02 Apr 2020

Managing Through Crisis: A Q+A with Food Service Management


by Shona Simkin

Food means many things too all of us. It’s a source of comfort, nostalgia, nutrition, sustenance, diversion, creativity, community, and more. For those who also count it as a profession, the coronavirus pandemic has wrought an avalanche of challenges: social distancing, new hygiene and sanitary guidelines, production and supply concerns, and particularly for those in the restaurant industry, loss of income.

On the HBS campus, we look to Restaurant Associates (RA) for thoughtful, delicious, creative meals; for a smile and quick conversation as we wait for our sandwich or check out with our plate of hot food; as well as for catering and service at our many events. We sat down with Andrew Falzone, director of campus and food services, Todd Mulder, RA general manager, and David Fillippetti, RA executive chef, to ask them about what this experience has been like.

The University recently announced that all contract employees, which include dining workers, would be paid through May 28. Does that include HBS?
Falzone: Yes. We are very glad to be able to do this. We’ve had many questions from students, faculty, and staff who were concerned about all of our workers. For distancing concerns, we had already begun rotating workers on alternate shifts, and had committed to paying them for their regularly scheduled hours. We’re very happy that we can guarantee that continuation of pay through the end of May.

When did you realize that the pandemic would present unique challenges to HBS food service?
Falzone: We’ve been listening and actively monitoring the situation for quite some time. On March 6 it became a front of line topic when student conferences were canceled. That day we came up with action plans to adequately support future events while putting appropriate measures in place to protect attendees and our employees. Every day since then has brought new challenges and changes as we try to adapt our program to keep the community and associates safe.

What was the next event that caused a shift?
Mulder: The March 10 announcement from President Bacow, followed by Dean Nohria, about the change to all-virtual learning, meant that we had to start planning for different numbers when students returned from spring break. We had to think about opening up different areas for service depending on how many students we’d have, and what that service would look like.

Falzone: With the March 15 announcement from Governor Baker, we started thinking about how we would serve the community with limited resources. David and his team went into procurement and production mode to prepare frozen meals to have on standby. To date we have 13,500 meals, which can feed our current population three meals a day for well beyond three months. These are in reserve to roll out if we find ourselves in a situation where we need to supplement our fresh program as it exists today or make a full-on change where we have a much stricter lockdown protocol in place.

What have been some of the greatest challenges?
Falzone: Our biggest challenge has been keeping up with the changing landscape and the new guidance protocols that are issued almost daily. We anticipated having nearly 700-1,000 people after spring break, so we converted the Chao service area, which is normally dedicated to Executive Education, into a retail outlet by adding a cash register, we turned the Klarman atrium into another outlet for purchasing bag lunches and to go meals, and the Williams room into a location for catered pickup. At the same time, we kept the Food Court and Grille open, and converted the Aldrich cart into a 24/7 self-service market. This was all in place for the 25-person threshold guidance. When students returned from spring break it became evident that they were really following the stay at home advice, and participation was much smaller than we expected. We recently scaled back Chao and Klarman, centering back in Spangler for all operations, and are working to get more data from residents so that we can better tailor our programs. That will help from the food production side, as what to make and when to make it has been a big challenge. We hope to bring in more comfort type items and a few more hot options at lunchtime.

Fillippetti: For us in the kitchen, we had to adjust to producing a high volume of food while maintaining social distance. And we’ve had to reassure employees who are worried about getting sick that we’re being vigilant about ensuring safety, and we’re also squashing rumors. The human resources side has been tough. But we’re also used to heavy volume, and it all clicked quickly. It's almost like a long, drawn-out commencement week. We all feel the stress of the situation, but we just draw on our past experience with commencement, reunions, and all the large functions that we do. Everyone came together quickly and we just did what we know.

What’s next, if you can anticipate that at all?
Mulder: Well, we’re looking at worst-case scenarios. All of our plans are predicated on the fact that we have people. We could get a call tomorrow that one of our associates is being tested for COVID-19, which could significantly change our ability to provide food service. One of the thoughts behind the frozen meals was that other teams could distribute those meals if none of us from the food service team could be here. We've tried to make contingency plans for the scenario in which we can't make any meals, but also balance that with wanting to produce more variety right now because we have the people.

Have there been any bright spots?
Falzone: We’re just extremely grateful. I don't think we can thank Todd and David’s team enough for what they've done to respond to this pandemic. They’ve always been fantastic partners, and in this instance, they've been tremendous. We’ve asked a lot of them. We’ve changed our minds so many times—sometimes it feels like ten times an hour—and they've been very patient. It's a tough ask. This is an essential service, the employees aren’t at home with their families, and it's a scary world and time. We're very grateful for the work they're doing to help keep our community fed and provide those moments of comfort.

We’re also happy that we’ve been able to make substantial donations through Food for Free; surplus food as well as some that we took in from other RA accounts in the area that had closed service. And while we've done a good job stocking up on our frozen food inventory, our hope is that we won't have to use it. If that’s the case, we're planning to donate all of that food.

Mulder: I think I speak for all of us that we're very grateful to be part of the HBS community. We have colleagues at places that are closed, and we feel very grateful to be here. It's been the most challenging few weeks of our professional lives. We’ve been reacting to the fast-paced changes, while also going through the emotional stress that all of us are experiencing. We've been through the Marathon Bombing, we've been through 9/11, and those events somewhat helped us prepare for this, but nothing could have really prepared us for this. I'm really proud of what our management team and the hourly associates have done. People have kept a really positive attitude, coming to work with the knowledge that they're essential and that what they do is really important. They know it's potentially dangerous to their health, but that this is what they do. This is our role, we're proud of it and want to continue to do it. Being part of this community has been a huge relief to us in all the steps the school is taking to help keep everyone safe.

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