Virginia Tech Dining Services serves swells of summer guests
Though a smaller student population means most Virginia Tech dining centers are closed during summer, those that remain open experience their highest waves of traffic all year. Surges of conference guests plus shifting staff schedules demand increased coordination and flexibility to maintain Dining Services’ renowned food and service when the heat is on.
“Dietrick Hall and Au Bon Pain in Squires [Student Center] are the only dining centers open for summer operation,” said Kelvin Bergsten, assistant manager of Dietrick. With its eight shops and all-you-care-to-eat service, D2 at Dietrick Hall sees the most dramatic increase in summer service. “In addition to summer school students, we had more than 6,000 attendees from over 60 conferences eating at D2 this summer," said Bergsten.
Clear communication is crucial to effectively plan service for such large groups.
Dietrick Operations Manager Charlene Mitchell said, “We meet weekly with Conference and Guest Services to confirm the conference numbers and dining schedules. If necessary, we plan to have the larger groups come in at intervals.”
Matching the pace of customers to seating and service capacity is essential to a good dining experience.
“D2 can serve 500 to 600 people every half-hour with moderate lines, great service, and hot, fresh food," Bergsten said. "Guests will self-regulate over time, but before their schedules settle, a thousand guests at once can test the facility.”
This summer’s overlapping groups brought over 1,400 customers to each breakfast one week. The D2 team responded by extending hours and engaging with guests and conference leaders.
While the facility opens half an hour earlier for summer groups, during its busiest week, D2 staff added more seating and opened a full hour earlier to accommodate the tight timelines of conference participants. When the earlier opening time still saw long lines, the team actively managed the flows in and out of the dining area.
“With those kinds of numbers, we have managers at the door to determine if we need to open another register or regulate entry,” said Matt Hoag, assistant manager. “We radio managers in the dining area to ensure we have seats available.”
Revolving conference groups are not the only changing faces that make summer service special. Employees from units closed for the summer join D2’s summer crew and rotate among other duties and well-earned summer vacations.
“There are a lot of moving parts during the summer,” said Bergsten. “We have staff cutting wood for the wood-fired oven at Turner Place and grill at West End Market. We have staff helping grow vegetables at Homefield Farm. Others at Turner Place are preserving produce from Homefield and custom cutting meats for use throughout the year, and Southgate Center is transporting and cleaning the crops harvested from Homefield.”
With personnel from D2 and other units circulating among D2, work outside the facility, vacation, and training with new equipment or recipes at their home unit, Bergsten and his staff rely on training and an established culture of initiative and cooperation to maintain continuity.
After the complexities of scheduling over 200 staff and thousands of vacation days are resolved, building a cohesive team is relatively easy, said Hoag. “Having new team members can be more of a challenge, but we’re lucky to have experienced employees to guide those who don’t know the summer routines. With that kind of leadership, even people who have never worked at D2 pick it up quickly.”
Blending teams ultimately creates more of an opportunity than a challenge, said Mitchell. “Staff coming in from other dining centers tell us how much they love the camaraderie here, and that makes a difference in our work.”
The efforts of Dining Services’ cross-unit summer teams have earned the appreciation of conference guests and leaders.
At the conclusion of this summer’s Junior ROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge at Virginia Tech, the camp's commandant, Martin Compton, expressed his appreciation for the D2 team. His letter to D2 staff noted that their “outstanding attentiveness, dedication, and prompt support maximized training in an expedient manner which contributed to the overall success” for his hundreds of cadets, cadre, and support personnel.
Dining Services’ culture of teamwork ensures that its fluid summer teams meet the needs of conference participants gracefully. "Our senior staff together in the D2 summer crew have over 150 years of food service experience,” said Mitchell. “It's nice to see that experience come together and make everything work for our guests.”