safety protocols they wanted us to put into place. … [We were] making sure that we were protecting our employees.”
With the pandemic raging on, NC State Dining continued to develop healthy eating options for the Pack. NC State Dining’s director of nutrition and wellness, Lauren Smith, has been working in close conjunction with the University to ensure that healthy options are still available for students.
“We've definitely been listening to feedback and making sure that those healthy options are still available,” Smith said. “One thing I am really excited about that we just incorporated this semester is a grain bowl at One Earth. That’s a fun and healthy option that we’ve added for students to get customizable with whole grains and vegetables and different kinds of proteins. And it’s also pretty allergy friendly.”
Smith also said that she works closely with students in order to offer accommodations for students with allergies and other dietary restrictions. According to Gilmore, NC State Dining also continues to work closely with students that have been impacted by COVID-19, keeping them well fed.
Grubhub has played a major part in helping students in quarantine, as it allows for a non-contact way to receive, order and have food delivered.
“Making sure students know their options when they're not feeling well,” Gilmore said. “They can order on Grubhub and send someone to go pick it up. They can get a get-well meal kit. And if they're having trouble… just let us know, ‘I need a meal kit. What can you do to help me?’ We want to remove barriers to students getting what they need when they don't feel well.”
In spite of the challenges NC State has faced amid COVID-19, its facilities have shown resilience and care towards the students it houses and feeds.
“We really have been working hard and want to serve them and take care of them,” Gilmore said. “The folks who have shown up to work at NC State NC State Dining care about them very much and that if they can have a little bit of patience with us, but also provide their feedback on what's working and what's not working. We take it seriously and that we’re really looking forward to having everything back open so that they can enjoy all the options that we have to offer.”