Audrey Pantaz, Contributing Writer
On any typical weekday morning, the garden level of Kauke Hall is buzzing with students in line at Boo Bears Brew hankering for their daily caffeine fix. Boo Bears, a small local business opened by owner Seth Feikert in 2018, came to The College of Wooster’s campus in the spring of 2022. Boo Bears began as a mobile coffee shop that moved to a permanent location in downtown Wooster in 2020 before opening its second location on the Wooster campus. The staff of the COW Boo Bears is almost entirely Wooster students, always cheerful and ready to take your order.
Located 500 feet away in either direction are the two other dining locations on campus. Across the academic quad is Knowlton Café, and right across Beall Avenue is Lowry Dining Hall. Until fall of 2022, Knowlton and Lowry were run by the College, but following a controversial move to outsource dining to an independent contractor, both locations are now managed by Creative Dining Services. In response to the backlash, former President Sarah Bolton deemed outsourcing vital in an April 2022 email, declaring a need for “specialized menu-planning, cooking and food-labeling training and technology to meet dietary needs.” She wrote that the College was dealing with “supply chain disruptions … and ongoing challenges in hiring and training enough staff,” requiring the support of a larger company. Yet, Creative Dining Services did not resolve the forenamed issues. Knowlton and Lowry continue to face supply chain issues, provide minimal options for students with dietary restrictions and both are still understaffed. On the other hand, Boo Bears has remained comfortably staffed throughout its entire duration at The College of Wooster.
Several Boo Bears staff members offered their own reasoning as to why Feikart does not face understaffing. One Boo Bears employee of over a year shared that “the wages are fair and the shifts run relatively smoothly.” In contrast to many on-campus jobs, Boo Bears employees receive more than minimum wage, about $4 more. The employees said, “I love working [at Boo Bears] and have never really considered leaving.” Another student employee cited the leadership of Seth Feikert as the reason they enjoy working at Boo Bears “[Seth] encourages us to make sure we are taking enough time for ourselves. If he notices a pattern of needing more hours covered each week, instead of asking us to work longer than what we committed ourselves to, he hires more employees, rather than consistently asking all of us to pick up extra hours every week.” The barista also believes the positive work environment is supported by the freedom of expression of the employees: “He allows us to maintain our own personal style. We can wear clothes that represent ourselves.”
Several student employees at Knowlton expressed less positive sentiments when asked about their jobs post-outsourcing. One student, who quit working at Knowlton in December 2022 after over a year there, cited changes in work conditions as the reason they left. “The new management enforced a lot of new rules. We had to wear black shirts and stopped getting free lunches. The new system was horrible on the workers’ end, it wasn’t user-friendly, was super slow and changed a lot from the previous years.” Benefits for student employees of Knowlton and Lowry also disappeared under the management of the new company. The same student stated “Last year, we got a $100 Christmas bonus which was not given to us this year by the new company.” Another Knowlton student employee stated that “there are no raises[;] you get paid $10 all four years,” in contrast to Boo Bears where students receive a raise for each consecutive year they return. Currently, the College pays Knowlton and Lowry student employees the Ohio minimum wage of $10 an hour. According to one Boo Bears employee, at the beginning of the fall 2022 semester the Wooster administration “tried to tell Seth how much he could pay his employees.” The College wanted Boo Bears student employee wages to match the minimum wage paid to college student employees. The worker said that ultimately Feikert advocated for his employees and was able to maintain wages of $14 an hour. Contrastingly, the campus dining halls offer lower pay and no raises and therefore continue to struggle with the very staffing issues that were cited as rationale for outsourcing their services. Despite their qualms with the dining systems, student employees from Knowlton and Lowry commended their coworkers, and their dedication to their jobs, one student saying, “I loved my work environment at Knowlton, especially my coworkers… I always felt welcome.” One Lowry student employee felt that the system was at fault rather than the employees, saying, “they’re doing the best with what they have.”
For now, the College’s decision to outsource Dining Services does not appear to have made any significant improvements to the standard of the student dining experience. Food choices, quality and general student satisfaction with campus dining facilities aren’t markedly improved. In addition, students seeking employment can often find better financial benefits and work environments by looking elsewhere. The College of Wooster has certainly reduced its administrative burden by giving up control of student dining, but most other reasons cited in former President Bolton’s email are not completely resolved as of yet. Still just six months into their new system of management, Lowry and Knowlton might see a trend of improving services and employment opportunities, which would certainly be welcomed by the Wooster student community.