Campus dining locales struggle meeting student demand, seek feedback

By Silas Hood, Mar. 8, 2022

As student life returns to Cal Poly Pomona, the university’s Foundation Dining Services is working to adjust dining availability and options to meet the demand of the campus community after previous closures due to the pandemic.

With three weeks since the full return of on-campus classes, Cal Poly Pomona’s dining services recognize the experience of long lines and limited dining options, hoping to use feedback from the community going forward to provide better dining opportunities to students and employees.

Students wait in line to order at Panda Express in the Campus Center Marketplace. (Silas Hood | The Poly Post)

“To provide some context on a campus dining experience versus your street (restaurant)… the business model is obviously different,” said Aaron Neilson, director of Foundation Dining Services. “You’ve got nine months of high activity, primarily lunch activity, so trying to flex and fit that model so we’re serving our students and we’re providing the best product is always a challenge for us, particularly in the post-pandemic world.”

Neilson also shared the current dining situation from an operational standpoint.

“Our team is doing a fantastic job in providing what we are currently offering, the biggest resource we have (a lack of) — you see it nationwide — is still staffing,” Neilson said. “The number of applicants we’re getting in order to do everything we want to do, we’re probably about 80-90 staff short to accomplish the full expansion.”

With limited employees comes limited operating hours, a concern voiced by students on campus. Saddles Café, for example, is only open mornings from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Round Table Pizza has not been open for lunch, operating from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Starbucks opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m., a focus for Foundation Dining Services to expand. Apart from Round Table, the only other restaurants open for lunch hours are Panda Express, operating from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Centerpointe, Vista Market, and Fitbites — all located in the residential side of the campus, away from classes — which all open in the morning and close in the late evening.

As students returned to campus, they were also met with fewer establishments than before. Taco Bell’s contract with the campus expired during the pandemic and Bumble Vi never made an appearance after reserving a retail space in the Campus Center. Replacements for both venures are in talks and feedback on students want in their place is encouraged. The reopening of Carl’s Jr. was delayed due to online registration issues but plans for a soft opening on March 7.

“I think the limited hours really suck just knowing my personal experience and my roommates’,” said Mahaley Mahe, an animal science student. “We stay up late and if we don’t have food, we have to get ramen (delivered) or drive somewhere.”

Neilson shared that Foundation Dining Services is different than most campus dining operations in that it owns the licenses for retail restaurants on campus. Rather than leasing retail spaces to companies, Foundation Dining Services buy, own, and operate each facility — except for Panda Express — which allows for control and accommodation of work hours to meet student schedules, and allows dining services to provide unique incentives to student employees.

All employees already receive meals with each shift, and to counter the lack of applicants, Foundation Dining is open to providing more perks for their workers.

“Maybe there’s some sort of scholarship or help with books, housing or meal plans,” said Neilson. “What does an incentive look like to a student that would encourage them? The wages are easy. I saw Panda (Express) is hiring at $18 to $25 and we can do that but is that the most effective way?”

Post-COVID operations are open to change to accommodate the demand students have presented and hours yearned for from previous operations.

“If they could extend the hours that would be great because we’re not just on campus at noon,” said James Robinson Jr., a double major in electrical and computer engineering. “I mean these classes go to 7 p.m. … I don’t know what the hours were before but 6 to 7 p.m. at least.”

Retail Dining Manager Rosa Morales shared her team’s side of the story in operating during the first semester coming out of COVID closures.

“We are on a three-week plan, and we plan to expand hours,” said Morales. “Again, we are limited on employees right now so we are going to do a couple of tablings to see how many students we can get but the ultimate goal is to expand the hours. We are hoping within the next three to four weeks as we are hiring and training that lets us open up more time.”

Nielson believes that with more applicants and better staff numbers, the student demand on campus will be met by Foundation Dining Services.

“The staffing is the only thing that’s holding us back,” said Neilson. “The team is dying to provide that (extended hours), but we are going to get there over the coming weeks. The student incentive idea is fantastic, so we will create a program around that.”

Neilson encouraged prospective student employees to make recommendations to Foundation Dining Services on possible employment incentives through the feedback forum on the Foundation Dining Services website.

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