Magic at Millsaps

by Daniel Kees

When we think of magic, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t necessarily the Caf’,Kava or Rueben’s.  However, like like magic, there’s more to these phenomena than what meets the eye (clever Transformers reference: check). 

     We’re all familiar with the gnawing hunger  that is characteristic of being a  typical, super involved Millsaps student.  After a morning full of classes or errands, many of us enjoy taking time out of our busy schedules to pop into the Caf’.  It’s always nice to socialize and bond over good food.  (Considering that Valley has been the food service provider, what the Caf’ does with those options is beyond magic; it’s more like a miracle.)

But do we ever think about how this food ends up on our plates?  Despite what Frozen teaches us, you can’t create really cool stuff—like an adorable snowman who likes warm hugs—out of thin air.  (obligatory Frozen reference: check)  As this paper has noted, students up to the daunting task can always invent “Caf’ creations.”  To be sure, the skill and creativity it takes to create those delicacies is to be commended; however, those of us unable to spontaneously birth culinary masterpieces rely on the Cafeteria staff to supply a variety of palatable meals.  So how do they do it?  Well, I imagine a little magic is involved, but it takes much more than that.

Over this past semester, we’ve gotten to know more about some of the key players in Millsaps’ dining scene like Chef Dave.  As he was quick to mention, however, it takes a team.  Patricia Ainsworth, the Food Service Director sums up her experience this way: “It’s a service that gives back.  We enjoy the students, the interaction, and the excitement.”  Chef Dave, Ms. Ainsworth, and the rest of the dining staff do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.  They make things happen; we’d be lost (and hungry) without them.

Whether you’ve been here for a semester or what seems like a lifetime, you have undoubtedly—and delightedly—encountered some of the personalities that have come to characterize dining at Millsaps.  More importantly, we all appreciate these personalities and the extraordinary persons behind them.  The daily conversations with Ms. Shirley, Ms. Ruby, Ms. Vassie, Ms. Sarah, Dante, and the rest of the cafeteria staff provide a pleasant change of pace from the general bustle of Millsaps life.

     I was curious about what a typical workday in the Caf’ looks like, so I scheduled a quick interview with Ms. Shirley while she was on break.  I quickly realized that her point of view was quite unique.  Because she arrives for work between the lunch and dinner shifts, Ms. Shirley sees just how much of a team effort running the Caf’ really is.  She gave a very brief outline of the day’s tasks, as she had to get back to work preparing for the dinner shift.

Photo by Millsaps Flickr

Here’s what she told me:

     Ms. Shirley arrives by 2:00 pm.  After getting ready (sanitizing hands, donning an apron, finding a hair net, etc.), she immediately begins her day.  Her first tasks include surveying the condiments, milk, juice, tea, coffee, fountain drinks, and others, refilling when necessary.  (This is no easy task.  Can you imagine refilling those coffee containers every day?  They are pretty heavy…)

While she and others restock everything, the cooks are already “prepping” the food for dinner.  Mind you, lunch has just ended.  The Grill, the Deli Depot, and the Classics Line begin their ministrations, double-checking their inventories to make sure that they have everything needed to feed the incoming wave of students.  Ms. Shirley and others are also charged with the task of retrieving any supplies the cooks might lack.

While the cooks prepare, others are tending to the actual dining area.  Some are mopping, sweeping, polishing dispensers, putting salt and pepper shakers in their correct places, moving misplaced chairs to their original tables, and tending to the general aesthetic appeal of our cafeteria.  As Ms. Shirley notes, “Presentation is everything.”  However, those efforts do not stem only from a desire to have a neat and clean eating space.  Small adjustments like moving, restocking, and polishing items contribute to the fluidity (of lines, card swipes, seating, etc.) characteristic of the Caf’.  We may not always notice, but the cafeteria is not so easily navigable simply because of Millsaps’ smaller student population; much of this ease of access is due to the Cafeteria staff’s tireless efforts and attention to detail.  The Caf’ workers enjoy a brief respite before promptly returning to work.  They re-sanitize and prepare for the evening crowd.

For the sake of brevity (a virtue of mine, obviously), I will not recount all work that goes into running the evening shift.  However, I will say that, once students head back to their dorms or to the library, the Cafeteria staff is still busying itself with cleanup.  This night shift ensures that everything is clean and in its proper place, making it easier for the breakfast staff to arrive and begin that day’s tasks.

Again, this is only a brief account of what goes on in the Caf’ each day.  Obviously, the staff in Kava or Reuben’s face slightly different—but equally herculean—tasks.  These individuals work so consistently (and often thanklessly) to make our days less hectic.

Before the interview’s close, I asked Ms. Shirley to name the best aspect of her job.  Her answer surprised me.  She said that she most enjoys the students.  When she sees students having a bad day, Ms. Shirley tries to lift their spirits.  “I like to encourage them.  I tell them to stay strong and just be positive.”

When asked to say, in a nutshell, what she most enjoys about working in the Caf’ and Reuben’s, Ms. Vassie answered without hesitation.  “The kids.  That’s the only nutshell I need…I love the atmosphere.  People are always nice and polite.  In a way, the Caf’ is like a home.  People come here to relax and feel comfortable.”  Although I had not noticed before, there is a certain familial atmosphere in the Caf’.  Students and sometimes staff get to commune with one another, sharing laughs and stories.

     Finally, I posed the question to Ms. Sarah.  Smiling warmly, she said, “I just enjoy being around everyone and seeing them smile.  The students are always so nice.  They want to know about me and I want to know about them.”

     In spite of their demanding schedules, the entire dining staff is still genuinely excited to see each of us every day.  So here’s to you, dining staffs!  On behalf of the student body, I want to extend my deepest gratitude for the brilliant work that you do, all for the benefit of this great institution.  Ad excellentiam.