SUSAN OLSON, MANAGER OF UW-MADISON DINING HALL

Susan Olson is a Newell’s Unit and Dining Manager at UW-Madison. Originally from West Allis, WI, she came to school in Madison in 1981 and has lived there ever since.

When I was in high school, my senior year I took a health careers class and so I went and saw all the different health careers and when I saw the dietetics one I thought it was really interesting and something I might wanna do.

Most of my career was at Gordon’s. I started working for dining at Gordon Commons right away in January of ‘82 after my second semester freshman year. I did leave for two years, when I was a food service director for McFarland School district, but then I came back here and have been here the rest of the time.

I actually came home the first night of my orientation and told my roommate that I would be running Gordon’s some day [laughs]. She was like “oh yeah sure, whatever!” I was the unit manager, so I did end up running Gordon’s at one point.

When I got hired here our director was a woman and her associate director was a woman as well. So, I mean, I would say almost all the administrative staff at that time were women. Food service and dietetics is more women. In my dietetics class in college it was all women. There are a lot more men interested in dietetics—I know now because of who we hire.

The main changes I have witnessed would be going from the straight-line service to the market places. That’s probably the biggest change. When I first started it used to be more cafeteria like. Where everybody would get in a line and we would open at mealtime. So we would open at lunch and at dinner and you weren’t open in between the meals. Now we are open all day long. We have gone through so many different reorganizations [laughs]. We had a big reorganization when I came over here, so about five years ago, and we eliminated a lot of the different levels so that you would report directly to your head supervisor. We have changed—probably—titles of things—I don’t know how many times.

I am pretty good with changes. There are always some changes every year. I just think, “Oh well!” I see these cyclical changes since I have been here through it all. I used to say something, but now I just kinda go with it. I have seen things change and then change back.

Now everything is computerized, which is probably the biggest change. We did not have computers until the early ‘90s I would say. We do all our ordering and recipes online, where we actually had recipe cards and we would call-in orders before. We have gotten better equipment too. A lot of the things are digital displays now. There’s always some little thing that seems like it is new.

Local is big. I am responsible for ordering the food, but we have an executive chef and purchasing manager that actually pick the food we serve. We try to do local as much as we can. But we also pick the best products, usually, quality-wise. It is hard ‘cause we are such a big place when it comes to local. We are always looking for more ways to get local products. It is the whole brand thing that we struggle with. We try to do a lot, but we always look for ways we can do more.

When I was a student a lot of the food products were similar, but I think there was more comfort-type food. I can remember every Tuesday we served roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and vegetables. Whereas now you have a lot of deli sandwiches and market places, a lot of the “Que Rico” and things like that are more popular now. There are more and more convenience products. We did not have those convenience stores at all when I was a student.

I had a lot of food science classes and nutrition classes when I was in school. But then I took a lot of the science classes. One thing I know I was kind of interested in was sports nutrition. But at the time when I was back in school that really wasn’t a thing as much as it is now. I was really interested in that too because I had a coaching minor and so I was thinking I might do something like that, but there really weren’t many jobs for that like there is now.

Once I graduated I was hired as a manager and worked at all the different units. I worked for Rita’s, Newell’s and Gordon’s. They ended up putting me here, which I was a little upset about at first [laughs]. But they knew I did not have a lot of the culinary skills and that I really did like doing everything. I have never really supervised the culinary end of things. I was never really strong in the culinary part. Mainly what I have done here is the administrative part of it—the food ordering and you know the HR type of stuff. Not so much now, at Newell’s, but I did a lot of the hiring and orientations before. I do more of the ordering, menus, pretty much here I do everything [Laughs], because there is only me here. So at first I was a little upset, but they said this was gonna be a good fit for me. I really do like it, although I was not too happy at first [laughs].

SUSAN1

At Newell’s, I open in the morning so that I can check-in all the deliveries and do my orders because a lot of them are due before nine o’clock in the morning. I start early, usually by six o’clock. So a typical day, come in, open up, turn on equipment, then orders start coming in right away. I am usually putting away things and then helping them get breakfast out. I help them cook breakfast and then work the breakfast bar. Some days are busier than others with orders. On the slower delivery days I usually do a little bit more on the line, so you know I will be cooking a little bit more on those days. I like being really hands on. It keeps a tighter control of the food so that we are not wasting and throwing away much.

Once a week I have to do my order schedule and every Tuesday I use our menu management system to create menus for the next few weeks. I will be doing that in between, when I am not helping, when we are not short on the floor, which a lot of times lately and in the beginning of the year we will be. But when I have time, I will run into my office and get those things done ahead. Some days I get out by three or four in the afternoon, but a lot of days I am here later than that [laughs]. It is a lot of hours, but its okay [laughs].

Then special events we do once a week. So I plan something fun. Then once a month we have that big special event and those take a little more time with decorations, special food, special recipes and different food coming in.

I am also on the SOAR committee, recipe review committee—meet with the unit chefs since we don’t have a unit chef and in the summers I am on the allergen committee. Now I handle student discipline, manage Krohno’s (our scheduling system) and do inventory and make sure that is kept up to date.

In the summer we have two interns that come. We have done this the last three years. They are here for 8 weeks. They get to live in the halls and they get to eat here. That is part of their package. We plan their whole program. They go to all the units. They start in the dish room and work their way to manager in 8 weeks. I meet with them once a week to see how things are going. They have a couple projects they do. Usually people that apply are interested in food service or dietetics or some type of nutrition.

Sometimes I get tired [laughs], but I have a lot of energy. I am okay with it! I mean some weeks I feel it cuts into my personal life, but otherwise really I don’t think it has affected my outside life too much. Luckily I have a husband that is very understanding. Even when the kids were at home he was always really understanding. There were some times when my kids were younger that they would give me more flack than my husband [laugh].

I am not a person that likes to just sit. I find it difficult sitting in here [her office]. I like to spend more of my time making sure things are good for the customers, making sure the food is good for the customers and that things look good for the customers. I wish I had more time to spend talking to the customers, but I just don’t have the time with all things I have to get done. I wish I knew them a little bit better.

Being able to prioritize I think is really important. Just not getting too tied down. I can get really tied down doing things and not delegating and not realizing what has to get done in here [her office]. I wish I had more time in my office. I wish there was an assistant manager. Sometimes I think we should have a half-manager here. I would love to see that at nights. I always feel bad when I leave students alone at night. You kinda have to weigh that all out.

They have told me I am really patient with my children [laughs]. Maybe that is a skill I have learned because of food service. With employees and customers it’s a skill you’ve really gotta have! In all the years I have been at Newell’s I have been so amazed by how good the college students work with the customers. I think their customer service skills are better than mine {laughs}!

I think you know when you hear good customer feedback, where customers can write in and they say they think the food is really good here, when you hear stuff like that it feels good. We get between seven and eight hundred customers a week. But I am guessing because of the way it is going this semester we are going to be getting closer to 900. There are 50 more people living in Smith this year and more freshman than last year. It is busy already, so it is even going to be busier as the year goes on.

SUSAN2

 I kinda like it here {laughs}. I am hoping I get to stay here. I am only going to stay for two more school years after this one. It’ll be 34 years total that I have been here.

— Jessie Faye Perez

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