By Melanee Terry
When the University of Maine at Presque Isle ended in-person activities in March of last year due to the Coronavirus, so did campus dining services, run by Craig Thompson. Since then, Craig, who is the Sodexo General Manager for UMPI, has been responsible for managing his staff through unprecedented territory. He has had to make many difficult decisions this past year to ensure students are safe and nourished, making him a true hero on campus.
Craig has been at the university for two years and with Sodexo for six and a half years. He is responsible for day-to-day operations of the Kelley Commons cafeteria including ordering, staffing, and menu development. He is also responsible for the finances and managing the rest of the Sodexo team.
When places across the country started to close, Craig was still responsible for the cafeteria and his staff. One of the most difficult things he has had to do during the pandemic was tell his employees that they were being temporarily laid off. Just like everyone else in the world, Craig was uncertain of the future and how long the pandemic would last. He had no idea when the cafeteria would be back open or when his employees could return.
“When these conversations were going on, there was no relief package yet and it was very hard to look them in the eye because of the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Craig said.
During the summertime, Craig spent his time planning for the return of students in the fall. He spent those months in meetings, figuring out how the cafeteria would be run. Along with others, Craig had to figure out how to maintain COVID-19 guidelines in the cafeteria. Following safety protocols, such as social distancing, can be difficult to do in a crowded university cafeteria. Craig spent the summertime on campus seven days a week running everything by himself, so that his staff could stay home. He has supported his staff members nonstop, making sure they are safe and healthy.
By the time students came back to campus in the fall, Craig and his staff were prepared. The cafeteria started the fall semester with food prepackaged. The students could come in, grab a drink and a bag to transport their meal, then select what food they wanted. Students who came in the cafeteria maintained a six foot distance and wore masks. The seating areas in the cafeteria only allowed (and still allow) one person per table.
“The biggest change going into the fall semester was to make sure the students were safe while in the cafeteria. The to-go system is smooth operating, but it has limited the selection available to students,” Craig said.
Before students left campus for Thanksgiving last fall, the Sodexo crew prepared a holiday meal. For the meal, students were able to tell staff what menu items they wanted, and the employee added the items to their to-go box. This service was successful, so it has been implemented for the Spring semester. The made-to-order pasta station and the beverage station also have been brought back.
Since Craig and his staff are constantly serving students, it is crucial to them to build healthy relationships. When campus closed last Spring semester, the Sodexo crew lost that connection with students, and when the to-go system was in place last fall, staff members had hardly any interactions with them. Now that staff members are serving students again this spring, they can now get back to interactions like they used to have pre-COVID, except everybody is wearing masks.
“It has been my focus since I got here to create a positive relationship with the students,” Craig said. “I want them to know that they are my extended family and if there is a problem they should let me know right away. If they would like to see something on the menu then they could always let me know and we will try our hardest to get it for them.”
Craig is grateful for Sodexo and the company’s plan to reopen. Sodexo gave him everything he needed in order to open back up in the fall. With access to plenty of resources, Craig was able to open the cafeteria up safely and efficiently. He is also thankful for his employees and their flexibility.
“The employees have been very good during these unprecedented times. I give them all the credit in the world because they really put the students first and I could not ask for anything more,” Craig said.
Despite so many difficulties, Craig was able to lead his Sodexo staff to a safe return. Craig learned from mistakes in the Fall semester and is now improving to make the cafeteria even better in the spring. With some changes and adjustments made to the Kelley Commons in the spring, he is confident that his staff is prepared for whatever may come next. Craig and the rest of his staff at Sodexo have proven what it takes to be Owl Heroes through their dedication and adaptability this past year.
“The biggest takeaway for me is that without a plan, there can be no success,” Craig said. “The University had a plan and we were able to adjust to the needs of the students.”