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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Follow your food

    They stare from the other side of the glass. They come alone or partnered. They unconsciously form hordes against you and your teams, which altogether barely number a baker’s dozen.

    You’re stuck in an area where you cannot hold your arms out without hitting someone or hurting yourself. Emergencies can appear with no warning, and you have little room to maneuver when you need to jump from one hotspot to another.

    After four hours of battle, you and your team will have faced up to 500 people, only to face the same tomorrow.

    Are you in the army at some pitched battle? Not quite.

    It’s $3 combo day at Cactus Grill during lunchtime, and you’re one of many Dining Services employees working to feed more than half of the UA campus.


    It’s a dark and cold morning. You woke up today at 4 a.m. to get ready for your 5 a.m. shift. After a hot shower and quick breakfast, you head to the Student Union Memorial Center. Along the way, University of Arizona Police Department officers sit in their patrol car, chatting with custodians on the Mall as they make their rounds.

    The building lights are still on. You keep expecting a student or a professor to emerge from the doors, but no one appears.

    You clock in, put on your chef whites and head into the SUMC basement kitchen.

    The bakery area is already bustling and has been since 1 a.m. About 300 loaves of bread are rotating on 6-foot racks inside walk-in ovens that can fit a small football huddle. Baguettes and Kaiser rolls, which are resting in proofing ovens for their second rise, give the air a sour tang.

    Andres Teso, a fellow dining services attendant, is grabbing handfuls of chocolate batter and slapping them into loaf pans to meet the day’s quota for chocolate-chocolate bread. Though the method seems too haphazard for the exacting nature of baking, the loaves still come out uniformly.

    You check the folder for the day’s orders, and then head to your station where you meet Luis Estrella, another full-time employee at the hot station. A political science and pre-nursing sophomore with a friendly smile and easygoing manner, he just celebrated his second year with Dining Services last month.

    Estrella moves at a steady pace as he stacks trays of hot, crisp bacon on the brushed steel table, alternating their orientation so that they can be cool for the moment. He just finished cooking enough bacon to feed everyone in Yavapai Hall.

    “”Jack, can I get the key from you?”” Estrella asks.

    Jack (a one-name man, like Bono or Prince) works at the hot station and earlier told you dryly that he has been cooking for the UA for so long that he’s “”blocked it out.”” To Ken Davis, the kitchen’s night supervisor, Jack is “”a cooking machine,”” a sentiment shared by everyone who works with him.

    Jack gives Estrella a blank look for what seems to be an eternity. He then reaches into his breast pocket and hands Estrella a worn, plain key.

    “”We keep our bacon trays in these bottom ovens,”” Estrella says. He crouches in front of equipment that has more than a few years on him, and unlocks the chains wrapped around the handles. “”We don’t have enough of these and everyone’s always trying to take them.””

    Estrella grabs a stack of full baking sheets with an easy strength that comes from hours of training for and playing in handball tournaments, and goes back to his station. He begins to place raw bacon strips on the sheets for tomorrow’s breakfast.


    It’s 10 a.m. and ironically, the kitchen night crew trickles in. Everyone on this shift is focused on preparing for the afternoon’s catered events, which, on any given day, can include a club’s afternoon meeting in Park Student Union or a black-tie dinner at President Robert Shelton’s house.

    Over the course of their shift, you’ll see one or two people prepare enough boxed salads and sushi rolls to feed a general chemistry class. DSAs not assigned to the kitchen come in and out to take carts to approximately 50 campus eateries and convenience stores.

    You head up to Cactus Grill to join everyone for lunch – that is, to serve everyone lunch. You’re stationed at the hot buffet line, but you’ve also been assigned to help wherever and whenever necessary.

    The major lunch rushes of hungry students take place at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. You tell each person with a puzzled look how the line works: everyone gets an entrée, a roll, two sides and a drink. You’ll explain the system often enough and loudly enough that your voice becomes hoarse by the time lunch service ends at 2 p.m.

    To your left you see students, strangers to each other, huddle around the two tables where they can order burgers and wraps or omelettes and stir-fry. They stand at least a yard away, each person waiting, watching and listening for their name to be called.

    Kathy Van Os, dining services supervisor for Cactus Grill, pulls you aside and asks for your help at the registers. The CatCard readers have stopped working again and every cashier has to take down each student’s name, the amount due and 16-digit CatCard number. You take the register next to Kathy. Faces blur by as the lines begin to shrink to a manageable level.

    It’s 1:30 p.m. One of the DSAs at the buffet line approaches Kathy and tells her that they are out of the $3 combo special, beef noodle casserole. After noting the shortage, she has to decide to offer either the carved ham from today’s menu or another backup entrée. What will offer enough portions to last through lunch service? You never get to find out as you head back to the basement kitchen.

    With the chaos of lunch still ringing in your ears, dinner remains on the horizon. The dinner crew faces a similar environment to breakfast, with a steady din of work that gives way to quiet. It’s the day’s closing moments for Dining Services.

    As the morning crew members stop by the laundry window and drop off their whites, many breathe a sigh of relief, their bodies relaxed in a post-workout slouch. In the hallways, you walk past other DSAs who are heading toward the kitchen with alert eyes and straight backs. You head home to catch some sleep before coming back for another day’s work.

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