Guest Written by Tommy Mumert
It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to think of any aspect of life that has remained unchanged during the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges have taken a toll on many businesses. It’s no secret that the hospitality industry, in particular, has been hit hard.
Despite the pandemic’s obvious impact on hospitality, Cass Capen-Housley, instructor/event coordinator for ATU’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Hospitality Administration, believes the industry will do much more than simply survive in the months and years to come.
“I feel like we are going to be really strong moving forward,” Cass said. “We have learned to adapt. It’s kind of like COVID has made us up the ante, in my opinion, with hospitality.”
Learning to adapt has been a key lesson taught by Cass since the pandemic began. And the result of that, she said, are students who are uniquely qualified to enter the hospitality field during these challenging times. “I feel like students in this major right now are probably going to be some of the most well-rounded graduates we’ve ever pushed out because they have had to adapt.”
Cass teaches classes in areas such as event planning, catering, and food preparation. She said in event planning classes, for instance, there has always been a component dealing with emergency planning. During the pandemic, students have been required to add a component related to COVID.
And if there is one primary characteristic of ATU’s food service-related classes, it is that most of the classes provide practical, hands-on experience, while the catering and food service-related classes provide front-and-back-of -the-house hands-on experience. It is through that applied training that Cass said students have learned how to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.
For instance, fall semester hospitality students offer the popular weekly dinner series, which usually runs for 10 to 12 weeks. Like much of the food service industry, ATU’s students switched to serving drive-thru meals, which created a whole new way of serving customers.
The dinners are staffed by ATU students in the advanced food preparation and guest service management classes. That “staffing” is truly all encompassing because students plan the menu, prepare the food and serve the guests.
“We thought it would still offer students a unique opportunity to learn some level of service,” Cass said, “because as we see now due to COVID, we had to really figure it out.” Students had to shift and then learn from that drive-thru experience just as restaurants in the public sector were forced to do.
Through those drive-thru experiences, Cass said students are learning efficiency. “They usually get about 100 guests through, so 100 people in an hour’s time is a lot. And it teaches them teamwork. too.”
The fall dinner and spring lunch series may well be the most easily recognizable part of the food service classes to people in the River Valley. However, those series are only a part of the larger food service instruction students receive. Students in the department’s catering and special events classes typically cater between 20 to 25 events per semester. Cass said those events might be offered by campus organizations or community organizations that were using the Williamson Dining Room.
During the pandemic, those events came to a halt.
“Because we didn’t have any events during COVID, I tasked the students with asking them: ’Could we do something similar to our drive-thru with our meals?’ Their answer was a take-and-bake option. “And that became really popular,” Cass said.
The students developed a marketing plan, devised the take-and-bake menu, and worked the drive-thru. Among some of the most popular offerings were pizza, a build-a-burger, and charcuterie kits. The students will try it again this semester and pies for the holidays is one offering already being planned.
The take-and-bake kits are available on Mondays, which proved to be an ideal day, Cass said.
“It’s the start of the week but you’re already exhausted. Why not come by and pick up a chicken pot pie that would feed four to six people and just throw it in the oven? And people were really excited to see that.”
As students work the various events, they often find themselves facing unexpected challenges.
Cass said she wants students to find solutions whether that challenge comes in the food-prep, service, or some other area connected with the event. “I encourage them to figure the problem out,” she said. “Now if it looks like they are struggling, then I will offer some suggestions about what we can do to meet that challenge.”
Part of meeting that challenge, Cass said, is making sure the service provided is never compromised. “Students need a service heart. If they don’t have it, then I don’t think they ever fully understand what we are trying to do.”
The students without that “service heart” are typically the students who do not end up in the hospitality industry.
And what will that business look like in the months and years ahead?
“I know people say, ‘hospitality has really taken a hit,’” Cass said. But she’s cautiously optimistic. “I feel like we’re all going to be able to go back and travel, maybe not as much as we want, but we hope. And again, we always tell people in the hospitality industry, people are always going to want to eat, they are going to want to stay somewhere, they are going to want to go to an event. It’s evident. Even though you might have that restriction about ‘show me your negative COVID test’ or ‘show me your COVID vaccination card.’ We dine out, we participate in events, we go to a certain destination because it provides an experience. We are craving that. Sure, it might not be as frequent, but as long as we feel safe, we are going to see that continue.”
The safety aspect, Cass said, will be a never-ending responsibility. “We are always going to have to be concerned about the safety of our guests.” While a commitment to cleanliness is a hallmark of food service, Cass believes the pandemic has made the industry hyper-sensitive about hygiene.
And food service professionals, during this pandemic, made changes that likely will continue beyond the pandemic, Cass said. Restaurants created new concepts, emphasized drive-thru and take-out orders, and shifted to online ordering and online payment. Some professionals in hospitality have posed the somewhat philosophical question whether those changes have been evolutionary or revolutionary to the industry. Cass sees it as a little of both depending on the situation.
“I think it would be case by case. We had to evolve,” Cass said. “It’s really more evolutionary when you have to shift. It’s like adapting to your surroundings to survive. That’s where I think it’s evolutionary.”
At the same time, Cass said, the pandemic “maybe forced some people to have to change. They had to really decide whether what they were used to doing, that was successful prior to the pandemic, is really working now.”
And when it comes to revolutionary changes in the industry, “there are always people who are on the verge,” Cass said. “People who are always creating the trends.”
One of the students’ most popular events is catering on football game days in the Dopson Suite. Located on the fourth floor of Baswell Residence Hall, the Dopson Suite serves as a football game-day hospitality area for invited guests of the ATU. Because of space considerations and COVID protocols, fewer students are in the suite. But those who are gain much from the experience, Cass said. For one thing, the catering students must consider who their guests are when planning what to serve. In addition, the students are in the same space, watching how their guests react to the food and the level of service they receive.
Plus, Cass said, “the Dopson Suite is one of the favorite places for students to work because they are serving people who have made significant contributions to the university.” Those students, Cass said, are excited about what the future will bring. A quote from one of her favorite chefs, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse (Berkeley, California) and founder of Edible Schoolyard, maybe best captures the future for Cass:
“This is the power of gathering, it inspires us delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful; in a word, more alive.”
“As a result of the pandemic we all have reevaluated life,” Cass said. “And I think we realize we only get one shot at this, so why not make the most moving forward.”