Perhaps the reason some college students only feel like full-fledged adults after leaving the comfortable nest of campus is because only then must they seek out newfound ways of obtaining their meals. These impressionable young students must learn how to cook using methods other than heating up a pizza hot pocket in their microwaves, or else they risk adding their daily Uber Eats bills to their mountain of college debt. But at least for those first few years of college, students can take a breather and put those cooking lessons on hold. Students on campus have the privilege of having freshly cooked meals made for them at their convenience by the dining hall staff three times a day. 

Students will be able to express their gratitude for this luxury next Friday, Mar. 5, when Brandeis students can participate in Sodexo’s celebration of the University dining staff. This National Employee Appreciation Day is one of those moments of joyfulness and gratefulness that students, administration, and staff alike can share despite living through a pandemic. The Justice spoke with Michael Reilly, Resident District Manager of Brandeis University Dining Services, over Zoom on Feb. 27 to learn more about this event. 

Reilly started working at Brandeis last July overseeing a team of roughly 200 employees that work for Sodexo at Brandeis. Sodexo staff caters to all of Brandeis’ dining and retail locations, including the Lower Usdan and Sherman Dining halls, Dunkin’, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and the Hoot Market. Besides working with such a diverse group of people, what Reilly has enjoyed most about his time at Brandeis is facing the challenges of COVID-19 with his team: “What’s been rewarding about COVID is the obstacles we’ve had to overcome; the social distancing requirements, the plexiglass barriers — the challenges of just speaking to and hearing a guest through the plexiglass. … It’s been difficult, but employees are still coming in with enthusiasm and devotion for the students. For me, witnessing that has been inspiring,” Reilly said.  

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Brandeis Sodexo staff celebrate National Employee Appreciation Day in 2020

Although Reilly wasn’t working with the Brandeis dining hall team during last year’s National Employee Appreciation Day, he is looking forward to the initiatives that are new to this year’s celebration. “This year we are aligning National Employee Appreciation Day with a Mardi Gras-themed menu. We really wanted to create a fun, party-like atmosphere for our employees and students, and this matched perfectly,” stated Reilly. He also noted that themed-menu days generally attract more students to the dining halls and that the intention of this planning was the hope that they could bring a large number of students and employees together to celebrate. 

Reilly explained that throughout this week, students can write thank-you notes to dining employees on a poster-size thank you card at Sherman Dining Hall or on a large banner at Usdan. The materials will be located on tables in both dining halls. Reilly recognized that there would be some differences from last year’s celebration due to COVID-19 guidelines: “In the past, we’ve able to cut a cake and socialize with one another during a group ‘huddle,’ but this year we’ll be giving out individual cupcakes along with lollipops and other treats that workers can enjoy while they’re eating on breaks or save to eat at home later. With social distancing, it will be harder to get everyone together for a picture, and personalized thanks and appreciation will evidently be more difficult,” he said. 

Reilly also revealed to the Justice an exciting Sodexo initiative that will make exchanges between workers and students more personalized and that will hopefully be established by March 5. “We are going to be making smile buttons for our employees to wear, where employees will be able to put a picture on the button of themselves, that expresses their personalities. Students see our employees with their masks on every day, so we figure this can be a way to have our guests be more engaged with our employees,” Reilly said. 

According to Reilly, Sodexo has supported the dining hall staff fully throughout the pandemic. Despite the fact that some Brandeis dining locations, such as the Farber Library Starbucks, have closed, Sodexo has made a commitment to retain as many employees as possible: “We’ve provided workers with additional COVID-19 training, given out free masks to them, and checked up on our employees who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to make sure that they are maintaining a paycheck. We’ve been trying to keep them as whole as possible under the circumstances,” Reilly said. 

If this year has taught us anything, it is that eating together with your friends or colleagues and sharing meals has perhaps never been as precious. Similarly, thanks for the workers who have persisted through these tough times and still managed to bring joy to students through brief but impactful interactions, seem all the more significant under the ‘new normal.’ Reilly’s words echo reality: “We wouldn’t be anywhere without our employees, so on National Employee Appreciation Day, we’re trying to designate a special time for the community to take part in honoring them.”