Team Building in Catering: How a Director is Keeping Staff on Board

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Operator Spotlight: prioritizing the well-being of staff. Merrill Collins, Dir. of Auxiliary Operations Connecticut College. Making Made Easy logo. Image of Merrill, kitchen environment.

Merrill Collins has been working at Connecticut College for over 17 years. Today, she’s the Director of Auxiliary Operations, and responsible for the catering side of campus food operations. Like many in the hospitality industry, Merrill’s work has been deeply impacted by the events of the last three years, and she’s had to develop strategies to adapt really quickly.

We met with Merrill to learn more about how she’s managing to keep up with catering operations amidst the three problems that are plaguing food services: labor shortages, rising food prices, and supply chain issues.

Enforcing Work-Life Balance Boundaries to Retain Staff

The pandemic created a series of problems that hit the hospitality industry in particular, very hard. Merrill’s work involves managing the catering operations for small and large events in on-campus spaces, and the impact was particularly challenging when it came to labor.

“Given that we weren't catering for a solid year and a half plus, we lost some of the continuity that we usually get when students that are graduating bring their younger friends along and kind of backfill each other. We have almost a two-year gap in that, so that's been a little bit of a challenge.”

Foodservice is a demanding job — physically and mentally — and Merrill made some judgment calls to ensure that events were staffed. Her first priority was in maintaining the well-being of her staff, and she’s worked hard to preserve the attractive work-life balance for her staff that keeps them coming back to work each day.

“Here and on this campus and for me and my team, we've done a really good job of relationship building. When I tell someone no, I'm not just saying no because I'm too lazy to bother with your last-minute order. I'm saying no because my team needs the break.”

Large pot of paella in outdoor setting showing the hand of catering chef placing clams
Integrating global flavors on campus with paella in the summer

Staying Connected to Resources for Operators

During the pandemic, operational problems have been exacerbated by a total stop in conferences and in-person events, leaving many operators to fend for themselves.

Merrill calls out that General Mills’ online events and recipes were a life raft during that time and helped her develop ways to support her team while keeping things running smoothly.

“General Mills’ willingness to have a conversation or to offer recipes or ideas on how to use something differently has been really helpful. With a small team and [just] one chef in the kitchen, we're often looking for products that don't require a lot of manipulation to be ready, and General Mills always has some good recommendations.”

“I love the people that
I work with. I love that I have been
here for a long time, so I feel like I
have a lot of knowledge to share...”

Two trays of camel shaped sugar cookies on a pan rack
Serving up school spirit with Connecticut College Camel mascot cookies

Bringing the Love Back to What You Do

Merrill’s story is like that of many operators — a struggle to keep the wheels of business moving, amid very real concerns of staff, and problems with pricing and product availability.

From listening to Merrill’s story, it’s clear that her optimism has precluded any of the doom and gloom that you might see on the news. Though she has struggled at times with the challenges the last three years have thrown at her, it’s also helped her to remember that she truly loves what she does, when her work isn’t her entire life..

“I love the people that I work with. I love that I have been here for a long time, so I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to share and that I don't have to re-figure how to do everything. I think the COVID gap and the sort of challenge for college has also allowed a little bit more of where to find that life-work balance. I would say in the last year or so, I am better about that.”.

When discussing work-life balance Merrill said, “I spend less time right now looking at my emails on the weekend than I did two years ago because I think everybody needs to sort of have that boundary occasionally. It's enabled a little bit of that break, I think, for me mentally anyway.”