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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Dining services still struggling to fill vacant positions, divert traffic during peak times

As the college continues to struggle with filling staff vacancies in dining halls, some current employees have been asked to work extra hours while student employees have filled in key positions.

Middlebury Dining Services currently employs approximately 250 people and provides meal-plan, retail and catering services for the college. This includes 112 full-time employees and 100 to 150 college students, part-time employees and high school students.

Full- and part-time employees have been asked to work overtime hours in recent weeks. Dining services has also hired more student employees than in previous years because of understaffing on campus. As a result, the total number of student hours worked in dining halls and other dining facilities has increased.

“[We are] currently down eight full time employees throughout all dining,” Executive Director of Dining Services Daniel Detora said. “So it's been a little bit of struggle. That's actually been the lowest point we've had since probably last year. We were in double digits.”

Staff members are hired to a specific dining hall or branch of dining services, including Crossroads, MiddXpress and Wilson Cafe. Each dining hall is assigned a Commons Chef who is in charge of food production and inventory and a House Manager who is responsible for the salad bar, dishes and cleaning tables. The managers are in charge of their dining halls and can post jobs within the Middlebury employment system.

“It's easier to recruit students for things like Crossroads or MiddExpress or Wilson Cafe down at the library,” Detora said.  

This system means that there can be vast staffing level differences between sectors of dining services. Detora also said that the much higher number of meals that Ross and Proctor prepare each week leads to greater staffing needs.

Harry Adami ’25, a student employee at Atwater, noted that he’d been able to take time off but had heard of staffing issues in Proctor and Ross.

Detora said that dining services staff in Atwater, which regularly hosts catering events, often come in on Saturdays to host events, meaning that many Atwater staff take on overtime hours. Catered events include trustee meetings and meals, homecoming and the Athletics Hall of Fame dinner.

Atwater remains closed for breakfast each day since it is dining services’ least busy meal, according to Detora. 

Meanwhile, many students have noted that the dining halls are particularly busy around 12:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The added pressure on the dining halls is primarily due to the class schedule — a particularly high number of classes end at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Detora said that faculty have been asked to adjust the class schedule for next semester to try to relieve some of the lunch rush.

Since the start of last year, the Grille has been open for meal-plan dining for lunch on weekdays. Initially, the goal was to reduce indoor occupancy of the dining halls in an effort to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. In past years, the Grille had been a cash- and declining balance-based operation full time, as it is now in the evenings. Prior to the pandemic, 15 to 20 students at lunch was high for the Grille, and it was primarily used by staff. The Grille switched to meal-plan dining for lunch in hopes of taking some demand off of the dining halls.

Detora relayed that “now, we typically get a couple hundred to four hundred students in [the Grille for lunch], which definitely pulls away from the dining hall.”

Menu patterns are designed to specifically pull students away from the dining halls on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We offer sushi on Thursday for free in the Grille, hoping that students would kind of go there. And then on Tuesdays, we offer a variety of Dr. Feelgoods and some other Grille favorites,” said Detora.

Detora and his team gather and analyze traffic data from student swipes at dining hall entrances and said that these efforts have been fairly successful in reducing traffic at the Tuesday and Thursday peak hours.

“The Grille is definitely busiest on Thursdays — that’s when they serve sushi. I always show up with [my buddy] at 12 because it’s super busy by 12:15,” said Cole Siefer ’25, a weekday regular at the Grille.

Siefer further commented that the Grille has been getting busier on other days of the week as well.

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“It used to be a little secret — but it’s not anymore,” he said. “It’s busiest whenever classes get out — there’s a rush at 1:30 on Wednesdays.”

A Sept. 23 email to the student body from the Office of the Dean of Students encouraged students without a class ending at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesdays or Thursdays to eat outside the rush.

Despite the efforts to relieve stress on understaffed dining crews, the combined factors of a larger-than-normal student body and overall job openings across Middlebury, Vermont and the nation mean that irregular staffing in dining services will likely persist for some time.