Pinky Gibbons was in Omaha, Neb. visiting family this summer when she received an email that her desk would be cleared off and repurposed by the end of the week.
When she was able to get to Knox, many years worth of belongings had been packed into about seven boxes.
The former Gizmo supervisor said that her desk being taken away was the final push she needed to retire from her job after 49 years of working at the college. She was told that the desk was going to be given to a sous-chef instead.
“I couldn’t believe that they were telling me to come clean out my desk,” Gibbons said. “Instead of going over to the warehouse and finding their own desk to put upstairs they took mine.”
Gibbons had been unhappy in her job since Bon Appétit Management Company took over the operation of Dining Services Fall Term 2015.
For General Manager Diane Welker and Executive Chef Jason Crouch, repurposing Gibbons’s desk was a matter of keeping up with health codes and better utilizing space.
“Pinky, she didn’t see anything wrong with it, but for new people coming in it kind of looks out of place,” Crouch said.
Many changes have come with the shift to Bon Appétit from having Dining Services run in-house. For some staff members and students the adjustment has not easy. Gibbons and former C-Store Manager Bobbi Helander, who worked at Knox for 22 years — 11 of which were spent managing the C-Store, both chose to leave their jobs as a result of the changes that had taken place.
Making the switch
During Spring Term of 2015, former Director of Dining Services Helmut Mayer announced his plans to retire from his position after seven and a half years at Knox.
Mayer told The Knox Student that he had planned to retire one year later when he turned 66, but decided to move his retirement up a year because he felt like he was losing the support and trust he had from the administration.
“You need to like where you work, not only what you do, but where you work. Where I worked wasn’t so fun anymore,” Mayer told TKS this October. “It was just not comfortable anymore.”
To replace him the college identified two options: Try to find another in-house manager or work with a management company to oversee Dining Services.
They chose to pursue the latter option first, bringing both Bon Appétit and Sodexo to campus. Students overwhelmingly were in favor of Bon Appétit, though many — including Mayer — hoped that the college would find a new in-house manager instead.
Over the summer the college announced that it had selected Bon Appétit to run Dining Services for a year. The company brought in Crouch, who had been working for Bon Appétit previously at DePauw University in Indiana. He shadowed Mayer until he officially retired on Aug. 31, 2015. Welker joined the college around Homecoming 2015.
The new management stuck with Mayer’s menu for Fall Term in order to use the rest of the already ordered food and get a feel for how things were run. By Spring Term 2016 they made the switch to a menu that was completely their own.
Doing things the Bon Appétit way meant cooking everything from scratch. This included everything from pasta sauce to soup stocks to salad dressings. The work load increased substantially.
“Last year we were able to get everything done, but only get everything done. This year we have a little more breathing room,” Crouch said.
Grab n’ Go worker Deana Coleman said that she had hoped that staff would be called in early this year in order to receive training about cooking from scratch and new expectations, but said that a lot of this has happened on-the-job instead.
“None of that happened, so a lot of the stuff that people have to learn, it’s basically kind of on-the-job training and you have to learn to make it when you need it made right now. So it’s just a lot more stuff.”
Why they left
Both supervisors left their jobs in 2016. Helander quit her job without notice as the C-Store Manager at the end of Winter Term 2016. Gibbons retired at Homecoming, though her last day of work was Sept. 2. Gibbons used her vacation time until her official retirement.
Both former managers quit because they were no longer happy in the jobs they once loved.
Helander became frustrated because all of the vendors she had worked with changed under Bon Appétit’s management. This made ordering some of the food that had been previously stocked in the C-Store difficult. She had to change all of the barcodes in the system that the store used as well.
“I didn’t mind the work, it just seemed unnecessary,” Helander said. “I thought we had a good thing going.”
It was hard not to take the changes that were being made personally.
“It was painful, I’m going to be honest because that was like our baby. We put like everything we had into that store. We wanted it to shine,” Helander said.
When she decided to leave her job, Helander decided not to give notice of her resignation, fearing mistreatment from management during her remaining time at Knox. She made sure that all of the orders were made for Spring Term and that all of the student workers were hired. On her last day, she sent an email, which she provided TKS with, to Welker, Crouch, Vice President for Finance Keith Archer and President Teresa Amott.
“The business that Knox is becoming is starting to treat the student as a customer that will be here and gone in four years. I cannot embrace that vision,” she wrote. “To me, they are often life long friends and some even like family. We are doing them a disservice if we treat them like only a customer.”
She said she never received a response.
Gibbons did not plan to retire this year, but after a difficult time adjusting to the new management and having her desk taken away, she felt that she had no other option than to do so. She had worked at Knox for most of her life, since she was 16 years old.
She felt she wasn’t trusted to do her job anymore and was being treated like she was stupid. She didn’t feel able to make her own schedule, manage her staff or voice her opinions in the way she wanted to or had been able to previously.
“It was the first time I’ve ever felt unimportant,” she said.
Welker and Crouch said that they were unaware of Helander’s unhappiness in her position, and they thought Gibbons left just to retire. They recognize that the change to the management company was probably not easy on them after so many years working at the college.
“It was hard to have that many years and have change, but we appreciated everything they did when they were here and the knowledge that they shared with us,” Welker said.
Gibbons started at Knox 1966 when she was still a high school student. She quit for part of the 1970s because she was unhappy with her shifts, but was back by 1977. Her mom worked at the college before her for 32 years. She spent about 49 years of her life working at Knox.
She has attended probably 15 former Knox students’ weddings and traveled as far as Africa to visit a student at home. She and her sister will be going on a cruise with two alumni that graduated 35 years ago this upcoming spring.
“I’ve been there all my life. I gave my life to Knox College. I just don’t feel like I was being treated fairly with the way things were turning out,” Gibbons said.
Archer announced this summer that Knox had agreed to enter a five year contract with Bon Appétit.
Archer came to Knox in August 2015, after Mayer had already announced his retirement and the college had chosen to work with Bon Appétit for an initial year.
He told TKS that under this contract, Dining Services staff members are still employed by the college through their contract with Service Employees International Union, Local 73. Crouch, Welker and any future sous-chefs or upper management that they chose to bring in are employed by Bon Appétit.
A major question that has come up for Dining Services staff is whether or not they will remain employees of the college rather than Bon Appétit. Next August, the contract is set to expire.
“We haven’t had any plans to change that. There’s a lot to happen before then as far as negotiations and things like that, but clearly I feel like we have a good relationship with the union and with the union employees and we intend to maintain that relationship,” he said.
Welker said that Bon Appétit does not have any decision over what happens with the union contract and said that it is between Knox and the union.
Under the contract, Knox is billed by Bon Appétit for operational costs and a set fee for the services that the company provides the college. Archer was unable to tell TKS how much the college pays Bon Appétit, as it is confidential under the contract. He could not compare the costs of operating Dining Services under Bon Appétit versus in-house management.
He said that changes in the cost of meal plans, how the Grab n’ Go operates and other financial and logistical decisions about how Dining Services operates were made by Knox and not Bon Appétit. After the fees are paid to Bon Appétit, the gain or loss is the college’s to absorb.
No longer a family
Junior Jessi Miller saw Helander as her mom at Knox. She has worked as a C-Store clerk since her freshman year. She saw how unhappy Helander was with the changes that were taking place.
“It’s a complete change from what it used to be. It used to be more of a little family when we were at work and we were all really close with each other,” Miller said.
Helander said that she always tried to make her customers feel at home in the C-Store, as the campus was students’ home. In recent years she said that she felt the college was shifting from a community and student focused operation to more of a “bottom-line business.”
“It used to be more student-focused and like a big community and I don’t think it’s that way anymore.”
Gibbons tried to make the Gizmo feel like a homey space by decorating it with personal tokens, plants and student-made pottery that had been given to her over the years. Much of those belongings were packed up, though some mementos and plants still remain in the Gizmo.
Archer said that the choice to contract with Bon Appétit was made to benefit students rather than as a financial decision.
He noted that Bon Appétit can call in more staff when needed for special events and said that the company has more buying power than Knox could access when Dining Services was operated in-house.
“We wanted to provide quality food, good tasting food, we’re concerned about the health and wellness of the students in our community. And we felt like they would support us and be a good partner in order to bring that to Knox College,” Archer said.
Meeting promises, looking to the future
Both Welker and Crouch believe that this school year is going better than last year. They had promised staff members last year that they would hire more employees in order to meet the new demands of the increased workload in the kitchen.
Under the new contract, Welker said they received permission to hire 11 more union staff positions, which they had promised last year’s staff they would do.
“We were able to tell them this would happen and now we are able to show them that it did happen. And that builds a relationship of trust,” Welker said. “Being able to follow through with what we said was going to happen helped a lot.”
Crouch believes that the staff is also more proud of the quality of the food that they are producing by cooking from scratch. He and Welker believe that staff morale has improved from last year.
They have hired a sous-chef position in the Gizmo and hope to create more Bon Appétit management positions as well.
Crouch also noted that Bon Appétit has introduced new safety measures in Dining Services. The company has provided non-skid shoes, cut gloves, oven mitts and has put staff in long sleeve uniforms to protect them from heat and burns.
“That was one thing that Knox asked us to focus on when we came and we’ve definitely been able to reduce the number of accidents,” Crouch said.
They also have been sourcing more food locally through Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program.
Welker hopes to bring in other events in Dining Services to engage with students and increase communication efforts with the student body through utilizing comment cards and social media. She encourages students to fill out comment cards with their emails in order to communicate changes they’d like to see in the cafeteria.
Miller wondered if it would have been beneficial to bring in a mediator to help bring the gap between the new management and administration and the body of student and staff members.
She said that things are better this year, but she still misses the family dynamic that the C-Store once had.
The new management said that they have received no grievances from Dining Service staff’s union.
Coleman has tried to come back this year with a new attitude about her job. She was unhappy last year and felt like the stress was affecting her home life and relationship with her young daughter. This year, she has tried to come back this year with a new attitude.
“This year I came back with the attitude that this isn’t my life. I’m not going to be miserable, I’m not going to let them hold the key to my happiness,” Coleman said.
She said that the changes she’s been seeing at the college have given her new reason to go back to school.
Ending decades of work
Helander took a job at an assisted living home after leaving her position at Knox. She said she’s making half as much money than she did at Knox, but it was the right decision.
“It was hard to leave, but at the same time I just knew it was time. I was starting to get aggravated all the time and I just didn’t want to be there in that way,” she said.
A day hasn’t gone by when Gibbons doesn’t think about the Gizmo. Since her retirement party during Homecoming, she’s woken up several times early in the morning thinking she’d overslept and missed work.
“I instantly jump up, it wakes me up and it’s like I don’t need to go to work, I’m retired. I still feel like I’m on vacation,” Gibbons said.