Going VIP at Leonard Cafeteria

Today, the Journal begins A Day In the Life, a three-part series taking a look behind the scenes at three campus jobs. In part one, we follow the general manager of Leonard Cafeteria through a regular day at the office

Leonard Cafeteria’s executive chef John Saunders hard at work. See story page 4.
Leonard Cafeteria’s executive chef John Saunders hard at work. See story page 4.
Karen Williams started working for Sodexho at Brock University, where she oversaw retail services. At Leonard, she is responsible for serving 22,000 meals each week.
Karen Williams started working for Sodexho at Brock University, where she oversaw retail services. At Leonard, she is responsible for serving 22,000 meals each week.
Leonard cafeteria needs 11 dishwashers to keep clean plates on the floor during dinner.
Leonard cafeteria needs 11 dishwashers to keep clean plates on the floor during dinner.


Today: Caf manager • Jan. 30: Campus security • Feb. 2: Karen Hitchcock

Karen Williams has a one thing on her mind when she gets to work at 8 a.m. every morning.

“I make a beeline for the coffee station.”

Williams is the general manager of Leonard Cafeteria, the largest food service outlet on campus.

The coffee is free, but Williams only indulges in a few cups each day.

“I probably drink one or two,” she says. “This job requires a lot of energy, but I try to eat well and work out to keep myself going.”

On Jan. 16, I spent a typical day in Williams’ shoes as she oversaw the daily operations of a cafeteria that serves 22,000 meals each week. From the moment I stepped into her world, it was clear that health and wellness were top priorities.

“I got my bachelor of science with a major in nutrition, so that is my main focus,” she says. “Food service on campus has a certain stigma of being ‘fast food’ and I want to dispel that notion.” Williams starts her day by checking in with the executive chef, John Saunders, to go over the previous night and hear about the menu for the upcoming day. After that, she hits the floor to gage student reaction.

“I’m always walking around the dining hall, trying to see how students react to different menu items and make sure everything is fresh and well-presented,” she said.

Somewhere in the morning rush, Williams fits in breakfast. Today, it was a breakfast burrito, granola and yogurt.

“I love the burrito,” she says. “But I always try to mix it up.”

* * *

Breakfast ends at 10 a.m., but for Williams, the day has only begun. After the last students trickle out, Williams and the staff don’t skip a beat as lunch preparation starts.

For Williams and Saunders, mid-morning is a daily highlight. It’s time for the food critique.

“At around 11 a.m., myself, the executive chef and a supervisor do a tasting of whatever we’re serving that day,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun, and we’re able to critique the food for quality before we set it out for students.”

Today, the group chow down on new Angus beef burgers being considered for the Lazy Scholar café. As a vegan, I turn the other way, but the burgers seem to get a good reception all around.

Looking around the office where the testing takes place, I notice student comment sheets taped around the room. Saunders tells me they take student input seriously.

“Sometimes even one comment is enough to spark our interest, and we try to make it happen,” he says. “I figure that if one person wants to see something new, 40 others probably agree.”

Today, whoever requested more raspberry sherbet is in luck. Saunders has added the item to their ice cream order for the week.

The trio also tries out the rest of the menu items, adding sauce to a vegan stir fry and garnish to the ham and potato gratin.

As the approved salads and soups make their way to the cafeteria floor, Williams and Saunders take me on a no-holds barred tour of the world invisible to the public: behind the doors of the Leonard kitchen, where work never seems to stop.

“The day for the chefs begins at 5 a.m. with prep and making fresh soup,” Williams says.

Williams adds that Leonard employs an executive chef, four sous chefs and several production teams with different jobs. In total, between 50 and 60 staff are on hand each day.

I can’t help but be surprised at the sacks of fresh vegetables, bulk bags of beans and litre after litre of vinegars and oils. All those myths about fake meat and dehydrated peas? They aren’t true, and Williams says she makes sure of it.

“We make all the food in-house, and that is very important to me. I want to keep things free of preservatives and fresh whenever we can,” she says. “We get fresh produce and bread everyday, with as much local product as possible.”

I’m even more surprised when I catch a glimpse of a crate of organic tofu on a shelf in one of many immense refrigerators. Organic?

“Students make a lot of requests for organic and fair trade products, so we do try to get those in when we can,” Williams says, citing organic tofu and fair trade coffee as two of the products Leonard offers on a regular basis.

Still, Williams says making changes can be a frustrating process.

“There are so many food items that I would like to introduce, something like Kashi cereal would be great, but it can be hard to do when we need approval from Sodexho and have to find a supplier,” she says. “There are a lot of middlemen to consult before we respond to a comment, but we’re always working at it.”

* * *

By the time we emerge from the depths of the kitchen, I’ve left behind many of my preconceived notions about cafeteria dining. Williams and her staff are sticklers for quality, and it shows. Whether it’s genuine concern or a matter of policy is another question, but after spending a morning with Williams, I’m inclined to say the former.

The cafeteria is once again filling up, and I look at my watch with surprise. It’s 11 a.m., already lunchtime. So much for a mid-morning lull in Williams’ day: it’s time to hit the floor again.

As we cruise from burgers and fries to the salad bar, I ask why unhealthy choices are even offered if Williams’ goal is nutritious dining. She points out that students have healthy alternatives, but the choice is up to them.

“There are options for healthy eating, and I want everyone to be aware of that,” she says. “It’s not my job to take away student choice, that food is going to be out there when they aren’t eating in a cafeteria, so it should be up to them not to take the burger and fries.

“My job is not to choose for them, but to educate them.”

As I watch students make their way through a myriad of culinary options, I hearken back to my own days as a first year and recall some of the scathing comments I overheard (and made) about “caf food”. When I mention this to Williams, she says it’s hard not to let what she hears get under her skin.

“I try not to let what I overhear about the food get to me, but it’s hard,” she says. “This is what I do, and I want to do it well.”

She says her background as a nutritionist makes comments about cafeteria food being unhealthy the hardest to swallow.

But Williams says she has made a lot of progress in promoting healthy eating on campus.

“I’m trying to promote a ‘Balance Program’ that educates diners about nutrition,” she says.

The program includes posting nutritional information and allergens next to daily menu items. New icons designate nutritious, vegetarian, vegan and carbohydrate conscious foods.

Despite her best efforts, it seems students still love their sugar. Williams laughs when I ask about the most popular menu item.

“Chocolate milk,” she says. “Students gotta have their chocolate milk.”

* * *

Lunch today goes off without a hitch, and at 4:30, Williams is confident she’ll be out the door in an hour.

“I never know when the day ends. If equipment goes down or we have a staffing issue, I stay late,” she says. “I like to stay for special events as well, to make sure that it goes smoothly and because I like to see student reaction.”

On this particular day, reaction from the 874 students who ate lunch at Leonard has been positive. Williams says she uses the dishwashing carousel as an indicator of item popularity.

“Nothing major came back untouched today, except for a biscuit that people didn’t seem to like, so I called the bakery to let them know about that,” she says. “Otherwise, we had a good day.”

Every afternoon, Williams meets with the assistant manager and executive chef to review how many servings of each item left the kitchen.

“This gives us a sense of what to change for next time, and which items we should offer more often.”

As the third meal of the day begins, Williams looks forward to a stop at the gym before she heads home for dinner. Will it be a Leonard inspired meal?

“Maybe,” she says with a laugh. “I do emulate the dishes sometimes, if we make something tasty here. I’m a foodie, for sure. I love to cook!”

I leave Williams to finish off her daily routine and do my own circuit of the cafeteria floor, trying to get a sense of what she does every day. It’s spicy theme night, and students sit down to plates of chipotle mashed potatoes and thai fried rice.

Gillian Mackey, ArtSci ’10, says she’s noticed a difference in Leonard since last semester.

“They show nutritional information, which is good,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but I still don’t think the food is super healthy.”

Anne Paul, ConEd ’07, says she thought the small changes made a big difference.

“I used to eat at Ban Righ, but here they have dried cranberries now, and salad greens instead of iceberg!” she says, digging her fork into a heaping mound of salad. “People definitely notice the change.”

Leonard by the Numbers

22,000: Meals served each week

800: Number of seats in Leonard Cafeteria

300 Dozen: Number of chocolate chip cookies eaten each week

80-100: Gallons of soup prepared each day

50-60: Staff members on the floor at any given moment

11: Number of dishwashers working the dinner shift

Source: Karen Williams, general manager of Leonard Cafeteria, and John Saunders, executive chef of Leonard Cafeteria

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