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The University of North Texas dining service's remains operational and determined to maintain its standards, even in the face of this unprecedented crisis.

Stories from the front line: University of North Texas Dining looks to keep mealtime a ‘happy time’

Through special event menus and leaving dining hall seating open if scattered, the campus meal service at the University of North Texas tries to make sure customers still have a positive meal experience.

The University of North Texas (UNT) generally is booming with up to 39,000 students milling around campus on an average day during the academic year. However, following the school’s cancellation of in-person classes in March, the campus student population has dwindled to less than 800 after UNT gave students the option to leave if they chose. For those remaining students, as well as the adult staff and necessary support personnel still onsite, UNT’s dining services remains operational and determined to maintain its standards, even in the face of this unprecedented crisis.

Heading that department is Peter Balabuch, executive director of campus dining services. Here’s his story:

“To serve students still here, our Kerr Dining Hall remains open seven days a week while the Avesta Restaurant in the Student Union does a continental breakfast and lunch and is also open for dinner. Next week [i.e., the week of April 13th], we’ll also be reopening our Starbucks for limited service throughout the dayparts.

[As for our staff], we usually have about 1,400 hourly students, but none are working now. Instead, what we’ve done is, with the operations that are still open, we disseminated our 130 full-time folks to work through them in groups and give them hours. Meanwhile, we hope to get the hourly staff back to work whenever we’re able to.

University-North-Texas-Dining_Director-Peter-Balabuch.jpgPhoto credit: Peter Balabuch, executive director of campus dining services at The University of North Texas (UNT). 

We were fortunate in that we already had a limited service set up for spring break [when the university decided to suspend in-person classes], so we were able to sit down and roll out a good plan. At Avesta, where people were used to going in and building their own salads and so forth, we now have prebuilt [selections] and the dining halls are giving the option to students to take food out with them.

We still do have some seating in Kerr, but in a dining hall that typically seats around 500 people, right now we’re probably, per day, putting through about 500 to 550 people total over all three dayparts, and another 350 to 400 at Vesta.

Another thing we’re doing is giving complementary meals to those essential [university] personnel who are on campus, and that has helped keep us productive during this time as well.

We don’t want people to walk in [to a dining venue] and think, ‘Oh, we’re in an emergency crisis situation!’ In our world in UNT foodservice, we like to think of mealtime as a happy time, so we’re actually trying to double down on having special events. We’re continuing to do that four days a week in the dining hall. We do flash events out of Avesta, with everything done [while] following CDC guidelines, but really and truly, we’re just trying to make sure that the food is outstanding, the service is outstanding and people can walk away with a quality meal and some positive energy from the experience.

We’re no longer advertising the special events. Instead, when a customer or guest walks into a dining hall, it’s a surprise. For example, last week we had an international food truck special event in the dining hall with each of the stations having a different international cuisine. So we’re going to continue to do things like that, but we’re just not marketing the events and trying to attract large crowds. But it is important for us to make sure that food time is a happy time.

In the student union, everything—Starbucks, Avesta—is takeout only, while in the dining hall, we’ve removed every other chair and put the social distancing footprints where you approach the serving line, but we are allowing guests to eat in the dining hall with some enhanced cleaning procedures so that as soon as somebody gets up, we’re sanitizing tables, chairs and the entire area.

The University of North Texas (UNT)2.jpg

Everyone—students, staff—have all been really good about observing [social distancing]. [Also], coming into this back in March, we had told our staff that, hey, we need to model good behavior and so, if you take breaks, make sure you spread out.

[At the start, we were] thinking, hey, we’re just going to have to go full service and we’ll be doubling up on these sanitizing protocols and we might have to do this for a couple weeks, but, just like just about everywhere else, about two days into it we were closing the campus, and then suddenly we’re trying to address a whole other set of issues on how do we deal with this and what is the plan?

Fortunately, we had a very loose procedural plan in place that we used for when the campus closes down for inclement weather, so we loosely based our structure of closing down operating units based on that. But then, of course, we had to build out how to observe social distancing with guests, with employees, how we serve the food and things like that.

[Stock] was not a huge issue for us. We had a low inventory because we were on spring break. What we did was, when we came back from spring break, we put a plan together. Our managers went out into their units and we basically centralized all the food that we had on hand and basically we wrote our menus out based on things we had on hand to limit the numbers of trucks we’d have to have coming onto campus during this time. Fortunately, from a baked goods standpoint, we have our bakery right on campus. Things like ice cream, sandwich breads, croissants, bagels, all that fun stuff we can pretty much batch from the commissary bake shop as we need it.

We have a prime vendor contract with a local foodservice distributor, Ben E. Keith, and we were in close contact with them. We’d worked with them for many years and they’ve been a great partner when the unexpected happens—just that this is a different kind of unexpected! But, fortunately, they were aware of the situation and we were able to work with them to come for the most part to a happy end for everyone involved. But we’re all looking forward to whatever normal looks like, to get back there.

As told to Mike Buzalka on April 9.

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