The dining and hospitality industry has struggled to get back on its feet amid economic shifts triggered by the pandemic, and dining at UCCS is no exception.
Director of dining and hospitality services Alfonso Quinones plans to progressively reopen residential and retail dining on campus but said staffing difficulties and industry competition have slowed the process.
According to Quinones, the Dwire Sanatorium Grounds coffee shop opened on Tuesday, March 1. Clyde’s Gastropub in the University Center will follow in April if staffing allows. “We’re going to try to do a limited menu [at Clyde’s]. We want to try to focus on more sustainable, more local things, maybe to give it more value today. We want to try to create more craftmanship and not just put out burgers and fries,” Quinones said.
On the residential side, the dining halls’ openness also depends on staffing. After scaling back during the fall semester, the Lodge reopened part-time for breakfast and hot lunch options during weekdays this spring. The Roaring Fork remains the only dining hall open seven days a week and offers a full menu.
“Maybe our next step will be just opening the Lodge for more time if we can staff it, but we need to start opening retail and having more operations,” Quinones said. “We don’t have any retail open; we only have like the two coffee shops. Now two of the dining halls are open, so the idea is that we open one more thing for retail and we open something in the University Center.”
Once the Dwire coffee shop and Clyde’s have opened, Quinones said dining services might be able to focus on fully opening both dining halls.
Café 65 in the University Center will present another reopening goal for next year. Quinones said that dining services would also rethink its approach to the venue’s model, citing the high number of staff required to operate it previously.
“The model will be something more like a combination between retail and fast food. The idea will be to try to have something more vegan and vegetarian oriented, more health oriented, and not just have fried food and chips and those things,” he said.
He noted that these plans are still in the works and that dining services will send out a survey in the coming months to gauge what students want to see from Café 65.
Quinones attributed the dining halls’ staffing problems to national labor issues and COVID-19, describing a combination of factors — economic policies, risk of illness and cultural shift — that have made it harder to find employees. “The industry has been in trouble for years, way before COVID, and when COVID came in, that was the trigger,” he said.
“What happened in two years here is something that would have happened in 10 years. Inflation went up super fast and employment went down super fast, and that’s just what happens with any pandemic. When those numbers change, then everybody changes their job and their perspective or their way of doing things,” he said.
As a hypothetical, Quinones explained a franchise dining employee might have seen campus dining as an ideal alternative, but after the labor restructuring of the pandemic, they might go into retail or virtual customer service instead for better wages, benefits or the ability to work from home. The industries that lose the most labor in this shift are agriculture and dining and hospitality, Quinones said.
“Walmart, even a very small store, could sell $100 million a year. Dining doesn’t make $100 million, so we cannot compete with their wages,” he said.
In response to hiring difficulties, the dining halls have implemented a new pay structure for chefs, according to Quinones.
“We have a structure which is Cook 1, 2, 3, where you start anywhere from $13 an hour and move your way up to $19. So, we created this progressive structure for you to have a career here, and you can start as a dishwasher and go all the way to being a chef in five or six years, having a decent scale up,” he said.
On employment demographics, Quinones noted that on average, 55% of dining hall employees are 55 years and older and that the dining halls have been forced to rely on professional staff. “It’s not because we like it, it’s because we cannot get students to come and work,” he said.
He reiterated that dining services’ ability to more fully reopen residential and retail dining alike would depend on staffing and asked for students’ continued patience.
“I can tell you that my staff and I are working as hard as we can to try to provide the service that they deserve. We’re here for the students, I’m not here for me,” he said. “At the same time the market is not easy to manage, the staffing is not easy to manage. We’re still dealing with the effects of COVID, and as long as we have that, we’re just going to be what limited in what we can do.”