By Nada Shoreibah ’23, Staff Writer

Photo by Hannah Dugan ’21

Reopening Davidson as a residential campus has meant transforming every facet of campus life in accordance with social distancing protocol. Dining, otherwise an especially hands-on operation, is no exception. 

With three months to plan and with roughly 2,000 students, staff, and faculty to feed, Dining Services has encountered several unanticipated complications during the adjustment process. Most notably, technical setbacks led to severe delays at the Davis Café, leading three students to share their concerns on social media. Meanwhile, the Dining Services team continues to troubleshoot and resolve issues proactively.  

On August 21st, Cameron Rankin ‘21 tweeted, “Hey @DavidsonCollege! Major question about dining services and equity during this pandemic. I was trying to place an order at Davis Café since 9:30 to find out, after going, that every time slot for pick-up has been taken until closing at 11:00.”

The next day, Savanna Vest ‘22 replied to Rankin with screenshots of an email to Auxiliary Services with the reply she had received. “I went to order my dinner for union at 6:00 pm last night, for instance, and the earliest available pick-up time was for 9:30 pm,” Vest’s email stated. “I can only imagine the delays and back ups that may occur once the remainder of the upperclassmen student population arrives onto campus.” Auxiliary Services assured her that multiple-hour delays in the online ordering system, which were largely due to a technical difficulty accessing dining dollars, should be resolved by the next day.

Vest emphasized that for first generation or low-income students, timely access to food goes beyond convenience. “If a school like Davidson makes the decision to allow the entire student body to return to this communal space amidst a pandemic, it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that necessary resources like food are prioritized and ensured in full accessibility to the student body. Many of us have returned to campus because we need the resources provided by this environment, and we are directly impacted when Davidson doesn’t deliver on their promise of accessibility to resources amidst a pandemic,” she said. “I’ve still had delays with the mobile ordering system, so I’ve been trying to proactively order my meals hours ahead of time.” 

A later social media post confirmed that at least 31 students shared her experience. On Wednesday, August 26th, Claire Tobin ‘21 created a Facebook poll to gauge her peers’ dining concerns. “I wanted to consolidate student perspectives to share with Dining Services to make it better going forward,” her post stated. 

Of the concerns Tobin’s poll listed, “Lack of availability for ordering from Davis Café due to capacity issues” came in at the top with 31 votes. In second place, “Limited variety at Davis Café and Vail Commons” collected 20 votes. With 12 votes, “Not enough quantity in PCC houses” was the third most selected option.

Paul Mullinax ‘22 voted with the majority in Tobin’s poll. “Even ordering well in advance will result in a pick-up time hours after when I need it. The lack of convenience has really stopped me from going [to Union] anymore,” he said.

While it may not be as efficient as its pre-pandemic form, the current Davis Café ordering system is the culmination of weeks of experimenting and modifications. “Usually when you’re doing online ordering, it’s very straightforward and easy,” Director of Dining Services Pinky Varghese said. “But on a college campus, we have this challenge of meal plan equivalency, and then if there’s some extra, you have to transfer dining dollars to cover it. With the amount of steps, it was very complex.” Fortunately, the Davis Café vendor was able to resolve the dining dollar access piece. 

Even with the online ordering glitch resolved, Davis Café continued to experience delays. “This is the first time we’re doing packaged, ready-to-go meals, so we didn’t know where the bottleneck was. We knew it wasn’t the kitchen or the food quantity or preparation,” said Varghese. “It was packaging the food to be ready to go.” Before the team discovered this, students would arrive at their designated pick up time and wait in line, sometimes for up to an hour, for their meal to be prepared and packaged.

Varghese and his colleagues hope the next step will be further increasing the number of time slots so that students can choose pick-up times closer to their ordering time. “For example, [on August 31st], we increased by six more slots per hour. I want to make it more efficient step by step. I can’t take it all the way up and then [the system] breaks and my team gets overwhelmed. They work hard, they stand all day, so I want to make sure that they’re comfortable doing it.” Additionally, as of September 2nd, grab-and-go items like sushi, soup, and yogurt cups no longer require ordering ahead.

Both anecdotally and according to Tobin’s poll, lack of variety is the second widest student complaint, but Varghese explained that the range of meal options remains the same; it is simply distributed differently. 

“What we did was streamline all the menus. You get everything, […] not in one place, but across the campus. Wildcat Den is serving some signature sandwiches and wraps, the [Davis] Café is serving the burgers, the homemade pizzas, the sushi, the grinders, you name it. And then the Commons Market came in to play; it has the York Street sandwiches, which are very high quality, the heat-and-eat meals, and Domino’s pizza,” he said. “So in my opinion, the variety and the amount of food on campus has actually increased.”    

Even as they voiced their complaints and suggestions, students’ sentiments towards Dining Services staff were overwhelmingly positive. “I have nothing but respect and thankfulness for all of the time, energy, care, and labor that the folks in Dining Services have been putting in to help ensure students get the meals we need,’ said Vest. “I don’t think we can be grateful enough for the services they are providing to help those of us on campus live through this pandemic.”