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Pandemic Dining: A Conversation with DC Managers Bruce Levine and Tom Mitchell

Both Bruce Levine and Tom Mitchell are senior staff members in the dining department. Under their leadership, Haverford Dining prepares 2000-2400 meals a day at the Dining Center and 700 meals a day at the Coop. Their jobs have changed significantly as a result of the pandemic, and The Clerk is grateful to have had the chance to discuss how they have managed their changing responsibilities. 

Levine is the Operations Manager of Dining at Haverford, and he has been working at the College for 22 years. His job involves overseeing day-to-day operations in the dining department, scheduling student workers, training new employees, and managing the setup of each meal every day. He is also in charge of organizing and overseeing special events and catering. 

Mitchell is the General Manager of Dining at Haverford, and he began working at the College only four years ago. He is in charge of managing all of the operations of which the dining department is in charge: dining, catering, retail, vending, the library cafe, and more. He also oversees and communicates with all of the managers regarding their daily needs and concerns. He is responsible for managing the budget, running cost analyses, and ensuring the bills are paid properly. Finally, he acts as a liaison between Dining and other departments in the College, such as Residential Life and Athletics.

When the pandemic hit, both Levine and Mitchell saw their jobs change substantially. Among many changes was the introduction of daily meetings with dining center staff and others on campus to coordinate their evolving responsibilities. During this time, staff were asked to take on duties outside of their typical roles. Levine gave the example of dishwashers helping with deliveries.

Mitchell expressed that daily meetings with over 40 people on campus who wore different hats to discuss the ever-changing situation was extremely helpful in the beginning of the pandemic. “A lot of people worked on this to make it successful,” he said, adding that “flexibility was the theme.” He said that he and Levine measured the distances between tables with 6-foot-sticks, put up cattle rope, and tried to learn the guidelines as best they could, adding “We had no idea, nobody had any idea.”

Also with the pandemic came the complicated process of preparing and delivering meals for students in isolation. To prepare the meals, the Dining Center staff set up tables and a prep area in the back kitchen. They turned the catering and bakery department into a quarantine meal department. Levine and Mitchell added that they had an excel spreadsheet which listed the room numbers where students were isolated and the allergens and/or dietary requests of the student in each room. Mitchell expressed, “In the beginning it was very challenging getting the right data information and communication with the allergens.”

In every bag of food, the staff included letters which instructed students on how to reach Levine, Mitchell, and their team, should they have any additional food-related requests. The two men noted that students emailed them with all sorts of requests: they asked for more food, less food, ice cream, or water. Mitchell even went to the store to get a specific type of soup for one of his student workers. He expressed, “It was a lot of trial and error, figuring out what works…The important thing was keeping the students happy and getting them what they needed.”

One of the most difficult undertakings for Levine, Mitchell, and their staff earlier in the pandemic came at the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester. Many students had arrived on campus and gotten tested for COVID, but they were awaiting their results and were not supposed to leave their dorms until they had negative tests. Thus, the Dining Center was expected to deliver hundreds of meals to various dorms. This weekend also happened to be a large blizzard, and thus, Mitchell recalled heading out in his vehicle with four-wheel-drive with hundreds of meals and delivering them all over campus in the snow.

Still, when Haverford’s first and only major COVID spike hit in late February, Levine and Mitchell’s jobs were complicated even further, as the already difficult process of preparing meals for isolated students ramped up intensely. Rather than simply delivering meals to a few students in Whitehead Campus Center, as they had been doing earlier in the semester, they now had to deliver to four locations: Whitehead, 6 Railroad Ave, 500 Oakley Rd, and a Hilton hotel. 

The hotel was the most difficult to deliver to, as it was off-campus. Levine and Mitchell noted that the mailroom delivered there, but there was no way to deliver to individual rooms, so they had to set up all the meals on a cart, and students were instructed to come down and take their own meals. Sometimes, this chaotic process would result in people taking the wrong meals, and this could pose a problem since certain meals were free of specific allergens for specific students. 

Levine and Mitchell added that one of the difficulties of the outbreak was figuring out when and where a new student had gone into isolation, as people were entering all four of the locations constantly as the positive tests kept adding up. They had a Google Doc shared with Health Services, Campus Safety, the Dean’s Office, and themselves to coordinate this process. However, sometimes the timing of a student’s move-in did not align with the usual 11 am and 4 pm meal delivery times, so they had to do an extra delivery so that the student had food. Once, Mitchell did not return home until 10 pm because he was out delivering a meal for a student who had moved into isolation only hours before.

The two agreed about handling the COVID outbreak, “We had to grow from the system…We learned from our little mistakes.” Mitchell added, “Every spike, every thing we got better at it.” They noted that they received lots of positive feedback from students, and complaints were rare, which they appreciated.

Throughout the pandemic, Levine and Mitchell added that they and their staff were working 365 days a year; there was not a day someone in Dining wasn’t on campus. Even on Christmas 2020, the Dining Center was open because many students, specifically international students, could not fly home. They expressed gratitude and appreciation for their managers and hourly workers, all of whom were also here practically every day and helped them keep the community fed during these unprecedented years. Levine expressed, “It was a big undertaking…I think we did it well.”

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