“I told everyone, ‘I’ll see you in nine days,’” Lattime, who works at the cash register in the front of Knorr Family Dining Room, said. During the break, however, Hillsdale College — along with virtually every educational institution in the country — introduced remote learning in response to COVID-19.
The first days of the pandemic were not easy for Lattime; concern about COVID-19 preoccupied her most of the time. When she wasn’t worrying about the future, she watched the news — a ruinous mistake, according to Lattime, which fueled her anxiety.
“As the weather improved, I became a little more relaxed about it,” Lattime said. As time went on, and Hillsdale planned its commencement ceremonies, many Bon Appetit employees got called back to assist with catering — but not Lattime.
Tina Dyson, who works in the kitchen and dining room, said many Bon Appetit workers experienced financial difficulty when the pandemic began. “Fighting for unemployment was not easy,” Dyson said, and the uncertain nature of their jobs made it even more difficult.
Lattime, whose job depends on students eating meals in the dining room, witnessed all her coworkers from afar return to work and serve the commencement ceremonies safely and successfully. She wanted to come back, she said, but didn’t know if Hillsdale would resume in-person classes come August.
“Part of it was selfish,” Lattime said, “because I didn’t want to give up the friendships with my coworkers. I didn’t want to give up the friendships I had made with last year’s students, faculty and staff.”
Lattime held out long enough. She heard the news that Hillsdale would welcome students back for the fall semester and received the call to come back to work. By no means was the pandemic over, but finally, Lattime could return to work, serve the students she loves, and secure a steady income.
A lot has changed about food service since March. Lattime didn’t know what to expect besides required masks. Dyson felt worried but confident her team could handle the new protocols. Jill Smith, who serves food in the dining room, was just happy to be back.
“I don’t want to go back to where we were,” Smith said. “Being trapped at home, it felt like the walls were closing in some days. You weren’t seeing faces, chatting with people. Sometimes that can make your day, or you can help make their day. It makes the week move along.”
Smith lost these small-but-meaningful chance encounters to COVID-19, and as a result, the weeks did not seem to budge.
A few schools that opened early, like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, experienced serious outbreaks within just a couple of weeks. The surge of cases on campus following early reopenings led some of the country’s most treasured higher education institutions to offer mostly online classes, including Michigan’s four largest colleges.
Hillsdale, however, prevailed. When the students came back to the new school year, Smith, Dyson, and Lattime focused on the tangible differences. They had to learn, in real time and with little guidance, how to run a college cafeteria during a pandemic.
The biggest change for Smith was the new takeout style. Before the pandemic, Bon Appetit set strict rules on which items customers could take out of the dining room. They determined one piece of fruit, an ice cream cone, or a cookie was sufficient.
Now, Smith serves food in takeout containers with pre-packaged plasticware. The single-serving milk cartons, she said, take her back to when her children were in grade school. Students are now encouraged to eat outside the dining hall since it reduced its capacity to avoid spreading COVID-19.
Smith’s biggest discomfort is her mask, which overwhelms her at times. “When you get busy and you begin to sweat, your breathing becomes labored,” she said. “You almost feel like you’re panicking, and sometimes you need to step out, get some oxygen, and go back in there to finish up.”
Lattime noticed that students’ biggest frustration has also been with masks. Situated at the front of the dining room, it’s her job to ensure students follow the protocols Hillsdale put forth, including those regarding masks.
“I’d say to the students, ‘I’m willing to do whatever we have to so that we can be here,’” Lattime said, recalling springtime in quarantine, when the walls seemed to close in and the weeks would stagnate. “So we can serve you. So you can go to school. So we can stay open.” To encourage positivity, Lattime began treating the mask like a fashion statement — and some students followed suit.
Dyson, who spent the first few days serving coffee and tea so students wouldn’t contaminate Bon Appetit’s equipment, said students are more thankful than ever. “They’ll say, ‘Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,’” she said. “They stop to take the time to actually talk to us. I’ve gotten to know many more students than before.”
The dining hall’s purpose, according to Dyson, is to nourish the students safely so they can sustain a studious college career. “We try to keep you safe because you guys are the future,” she said, comparing Hillsdale students to her own children. “If something happens in here, you’re not going to do good out there. To be able to learn and take things in, you have to eat and keep your body healthy.”
The pandemic ushered in chaos to most areas of life. But in the dining room, Bon Appetit has continued to innovate to meet the new challenges posed by COVID-19.
In September, Bon Appetit introduced new, automatic plasticware dispensers. Bon Appetit chose this method because it’s more sanitary, but it also cuts down on waste from pre-packaged plasticware. At the same time, Bon Appetit switched its coffee dispensers with automatic ones that don’t require customers to touch the handle.
Though Hillsdale held steady in the face of danger, its students and faculty are not immune. As of Oct. 26, the college has confirmed 29 positive COVID-19 cases, and Bon Appetit workers are paying attention.
In the dining room, Bon Appetit and its staff have total control over safety and prevention. Past that, though, staff recognize students are responsible for their own behavior. “Outside of this room? I don’t always see social distancing,” Lattime said, “and I don’t always see masks where they would be appropriate.”
Lattime said she attends church with many students. When student cases jumped, she avoided church, opting to worship from home. “It’s not just my own health, but I don’t want to make anyone else sick,” Lattime added.
To deal with stress, Dyson turned to humor. The new chairs, which don’t have cushions, are uncomfortable and probably make the students eat and leave the dining room more quickly (Dyson swore this was not on purpose). She also quipped that the team has demonstrated near-perfect handling thus far into the school year; she never hears broken plates anymore.
Smith suggested “going one day at a time” and “keeping your head up” to stay grounded. “At first we were stressed, but now it’s a new way of life,” she said. “Be as positive as you can and be mindful of everything and everyone.”
Lattime, who said she “has not adjusted yet” and doesn’t know if she ever will, recited her favorite quote to the rhythm of her first pounding on the table: “Strength rejoices in the challenge.”