Since 2015, Sujatha Doddabemathi Puradaiah, a cashier and front-of-house lead for dining services provider Sodexo, has been as a friendly face at the register when guests enter the dining hall at Franklin & Marshall College (F&M) in Pennsylvania.
“Sujatha is very much seen as a dining services ‘mom’ or ‘auntie’ to many of the students since she has been here,” remarks Resident Dining & Marketing Manager Jilly Harris. “Suji, as she is affectionately called, mentioned to us that she would be happy to cook some of her own home-cooked, plant-based recipes for the students.”
That was an offer enthusiastically taken up by the campus culinary team, which saw an opportunity to recognize the increase in international students attending F&M by highlighting Puradaiah’s international plant-based dishes.
As a result, she took up a chef's coat for the first time this spring and created a special dining event for the campus compromised only by the need to modify some of her recipes to avoid nuts and tree nuts to accord with the F&M dining hall being a nut-free facility.
“Suji prepared a delicious meal for lunch that was a huge hit,” said Harris. “Such a hit, in fact, that students left many comments on social media and on our comment boards that they wanted her to cook more often.”
The success of Puradaiah’s meal inspired the program to provide other employees a similar opportunity, assisted by members of the seasoned culinary team. General Manager Drew Niemann, Operations Manager Erik Kessler, and the Diplomatic Congress (the campus' student government) met to discuss a variety of things students want to see in the dining hall.
Feedback showed students wanted to know the team serving them, desired more plant-based and international dishes and requested more new events.
“They said that when ‘Auntie Suji’ cooked for them, it was one of the best days at lunch and they wanted more,” Harris reports.
As a first step, arrangements were quickly made for Puradaiah to cook for the students again before the end of the school year. Then, because of the reception she, a new weekly highlight called "Chef's Spotlight” is scheduled to begin this fall, with Sodexo team members given the opportunity to prepare their own recipes for students.
With a push to offer more plant-based and international options in the dining hall, the management team happily agreed to have Suji continue her own culinary path, preparing a meal once a month moving forward.