Written by Office of Sustainability Student Associate, Jarea Fang, Class of 2022
According to the Green Dining Alliance, which certifies and promotes St. Louis restaurants in their sustainability practices including three WashU dining outlets, taking care of your staff is one important hallmark of a green restaurant. This has never been more present today, as the COVID-19 pandemic changed and continues to change every aspect of our lives.
The Bon Appetit Management Company, the foodservice provider for the vast majority of WashU’s dining outlets, prides itself on its sustainable operations. “Our dream is to be the premier onsite restaurant company known for its culinary expertise and commitment to socially responsible practices,” they say, and this mission certainly rings true at WashU, especially today. To see a prime example of creatively caring for dining staff, let’s take a look at WashU School of Medicine, where operations changed substantially after the arrival of the COVID pandemic.
A Brief Timeline
Let’s set the scene. It’s 2020, and the nation abruptly shuts down in the middle of March. For the next few months, as the staff of the School of Medicine work from home and continue to do so, the offices at WUSM become increasingly deserted. Despite reopening all dining operations initially under abbreviated protocols, none of the locations meet their anticipated budget even after reduced expectations. As a result, Bon Appetit Management Company eventually decides to close Shell Café until further notice.
“I adjusted our budget for the previous fiscal year to roughly 28% of what would be expected under normal conditions,” says Patrick Thrower, the General Manager of the Bon Appetit account at the School of Medicine. “And yet, we still missed that number by another 25%.”
However, as uncertainties continue to plague the world, Bon Appetit’s commitment to its staff stays consistent: they adapt swiftly to the lower work volume and limited income.
First, schedules for the hourly staff are reduced from 40 hours to 37.5 hours per week. All staff are encouraged to take time off or use their allotted paid time off earlier in the year if needed. Next, the management team reduces its members from five to two, and the fiscal losses for their labor spending have been drastically affecting their bottom line.
But that’s not all. Just as the rest of the nation starts developing hobbies, interests, and small businesses during their time in quarantine, Bon Appetit sees their staff’s freed up time as an opportunity for trying new things.
“When workloads are reduced significantly, people get restless,” says Patrick. “There was and still is quite a bit of confusion that’s associated with the pandemic, as none of us had experience to draw upon. Maybe staff members start wondering if this job is still the right fit, and what the future holds for them. I identified tasks that I knew could help with development and that were pertinent to our day-to-day to try and keep staff excited about what we do, and what part they play in the process now and moving forward.”
Thus, the culinary training program was born.
The Culinary Training Program
It is an important part of Bon Appetit culture to grow from within. Thus, partnering up with Executive Chef Justin Keimon, who used to teach at a local culinary school, made sense to Patrick who wanted to familiarize his team with both the management and creative side of the business.
“We are teaching our hourly supervisors recipe-writing in the BA proprietary software and subsequent nutritional data, food costing, as well as inventory management and reporting. We have also trained a staff member to do our company safety audits. Culinarily, we have taught staff some pastry skills as well as challenging them with new specials meant to expand the staff’s knowledge of cuisine.” Along with this rich list of items, Patrick makes sure to emphasize an openness that Bon Appetit has for change. “This program is a work in progress and evolving as we go,” he adds.
So far, the staff have been responsive and enthusiastic, Patrick observes. The training seems to have strengthened the team as well, adding a refreshing and reassuring element to our unpredictable current times. This, of course, is a win for green dining.
“How businesses support their employees and give back to their communities is something we pay attention to,” says Ben Daugherty, the Program Manager of the Green Dining Alliance. “Health and wellness of the staff, along with supporting circular economies with a key component of reciprocity, leads to the long term success of a restaurant.”
Bon Appetit Stays Strong
Historically, the restaurant industry has a high turnover rate for employees. Lack of social sustainability, Ben thinks, is likely a big component of the issue, as providing socially sustainable programs often comes at the direct expense of restaurant owners.
“Which is why we celebrate restaurants that do take extra steps to create healthier ecosystems for everyone at the restaurants,” says Ben, “From the General Managers to the chefs to the servers to the dishwashers, all members are worth celebrating.”
Since its founding in 1987, Bon Appetit Management Company has been operating under this philosophy as well. This ethos of the company, as well as its passion for food and people, are one of the reasons why Patrick stays optimistic even during the most stressful of times. A huge part of it, it seems, is about giving back.
“The commitment to the staff has always been an important part of BA culture, and it’s why many of us joined in the first place and have stuck around,” says Patrick.