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Dining Services catering for large scale events limited this fall

A student points at food while ordering a meal.
A student orders a meal at Southside Café. (Photo by Ben Schuh)

Dining Services is working to rebuild its catering operation on the Pullman campus after the global pandemic forced significant layoffs last year.

That process could take much of the fall, as the department works to hire and train hundreds of new employees. As a result, Dining Services will be unable to cater most events, including the traditional All Campus Picnic, which is being scaled back and refocused.

The goal is to again accept most catering requests by Nov. 1. In the meantime, departments should continue to reach out to see what’s possible based on staffing and schedule.

“It’s hard to be in hospitality industry and have to say no,” Sarah Larson, director of Dining Services, said.

But with a vast majority of students staying home this past academic year, Dining Service saw demand for its services and its available budget plummet to the point where broad staff reductions were necessary.

In the fall of 2019, Dining Services served 899,900 meals. Fewer than 82,000 meals were served during the entirety of the fall 2020 semester. Before the pandemic, the department had approximately 800 part-time student workers. Fewer than 150 were employed in the midst of the pandemic. Dining Services was also was forced to discontinue its catering service due to lack of demand during the pandemic.

As the pandemic begins to ease, Dining Services now faces the task of rebuilding the team.

“Our capacity will be limited in scope and scale for large events and catering for much of the fall,” Larson said. “Our foremost priority is serving the residential student population, with other services becoming more robust as we’re able.”

Dining Services has partnered with ALIVE to recruit potential student workers as they visit the Pullman campus for orientation. Much of the onboarding process for new employees won’t happen until students arrive for the fall semester.

“We’ll be scaling operations up the first few weeks of the semester as fast as we can,” Larson said.

In response to these challenges, the traditional welcome picnic is being revamped to become the New Cougs BBQ. Only new first and second year residential students will be served food to help with the demands placed on Dining Services.

“The energy that comes from this welcoming picnic is unique to WSU and really characterizes the Coug Spirit in a genuine way and creates a special feeling for our students,” Larson said.

Departments looking to host events this fall should reach out to Amy Gibson within Dining Services to see what options are available, Larson said. Dining Services won’t be able to accommodate all events, but it will do its best to assist units and recommend the best options. Departments can also go outside the university for their catering needs, but labor shortages in food service are widespread and may affect businesses ability to meet demand.

Dining Services expects to be in a position to fully support the Celebrating Excellence Awards banquet in March.

For questions about catering availability, please contact Amy Gibson at 509-335-3570 or by emailing agibson@wsu.edu.

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