This March, while most universities around the country were announcing that they were mostly shutting their campuses and sending students home unless they had a compelling reason to stay, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., seemed to buck the trend. Following the school’s spring break, Liberty announced that while it was transitioning to online classes beginning March 23, students would have the option of either remaining on campus or going home, igniting a firestorm of criticism.
In retrospect, the controversy was over a distinction without a difference as most students did decide to leave, and those that remained were subject to the same social distancing (required by the state of Virginia) as other universities, most of which also have some students still residing on campus because they have nowhere else to go.
Besides students, the remaining onsite population at Liberty also includes some university staff. While professors are teaching online classes remotely and most departments that can telecommute are doing so, some that are minimally staffed or are able to accommodate social distancing at the workplace remain onsite, as do necessary staff for tasks like maintenance and security. The university is also taking the opportunity of the slowdown to get some minor maintenance and infrastructure modification tasks completed.
In any case, the situation posed a challenge for the school’s dining service, which is operated by Sodexo, to maintain a meal program that lives up to its pre-coronavirus standards as far as possible under the circumstances. Liberty had been upping its dining game vigorously over the past decade, recently adding concepts like pizza delivery, a gluten-free bake shop, personalized pasta, premium burgers and an FM Best Concept Award-winning c-store. New additions this past fall included an in-house-designed Latin cuisine station called Fuego and an Asian concept called Umai.
Only skeletal fragments of those offerings remained active for the spring term, given not only the dearth of customers—when FM spoke to Sodexo Marketing Manager Ryan Wheeler in early April, the number of students still living on campus was under 1,500 and “dwindling”—but also the limitations of operating during a pandemic.
Photo: Dining staff such as “Miss Theresa” have formed bonds with students over the years that have only been strengthened by the coronavirus crisis.
Of the two dozen dining locations the campus offered previously, nine remained active with modified menus and limited hours, including the Hey Cow burger concept, the Garbanzo Mediterranean food concept, The Grid c-store, Doc’s Diner, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin Donuts/Natural!, Sub Connection, Starbucks and the Reber-Thomas dining hall.
Even that looks like a lot given the diminished market, but Wheeler says his department was trying to ensure coverage and serve the remaining customers with as much quality, convenience and variety as could reasonably be had under the circumstances.
“Our campus is spread out and we’re trying to hit people in the hubs where they are,” he explains, noting that it doesn’t make sense to keep an outlet open in an area where there is no longer traffic—the now-shuttered recreation center, for instance—but concentrate the areas where students are living.
Restrictions on the still-operating dining locations include a limit of 10 customers inside a facility at a time, social distancing for those waiting outside, takeout containers only, no seating and no self-serve of any kind. Early on, the department set up an express lane outside Reber-Thomas to deal with mealtime surges, but these failed to materialize and were soon discontinued.
Food production operations haven’t really changed except for greater attention to sanitation—everything is wiped down every 15 minutes, for instance—and social distancing protocols, Wheeler says. That extends to the serving areas, where all employees wear gloves not just to handle food but also to take cash or credit cards.
“Operationally, because there are now so few students on campus, it’s quite easy to manage the amount of people coming into our locations,” Wheeler notes, “so we are able to serve them pretty easily and a lot of our staff is just focused on things like wiping down every counter, every ordering screen.”
Menus have been adjusted somewhat now that everything is packed to go.
The massive Reber-Thomas, which at its peak bristled with up to two dozen serving stations, is down to about a dozen, “and even those now have limited menus, and some have become rotating stations so we can provide more diversity in our menus,” Wheeler notes. “Every station that was self-serve is now operated by attendants, every condiment bar—whether it’s creamer, sugar packets, fruit—is now behind the line and available on request.”
Among concepts operating at Reber-Thomas is the Simple Servings food-allergen-free station to accommodate students needing that kind of dining, and the Gluten Intolerant Option meal plan also remains in effect, giving holders the right to get a gluten-free meal anywhere on campus.
While Liberty never had any round-the-clock dining locations—the school actually has a curfew—dining locations did operate continuously between 7 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. and that was maintained at first, but it quickly became apparent that there was almost no traffic between meal periods, so now Reber-Thomas opens only for several hours at a time during the breakfast, lunch and dinner periods, while hours for the other locations vary based on their menus, though a couple like The Grid and Chick-fil-A are open most of the day.
Photo: When the coronavirus lockdown occurred, Liberty, like many campuses, was stuck with a lot of stock, especially perishables, so it donated it to a local charities.
Credit: Liberty University
“It’s really encouraging for us to see our employees and the passion they still have even during this time,” Wheeler notes. “They come in every day and think about the students. They do get to see them just about every day and they do form relationships. I think one of the coolest things about this otherwise terrible experience is seeing the relationships that grow on this campus between our employees and the students.”
As for those students, “every day I get emails and social media messages literally saying thanks,” Wheeler relates, “but even more than students commenting are the parents, who are extremely grateful for everything we’re doing from a dining perspective. After all, if we’re telling parents that we’ll be responsible for the students, we have to own that, and I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.”