Campus Executive Chef Luiz DaCosta began working at Brandeis just three weeks ago but already feels like a part of the Brandeis community. “I’m amazed by the professionalism of the students and the staff, and that the students understand the difficulties we’re facing,” he said in an Aug. 25 Zoom interview with the Justice. Chef DaCosta, who oversees both the Sherman and Usdan Dining Halls, also shared a story of his interaction with a student where he cooked her food separately when she expressed concerns about a food allergy. Afterward, he said, the student was so happy and thankful that she took photos with the staff. 

These feel-good interactions between students and staff are common around the Brandeis campus, and even last year’s pandemic couldn’t prevent them — if anything, these small moments of consideration became even more significant to us. Although the social aspect of the dining hall may have seemed “virtually” eliminated last year, with take-out meals, social distancing and empty dining facilities, this year, efforts have been made to revitalize Brandeis’ dining hall experience holistically. 

The Justice also spoke to Michael Reilly, Resident District Manager of Brandeis University Dining Services, and Gary Symolon, Area Chef for Sodexo (Usdan) during the same interview to learn more about these changes. 

To begin with, many dining locations that were closed down last year have reopened to full capacity this semester. This includes the Stein, the Faculty Center and a much missed Starbucks. But with this reintroduction, some foreseeable challenges have arisen.  

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The Stein, which was closed last year, has reopened this semester.

“Let’s face it, it has been difficult getting everyone on the right mindset to meet the needs of a bigger population of students,” Symolon said. He explained that despite providing numerous staff training over the summer and having a strong sense of comradery among staff, shortages after the pandemic were inevitable. 

But Reilly described how shortages had a trickle-down effect. “Across all industries, there are currently some shortages — staff shortages and produce shortages. Just last week, our supplier for the Hoot Market didn’t have any drivers to deliver the food to us,” Reilly explained, “Looking forward, our solution will be to order well in advance.” 

Many changes this semester have been conducted to meet Brandeis’ sustainability goals. According to Reilly, this year will reflect the beginning of the rollout of the University’s “Cool Food Pledge,” which states that by 2030, University dining will reduce their carbon footprint by 25%. 

Expanding and altering the menu design is one way to meet this goal. “Through efforts on beef reduction on the menus, we’ve had a greater impact on reducing our carbon footprint, already by roughly 20%,” Reilly said. At the burger section, a mix of 75% beef and 25% mushroom and onion blended burgers have become the default burger, according to the Office of Sustainability’s website. Along with planning more plant-based menu options, Meatless Mondays will be held twice a month — more frequently than the previous semester. In addition, the Hoot Market will be supplying more “New England-sourced and sustainable food purchases.”

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A wide variety of plant-based foods have been added to Brandeis’s menus.

Another way to meet sustainability goals is to reduce waste on campus. Reilly explained that the foremost way this will be accomplished is by reusing and washing dishes and silverware. Last semester, the paper to-go meal boxes, plastic cups and plastic bags created an issue where many students often didn’t take the responsibility of sorting compostables, trash and recyclables to heart. This semester, to avoid this, trash cans have been taken away from the dining halls, to encourage students to place all their garbage on the cleaning trays for staff to handle. 

In place of last year’s to-go boxes are the reusable green to-go containers. Students can pay a one-time fee of $4 for the container in points, and they can exchange them later for clean containers each time they would like to take food out. Students can also ask for a token if carrying the container around with them is inconvenient. 

Plastic straws, however, remain at some locations like Dunkin’ and Einstein Bros. Bagels, where Brandeis doesn’t have ultimate jurisdiction. According to Reilly, brand guidelines are preventing the complete elimination of plastic straws, but Brandeis is working with the companies to advocate for more sustainable options.     

The dining team is constantly innovating, not only to accommodate sustainability efforts, but to reintroduce the lively social aspect of the dining experience through over 50 events and unique programs. 

“Something that I’m really excited about is introducing music into the dining halls. We’ve partnered with a music streaming service to utilize with speakers — a virtual jukebox!” Reilly said. “I think it will set the mood for breakfast, and maybe we’ll change it up for dinner. We’re also planning to incorporate music to our themed events, around holidays,” Reilly continued.    

In addition to the robust marketing calendar, a new program is being introduced this fall where students can receive free meals after filling out surveys. “The Mystery Shopper program will give us a clear, unsparing view of students’ experience in these locations,” Reilly said.  

“Cooking a meal is one of the most personal things you can do for someone, and we are so grateful to be back — as back to as normal as we can get... and the lively atmosphere with students and conversations that dining-in allows, creates a great experience for us as well,” Symolon said. 

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Students can make use of text messaging to receive dining hall updates.