Getting to Know Sodexo
Before the the sun is up, the dining hall lights are on.
It’s 6:50 a.m. on a Saturday in March when Jean Bergeron walks into the Little Building, up the stairs, past the tap-in desk, and into the office space across from the dining hall. He puts his green coat around the black swivel chair at his desk, revealing a white button-down and a black tie with white speckles, and then gets to work.
Director of Residential Dining Jean Bergeron is an omnipresent figure in the dining hall. Identifiable by his mustache and glasses, Bergeron is often seen lending a hand in the cafeteria or working at his computer. It’s his job to make sure everything's running smoothly. This morning, Bergeron is doing what he does every morning, Tuesday through Saturday: checking for problems.
There is a lot that can go wrong in a kitchen, from food not being delivered and cooks not showing up at work to foodborne illnesses. Bergeron’s primary goal is to make the sure that safe food is being fed to the 1,800 students who show up for a meal every day.
Quoting his old culinary instructor at Bryant and Stratton College, Bergeron says, “In order to know the front of the house, you’ve got to know the back of the house.” And Your Mag decided to do just that, venturing into the back of the dining hall to learn more about the faces and functions of the most visited food facility at Emerson.
HOW IT WORKS:
On weekdays, the dining hall opens at 7 a.m. Bergeron clocks in at 5:15 a.m., followed by the staff at 6 a.m. Produce and dairy are delivered to the loading dock at 6 a.m. and other groceries arrive at 7 a.m. Since today is a weekend, the dining hall opens at 10:30 in the morning, but Bergeron’s inspection starts at 7 a.m.
He opens the dining hall doors, switches on the lights, and inspects the floor, the tables, the dishroom, and all machinery, ensuring everything was cleaned and properly shut down. Bergeron then ventures into the prep areas for a routine health and food safety inspection, recording on a clipboard the temperatures of every refrigerator and freezer. Inside one refrigerator are trays of cookie dough made from scratch the day before. “We like to keep it between 35 and 41 degrees F°,” says Bergeron. According to Bergeron, nothing is kept in a cooler more than three days.
As he walks through the kitchen, turning on the four ovens, Bergeron passes shelves of pots and pans stacked from floor to ceiling. He and other employees find the kitchen to be too small, which makes work difficult. “It was built for 700 people on a meal plan, but there is now 2,000,” says Bergeron. “It's old and it's too small.”
Bergeron then takes a cramped and creaky service elevator to the ground-level loading dock where food deliveries come in. He travels down another story to the salad bar prep area to continue his refrigerator inspection. After assuring that everything’s working properly, Bergeron heads up to the main kitchen.
“I like to choose what we’ll have for water,” says Bergeron, grabbing two handfuls of fresh basil, four apples, and three oranges to be used for the infusion water. “I try all crazy kinds of combinations.”
As 8 a.m. approaches, the bakers arrive and clock in, followed by the cooking staff, who show up at 9 a.m. As employees enter, they grab their uniforms from the office closet and greet the managerial staff. Some of them have been here for over a decade, others for just a couple of years.
Sodexo replaced Aramark as Emerson’s food service in the 2013-2014 school year. That was when Bergeron, a Maine-native with a long history in the hospitality business, came to Emerson. When Sodexo arrived, the management hired new workers but gave Aramark employees the chance to interview and attend Sodexo trainings and orientation. Seventy percent of Aramark employees stayed at Emerson to work with Sodexo, contributing to a staff of 110.
One of Emerson’s former Aramark workers is Martha Guevera. Guevera, 67, is from El Salvador and has been working in the dishroom for 16 years. Bergeron says he doesn’t worry about the dishroom because Guevera knows what she’s doing. “I've been here for a long time,” says Guevera speaking in Spanish, “and I know everything here.”
The next to arrive is Shercora Baker, who has just returned from maternity leave and works salad bar prep. Baker takes out a flip phone to show Bergeron pictures of her baby boy, who she says is now 14 pounds. Another cook enters the office space, greeting Bergeron as she puts on her chef’s coat. The embroidered name on the uniform reads: “Dianna MacPhee Executive Chef.”
This is MacPhee’s sixth month at Sodexo. The South Boston native worked at Harvard from 2005 to 2010 and then at Sophie’s at Saks Fifth Avenue in Boston.
“My goal is to create a community within the confines of the dining hall,” says MacPhee. “I want it to be a home. It is just food, but at the same time, it’s more than that.”
By 10:20 a.m. a line of students in pajama pants and flip flops await the 10:30 opening. “Next time those doors close is at 8 o’clock tonight,” says Bergeron.
Sodexo creates their menu on four-week cycles through a software called Food Management Systems. Menus are fairly predetermined with a couple of amendments. For example, since today the dining hall is celebrating National Waffle Day, a waffle bar was added to the menu. MacPhee asserts that Sodexo celebrates all fake food holidays.
“We are trying to redo some folklore,” says MacPhee. “We are trying to change that section in the US and News World Report that says: ‘You don’t go to Emerson for the food.’ It’s been a hard reputation to shake.” The claim that Sodexo puts laxatives in the food is an especially disturbing rumor, but management isn’t taking it personally.
“The same rumours are at every school. The same problems are at every school,” says Director of Catering Michael Bope. “This is my third food service company and every school has this rumour.” Before coming to Emerson two years ago, Bope worked with Bon Appetit at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The menu for today’s brunch is: cinnamon rolls, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, french toast sticks, omelettes, scrambled tofu, broccoli and garlic, glazed hams, mashed butternut squash, and roasted red potatoes and rosemary. And then there is the waffle station, offering a variety of toppings from fruit and whipped cream to chocolate chips.
Production Manager Mitzzy Picardo determines the amount of food to order ensuring there is not too much food, nor too little. According to the register, on average weekdays, breakfast feeds 300 students, lunch feeds 500, and dinner feeds 800. How much food was prepared and how much was eaten is recorded in production reports which help with future orders.
Any excess food, which tends to be cheese, milk, fruit, and Einstein bagels, is donated to the St. Francis House down the street. The management team also goes to the Pine Street Inn in Downtown Boston every month to cook food for the homeless men.
“Whatever we have that we can donate, we’ll do it,” says Bergeron.
In order to recycle the food that cannot be donated, Emerson’s new sustainability coordinator, Amy Elvidge, helped implement a dining hall composting program in 2016. Bergeron calls it a “trust system,” as students independently separate their compostable food and organic materials from other waste before depositing their plates. Once collected, the compost goes to processing facility Save That Stuff. So far, the dining hall is the only campus facility to implement a composting program. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have trays in the dining hall, it’s because it prevents overloading food and reduces the amount of chemicals and water that would be used to clean them.
Despite these efforts, the dining hall services fall under regular scrutiny, often because of limited nutritious options. Petitions circulate social media nearly every year. The most recent Change.org petition was created on March 22, 2017 by Libby Sweeney, ‘20, writing, literature, publishing major. As of April, the petition garnered 515 signatures. Sweeney was unable to be interviewed for this article because of a conflict of interest.
The petition is titled “Better Emerson College dining/food options for the well-being of students.” One section of the petition reads, “The food has been reported to leave students feeling nauseous after eating it, and many with dietary restrictions have says they often struggle finding meals each day (i.e. Celiac/gluten-free, Kosher, Vegan options). Much of the food offered isn’t exactly a healthy option for students; instead, they often have frozen food versus fresh food, and the fresh options don’t exactly feel fresh.”
“Criticism has always been a learning tool for every organization,” says Bergeron, citing monthly committee meetings for students to attend. “We’ve had those meetings and nobody has shown up. That’s their opportunity to show up and voice their satisfactions, their dissatisfactions.”
Regarding students with dietary restrictions, Bergeron assures that Sodexo accommodates as much as possible. The dining hall is peanut-free, offers non-dairy milks, and has gluten-free bread and cereal. There is also a vegan food station open during the lunch and dinner hours of 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m., along with the salad bar and a vegetarian option for dinner.
At the beginning of the school year, Emerson notifies Sodexo about students with food allergies. Those students can then meet with Sodexo to discuss meal options. For students with gluten allergies, Bergeron says, “We prepare them in a separate area, with separate utensils, with separate pans, so there’s no contact. We change up their menus on a daily basis based on what they can eat and what they can’t eat.” If students have dietary or nutrition concerns, they are encouraged to meet with the Regional Dietitian Karen Jew.
“Being vegan and being vegetarian is a choice, so they have to understand that it’s going to limit their options,” says Bergeron.
The napkin notes board is one way for management to hear students’ feedback and requests. “We’ll fix any problem there is, as long as we know what their problem is,” says Bergeron. But he wants students to know that unless there is a high demand for a meal or product, it is unlikely the dining service will supply it.
“If we were to answer everybody’s request we’d have products we’d never use,” says Bergeron. “If a bunch of people want it, we’ll say ‘okay, we’ll consider it.’”
Sodexo’s food comes from many different locations. Most of the meats and groceries come from Sysco, a global food distributor located in Plympton, Massachusetts, and the produce comes from Boston-based Costa Fruit and Produce. Garelick farms supplies the dairy products, and Nantucket Nectar, Frito Lay, and J. Polep are the purveyors for convenience store drinks and snacks. Aside from cans of applesauce and pasta sauce, there aren’t many canned foods to be seen inside the dry-food storage area.
Sodexo makes an effort to source 20 percent of their food from various local farms such as: Lanni Farms in Lunenburg, Massachusetts for apples; Red’s Best seafood company in Boston for fish; ice cream from Gifford’s in Maine; some breads from Jessica’s Bread in North Andover; Backyard Farms for tomatoes in Madison, Maine; and Narragansett Creamery in Rhode Island for different cheeses.
The management staff wants improved communication and more transparency between students and services, encouraging students to stop by the Dining Services office on the ground level of the Little Building to voice concerns.
“A lot of what we hear is through the rumour mill and if you ask somebody you don’t get a specific,” says General Manager Kerri Donnelly. “Moving forward, what I would like to see happen is the students and dining to be able to really work together to improve what they’re looking for and to find out what they are looking for.”
Donnelly spent eight years in Sodexo food services at MIT prior to becoming the general manager at Emerson- a position she has had for four years. According to Donnelly, the college and the state conduct unannounced inspections of the dining facilities, checking for overall health and safety. The most recent audit from Emerson was on Feb. 14, 2017 and Sodexo scored a 93. On these audits, anything below a 90 is considered poor.
The City of Boston conducted an inspection on Jan. 18, in which four areas of the dining hall did not pass. Cityofboston.gov reported multiple containers of cooked chicken being held at around 107 degrees F, instead of the required 140 degrees F or above. The inspection sheet also cited cold grilled chicken at the sandwich line as being 13 degrees warmer than food safety requirements. These violations were, as noted by the city, corrected at the time of inspection. The two other areas in which the dining hall failed inspection were related to adjusting the sneeze-guards and cleaning nonfood contact surfaces.
The city inspected the dining hall six times since Sept.18, 2015. The facility passed three of those inspections with either minor or no violations and will be re-inspected following this recent failed inspection. The Max Cafe, Einstein’s Cafe, and the Paramount Cafe have passed all previous inspections since 2015 with either minor or no violations.
Pest control also inspects the dining facilities five to seven times a week. “If there seems to be more activity they start to come more often,” says Donnelly.
On multiple occasions, Emerson students have gone to the emergency room claiming food poisoning. Whether it was caused by dining hall food is undetermined, but Zach Tretter, ‘19, visual and media arts major, is cautious of the food service since a trip to the ER during his freshman year when he got sick after a meal.
“I totally think that Emerson should spend its money smarter,” says Tretter, citing University of Massachusetts Amherst as having a commendable dining service. According to BestColleges.com, UMass has the fifth best college food service in the nation. Niche.com ranks UMass’s dining service as best in the state, meanwhile, Emerson ranks as last-- coming in 63rd place with a student survey rating of 2.3 out of 5 stars.
Emerson’s Sodexo staff is looking forward to the major changes taking place in Fall 2017. The new multi-level dining center on Boylston Place will be larger, more modern, and more functional -- an open layout, with state-of-the-art equipment. Students can watch their food be prepared at individual stations and will be able to interact with the chefs. There will be a stage for students and faculty to entertain on, and there will be a private dining room to book for events.
District Manager Varun Avasthi says, “We want the administration and people from the college to come, walk through the space, see the space, see where the food comes from, come for the tours, check it out. We are very transparent in the way we do stuff, we don’t hide it.”
Bergeron says there will be a brick-oven pizza station where cooks will be using fresh dough, as opposed to the frozen dough that is used now. There will also be a lunch and dinner station called “Simple Servings” which will supply healthy, allergen-free ingredients for one basic meal.
“One of the things about the new dining hall is that you’ll be able to see what you don’t see now,” says Bope. “A lot of the cooking will all be done in front of the student that’s asking for it and it will be prepared by the same person.”
These changes will provide a better functioning facility, shorter wait lines, more nutritious options, more customization in ingredients, and more peace of mind.
“We like to welcome everybody and anybody that has any questions, we would be happy to share with them how we procure the food, where we get it from,” says Avasthi. “We’ve got try to bust this myth of fake food.”
“It’s too bad that students can’t see what’s involved in feeding them,” says Bergeron. Nobody is going to beat mom’s cooking. We can’t compete against mom, but we put our best foot forward as far as nutritional value, product, and presentation.”
Despite mixed feelings about the quality of food, many Emerson students have positive experiences and relationships with the Sodexo staff. This week, the Napkin Notes board in the dining hall has several napkins tacked. “Chepe is the best,” reads one note from a student complimenting Emerson’s omelette station chef, Jose Mendoza. “Lisa is a wonderful person,” reads another.
WHO MAKES IT WORK:
Arlene Lisa Manzo, otherwise known as Lisa, operates the swipe-in desk. Manzo, 54, from Chelsea, Massachusetts, is wearing her blue Sodexo uniform and light blue eyeliner. Named after her mother Arlene, Manzo grew up being called Lisa by her high school friends and she liked it enough to let it stick.
August will be Manzo’s fifth year at Emerson. She started as a cashier during the final year with Aramark. When Sodexo took over, she worked as a baker for the first year before going back to the cashier desk.
“The way I treat the students is the way I would want somebody to treat my daughter,” says Manzo, whose daughter Brittany was a student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, another Sodexo school, when Manzo first joined the company.
“She didn’t like it, people weren’t friendly, she never related with anybody. They didn’t talk to the students, they just did their job and that was that,” says Manzo. “I’m an outgoing person and I know a lot of these students are away from home and I just want these kids to feel comfortable, you know, like a mom.”
Manzo is a mother of four: George, 37; Brian, 32; Ashley, 27; Britanny, 24. Her maternal tendencies shine when she tells students to dress warm before going outside on a cold day or when she checks in on how their semesters are going. It’s uncommon for Manzo to forget a face or name once she meets someone.
“I’m just a big ol mom and I can’t help myself,” says Manzo. “This is just how I am.”
Darren Castleberry is similar to Manzo in this way. The 38-year-old from Washington, Castleberry has a daughter named Dejan’nee attending St. Joseph’s College in Connecticut. Because of his daughter, Castleberry treats students with the same respect he hopes his daughter receives at college.
“I hope we are giving the best service to these kids because it’s part of your college experience,” says Castleberry. “I think the dining hall is an important part of that aspect. For instance, if you’re having a bad day sometimes the perfect meal can change your attitude about things. The dining hall is an escape.”
In his white chef’s uniform, Castleberry, early for his noon shift, is sitting at the table nearest the dining hall doors. His name plate reads “D.C.” and there is a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon attached. Castleberry works at various stations, but can usually be found at the pizza station. He has been working with Sodexo since 2013 when the company first arrived at the college.
“I hope [students] take away that the Emerson staff is very gracious and I want to say loyal, because I do think most of us go above and beyond to satisfy their needs,” says Castleberry.
Hantzley Audate, ‘17, marketing communications major, has felt this graciousness. “While the food leaves much to be desired, the employees of the DH always leave a good memory in my mind,” says Audate. “No matter what, they're always friendly and receptive to my concerns and do as much as they can to accommodate me. When I used to live on campus, Cliff and the rest of the boys would always show me love.”
Audate often spent up to four hours in the dining hall on weekends with friends. He says, “I mean, it was the only spot you could get your favorite cereal, ice cream, waffles, and sandwiches and pizza.”
In 2014, organizations like the Coalition of Lions in Action with Workers (C.L.A.W) and Progressives and Radicals In Defense of Employees (P.R.I.D.E), played important roles in the worker’s unionization process.
“We understood that there were people on our campus, in our community, who we saw everyday that were not being treated justly- that were not being paid a living wage, that were not being given respect, that had no voice or ability with which they could change their circumstances,” says P.R.I.D.E member Kevin McCaffrey, ‘17, visual and media arts major. “It wasn’t up to our standards, and I don’t think it would have been up to the school at wide’s standards if they were aware of it.”
McCaffrey and the other members not only raised awareness of the problems the food service workers were facing, but also showed their solidarity with them.
“A union is the avenue by which workers can pool together their collective strength (as there is nothing without the workers) and use their collective voice to make positive change,” says McCaffrey.
When the workers joined UNITE HERE’s Local 26 in 2015, they secured their first four-year contract. According to Local 26’s Food Service Division Director Michael Kramer, there are now minimum wage rates for each classification that increase every six months. Workers either moved up to their classification’s minimum or received an hourly raise of 75 cents, whichever was more. Currently, the job classification minimums range between 13 to 19 dollars an hour. The Local 26 websites reports that the contract provides workers with “a new higher-quality more-affordable health care plan, additional paid sick days, more full-time jobs, and a process to ensure workers are treated with dignity and respect.”
“Before we had the union, it was tough, we had a lot of turnover,” says Castleberry. “With the union here now, somebody has your best interest and they are looking out for you. I hope they stay around.”
According to Manzo, there was a lot of turnover in the executive chef position, which made things exceptionally difficult since the head chef needs to know about everything that’s going on. Manzo says things have been working well since MacPhee took over as executive chef, calling her “down-to-earth.”
“The only that frustrates me about my job is when I see other people not doing their job and other people are busting butt,” says Manzo.
Castleberry agrees, calling the union a gift and a curse. “[The union] protects jobs, but it also protects workers who aren’t compatible for this type of job,” says Castleberry. “I find myself trying to be an ambassador of discipline.”
Manzo wants to become the shop steward for Emerson’s Sodexo workers. As shop steward, she would represent the employees and be responsible for communicating between staff and management. “I’m the peacemaker because some of these people are afraid to talk to the management,” says Manzo. Manzo says she has a good relationship with management, noting that Avasthi, the district manager, is assisting her with becoming shop steward.
If there is a smiling, talkative cook behind the grill Tuesday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., it’s probably Gerard Burke. Burke, 25, started working with Sodexo two years ago. “He’s the nicest person,” says Bergeron. “He will say hello to every student.”
Sitting restlessly in a swivel chair in Bergeron’s office, Burke says, “Really, I like my job, I make everybody happy because everybody likes to eat,” says Burke. “I’m the bearer of good news.”
Born in Boston, Burke started this job to earn some money, but his real professional goals lie within the music and fashion industry. “What I’m basically trying to do in the future is have my own business, be an entrepreneur,” says Burke. “I want to do everything.” He wants to start his own music label with a heavy Caribbean music influence, but he won’t discriminate genres because he listens to everything from Beethoven to Tupac. For his clothing line, he wants to start with underwear, “because everybody wears undergarments,” he says.
Burke wants students to look at him as a friend. “We’re all on the same level,” says Burke. “They can tell me whatever they’d like. If they wanted to come talk to me or they wanted to come and say hi, whatever, I got them.” Burke even offers to help students with their school work. He wants to deliver more good into a world he thinks doesn’t have enough good interactions. “I’m trying to change the world.”
Burke leaves the office and heads into the dining hall to work aside Castleberry behind the grill. Everybody in dining services has an essential job to do, whether it’s managing the staff, cleaning the dishes, prepping the salad bar, swiping in students, or cooking the meals. However, their main job is making sure we, the students, are comfortable and fed enough food to sustain us during our day. There’s always room for improvement, but the mission of everybody in dining services is to accommodate the students waiting outside the doors every day.