It’s usually dark outside as the overnight team at Snelling Dining Commons arrives for the workday. By the time most members of the campus community are in their residence halls or home for the night, several others, such as Aaron Ackerman, a manager at Snelling Dining Commons, clock in at 9 p.m. and work through the night before clocking out at 7 a.m.
For years, Snelling has been open for 24-hour weekday service, and “Snellibrating” has become a university tradition that gives the overnight team a unique opportunity to interact with students. During the pandemic, Snelling has maintained its 24-hour schedule, but focuses on filling online orders for students to pick up and prepares menu items, including grab-and-go options, for all of the dining units. Snelling also offers a unique pizza and 2-liter soda option for late night dining via Grubhub. Regardless of how the team at Snelling serves food, they remain committed to customer service.
“There are many instances where my team members have gotten to know students on a first-name basis,” Ackerman said. “They stop by to say hi or to give us an update on how they’re doing in a class.” Although the coronavirus has shifted their approach to interacting with students, Ackerman and his team still emphasize enhancing the student experience. “I feel that my primary job is taking care of customers,” said Ackerman.
Sandra Patterson, a cashier with Dining Services—affectionately known to students as “Ms. Sandra”—shares Ackerman’s sentiment.
“My job is taking care of [students],” said Patterson, when asked what she sees as her role at UGA. “Being here for them and helping them get the things they need is what I do.”
Just one big family
Patterson’s work as a cashier with Dining Services has allowed her to positively affect the lives of thousands of students at UGA. Best known for her famous hugs—which, unfortunately, she can no longer offer during the pandemic—she continues to work to maintain the feeling that the dining commons are a second home on campus.
Even without her hugs, nothing can dampen Patterson’s enthusiasm when welcoming students into the dining commons. You’ll hear her greeting each student individually as they enter or exit the building.
“We’re really just one big family,” she said. “We all look out for each other.”
Likewise, as the manager of Oglethorpe Dining Commons, Gregg Hudson makes sure his team understands the importance of customer service and personal connection — especially today.
“It’s everything; it’s the reason why I’m here,” said Hudson, when asked what customer service means to him. “I thrive off of personal interactions.”
Hudson and his team at O-House have made changes and adjustments to their operations in order to better meet students’ needs during the pandemic. Through conversations with students and staff members, O-House has implemented a daily mac-and-cheese selection, Taco Tuesday, and a chicken finger box.
Hudson explained that the dining halls have always been a key social center for students on campus. Although face coverings are required in the dining commons when not seated at a table, new features, such as plexiglass table barriers, have allowed students to eat together safely and maintain some of this connection.
“You have to approach it differently now,” said Hudson. “You’re getting to know them from [the face covering] up. It’s a different way of getting to know someone.”
Simple as being friendly
Hudson also encourages his team to learn students’ names and engage with them as they come through O-House. “But it’s as simple as greeting and being friendly to each person who comes through the dining commons,” he said.
At its core, Dining Services seeks to “partner with the UGA and Athens community to promote a thriving learning environment through exceptional food and service,” said Susan van Gigch, the interim director for Dining Services.
Since the onset of the pandemic in March, van Gigch and the rest of the Dining Services team have been working to maintain the same level of quality and care for which Dining Services is known.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure that students feel safe in the dining commons,” said van Gigch. “Next, we want to enhance programs to ensure that we’re offering the most variety in a convenient and safe fashion.”
Searching out options
When tasked with finding creative dining enhancements, van Gigch and her team went to work establishing Quick Markets, which allow students to grab food from non-traditional dining hubs. Dining Services also partnered with various local food trucks to bring more dining options to campus.
Other enhancements include the addition of outdoor seating options and complimentary short-term parking for customers picking up food from residential dining locations. Dining Services also implemented limited first-come, first-served seating in the dining commons in addition to the ability to reserve seating via the Grubhub app.
Van Gigch has also implemented “smile badges,” a photo badge worn by each staff member to foster a personal connection between the staff and students. “It allows students to see us, to see our smile,” she said. “While customer service and personal connection remain some of the core values of Dining Services, something as simple as a smile badge reminds us that there’s a person behind the mask.”