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Campus Dining Services: Putting the fun—and safety—in food

March 26, 2021
cook from Dining Services hands a sample of chili from a large pot to students on the other side of the table, all are wearing masks.Cook helper Tracey Riley, right, prepares chili samples for Sara Vechinski '24, left, and Rachel Blumberg '24 during Dining Services first chili cookoff, one of many special "pop-up" dining options organized for this semester. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Masks and social distancing mix with creative specialty foods at River Campus dining halls.

The mission for Campus Dining Services has been a moving target since COVID-19 forced the University of Rochester to move the majority of students to remote learning in March 2020.

“When the pandemic began, our initial response was focused on reacting to safety guidelines from the University, New York State, the CDC, and local health departments,” says David Feist, who oversees the dining marketing and communication efforts on campus as guest experiences manager for University partner Harvest Table Culinary Group.

When the 2020 spring semester ended, the focus turned to planning what the dining experience would be when school resumed in the fall. “I had at least two Zoom meetings a day, seven days a week,” says Cam Schauf, director of Campus Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations. “We had to develop plans covering daily operations and quarantine/isolation.”

The question was, once in-person classes resumed, what would dining look like in a world bound by social distancing and masks? The answer has been a smorgasbord of food and drink, all while adhering to ever-changing safety guidelines. This semester has seen specialty days like Milkshake Monday, a “totcho bar” to celebration National Tater Tot Day, a chili cook-off, “wing wars,” a giant pretzel bar, breakfast for dinner, dessert garbage plates, carrot and mango smoothies, an avocado toast bar—and more.

Many of these have been “pop-ups” serving specialty food and drink around the River Campus. “We try to have at least two pop-ups a week, spread out to all of our locations,” Feist says. “We always go to Rush Rhees Library and around Wilson Commons, but it’s not a set location.”

Dining has planned a mobile popup cart serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, snacks, and beverages on May 12. The cart will travel to several spots on the River Campus where students are studying for final examinations.

stacks of food containers on a countertop.

Recyclable takeout containers have taken the place of dishes at Douglass Dining Hall, one of several COVID-19 mitigation measures put in place by Dining Services this year. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

The pop-ups and unusual offerings have been a hit with many students.

“Dining has been killing it,” says Sara Vechinski ’24, an English literature major from San Diego. “My friends and I look forward to weekly events and pop-ups to the point where we schedule it into our day. It breaks up the monotony, and things like smoothies and the chili cook-off were incredibly delicious.”

Schauf and his crew have adhered to COVID protocols in dining halls by:

  • Keeping tables six feet apart and removing some chairs and booths to limit seating (currently guidelines are four chairs per table).
  • Replacing self-serve options such as salad bars with prepackaged food.
  • Substituting china and silver with recyclable to-go containers and plasticware.
  • Fully sanitizing and disinfecting food contact surface areas, serving areas, cooler door handles, and point-of-service areas throughout the day with a hospital-grade disinfectant.
  • Employing a touchless pay system to minimize contact and reduce long lines.
  • Working with online ordering partner GrubHub so that students can choose from a full menu and order from residential locations, paying with a single swipe.

“From the start, we wanted to make sure our guests feel safe and comfortable enough to trust us during such an unsure time in the world,” Feist says. “We also wanted our team members to feel safe in their working environment. Once we did that, we started thinking about how we could incorporate fun back into the dining locations safely.”

Schauf estimates there has been a 35 percent drop in guests between the two main residential dining halls on the River Campus—Danforth and Douglass—in part because there are fewer students on campus and also because seating capacity has been reduced—under 50 percent in dining halls and no dine-in guests allowed in cafes. “This has led to many students taking their food out of our facilities and eating elsewhere,” Schauf says.

Alyssa Ho ’21, an optical engineering major from Denver and president of the senior class council, lives off campus but orders from Genesee Express at Douglass on GrubHub at least once a week. Each meal includes an entrée, side, and drink— all packaged in to-go containers. “The options are quick and tasty,” Ho says. “And the convenience and safety of contact-free pickup makes it my go-to place to eat on campus.”

Some changes, like the touchless pay system and expanded GrubHub locations, are popular with students, staff, and faculty, and likely to stay beyond the pandemic. But Schauf still longs for a return to the old normal.

“We look forward to going back to using china in our residential facilities, and bringing back our reusable mug and clamshell programs,” he says.


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