Salt Lake Community College and its contracted food partner Taher, Inc. face a series of problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, including labor shortages, supply outages and a large decrease in sales volume, preventing which has prevented cafes across campuses from fully opening.
The campus cafes had originally planned to re-open fully in time for the fall 2021 semester, but due to these complications, cafes at SLCC, including the Jordan Grill and South Side Express, have been forced to close until further notice.
SLCC originally shut down campus food from March 2020 to August 2021 when students and staff on campus shifted primarily to online learning according to Gina Chase, SLCC’s auxiliary service manager who oversees vendors and foodservice partners.
“Most people were still working from home,” she said. “There just weren’t enough people to support it.”
When SLCC announced full capacity in-person classes would be held for the fall 2021 semester, Chase put together a plan to bring food back onto campuses.
“I was really trying to push for everything to re-open,” she said.
Taher, which signed on with SLCC in July of 2020, had not yet experienced the demand of full capacity due to the pandemic, and quickly found their employees were spread too thin, Chase explained.
Miles Broadhead, food service director for Taher, began working with SLCC in March of 2021.
“When we re-opened, there were only five of us working there,” he said. “We still couldn’t do full buffets or catering, and then quite literally overnight, those restrictions were gone.”
When Taher’s catering began to resume around May of this year, the company began feeling the pain of the labor shortage.
“We were physically so stretched, there were weeks where I was working sometimes six days a week, and a minimum of 14-hour days,” Broadhead said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Utah has the fifth-largest labor shortage in the United States with about 1.45 jobs available per one unemployed individual.
When Taher couldn’t meet their catering demands, the employees at the South Side Express had to transfer, forcing the temporary shutdown of the restaurant just two weeks after re-opening.
Additionally, national supply chain shortages continue to affect everything from coffee to lumber to computer chips.
“So, on top of a labor shortage, I also have a national product shortage on the strangest things: bacon, packaged ketchup, eggs, fruit,” Broadhead said. “Things that never in a million years as an operator you would be like, ‘oh, they don’t have eggs?’”
On campus, students have little knowledge of the complications behind the scenes that are causing the lack of food options and are finding other ways to get a meal.
Megan Mcarthur, a theater arts major who primarily attends classes at the South City, is on the campus most days from around 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“If I don’t have time to get food at home, I usually stop by McDonald’s, which isn’t the healthiest, or the best for my wallet,” she said. “But you have to do what you have to do.”
Campus bookstores have been trying to offset the cafe closures by increasing their grab-and-go items but even those items, Chase said, often sell out quickly.
Students may have to make do with fewer on campus food options for a while longer along as the labor shortages and supply outages continue, according to Broadhead.
“Everyone needs to be open minded to two facts,” he said. “There’s nobody working that we can attract – that anyone can attract much less – and the supply chain is very volatile right now.”
Taher currently offers positions starting at $15 an hour with benefits such sign-on bonuses, free lunches and paid time off. Despite the incentives and having posted advertisements on various hiring sites, Broadhead said Taher is struggling to find applicants.
“The minute that we can operate [and] offer students more, we will,” Broadhead said. “We want to provide a food service experience at a community college that maybe you didn’t think was possible. It would be great to do that.”