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W&L Dining Services Staff Compete in Battle Royale

More than 200 faculty and staff at Washington and Lee University converged on Evans Dining Hall on Thursday, August 11, to judge the efforts of the university’s dining service staff in a competition titled “Battle Royale.” Divided into two competing teams, the staff had created two “pop-up” restaurants at either end of the large hall.

Diners were asked to sample the fare in both restaurants, the “Blue Column Bistro” and “The Southern Star,” and then complete a card to rate them on four categories: creativity/originality, food taste/quality, service/presentation and overall experience. The teams were also judged by management on sanitation, team effort and team work.

“We announced this contest to the staff at 1 p.m. on Tuesday,” said Dennis Fowler, director of dining services at Marketplace. “They basically had 16 working hours to complete this task and be ready at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday. They made that deadline, and I think it’s amazing what they’ve achieved.”

The teams were given guidelines and criteria such as creating a balanced menu that incorporated two mandatory proteins of beef skirt steak and ground pork. They were also required to include fresh jalapeno pepper, caramel sauce and canned dark cherries. The entire menu had to consist of one composed salad, two entrees, two sides, a vegetarian option, a “signature” beverage and a dessert.

Toye Entsminger, dining operations assistant in catering services, said that although this is the kind of work they do all the time, creating the restaurants was a challenge. “It’s a little bit different, and it’s been a lot of hard work,” she said. “I think some of us weren’t sure at first how this would turn out. But when we found out that so many people on campus were excited about it, we got excited too. So everybody definitely put their best foot forward. And, of course, you’re trying to beat the other team, so you do what you can to win.”

Looking for an edge against their opposition, the “Blue Column Bistro” (named for the blue columns in Evans Dining Hall), arranged to have popular local musician and alumnus Burr Datz perform. “He absolutely adds to the atmosphere,” said Entsminger.

As the hungry diners poured into the hall at noon, the sampling and judging began.

At her first stop, “The Southern Star,” Elizabeth Lewis, regional director of development, declared the event “a wonderful treat for the W&L community to gather and see what the dining staff does so well. I haven’t got to the squash casserole everyone is raving about yet, but I have a feeling that might be my favorite. Presentation-wise, I think that the salad and the bean cake were absolutely beautifully presented,” she said.

Over at the “Blue Column Bistro.” Brett Schwartz, the new director of Hillel House, was taking advantage of meeting so many of the W&L community in one place for the first time. “This is the most people I’ve seen in a month,” he said. “The food’s great, especially the bean salad and the skirt steak. They are awesome. I’m looking forward to going over to the other restaurant. I’m a big eater.”

Jane McDonald, administrative assistant in the law school, said that people at her table were a little overwhelmed. “We’re like – we have to eat twice? We want to eat it all but it’s difficult, especially when you’re trying to watch what you eat. But the presentation is beautiful.”

Dean of the College, Hank Dobin, had no such qualms about eating twice. Standing in line for his second round of sampling, he said “I’m not sure if I can eat again, but I’ll give it my best shot. I think it’s wonderful, but the danger is that the dining staff is raising our expectations that the food is always going to be this good.”

Fowler pointed out that the teams weren’t given any direction. “They weren’t told you must do this, or you have to do that. It was whatever they wanted to do. Seeing how hard they’ve worked, I think it shows the heart of the dining services staff,” he said. Reflecting on the success of the competition, Fowler added that he would consider doing such an event again. “It’s been a great exercise for the staff, I think, in terms of planning, team work, critical thinking and creativity.”

Pam Clark, a pantry worker in Marketplace and a member of the “Southern Star” team, admitted that she’d been doing some things in the competition that she didn’t normally do in her work. “It’s taken me a little outside my comfort zone,” she said, “and I’ve learned from it. I’ve had fun, but I’m tired.”

Meanwhile, outside Evans Dining Hall, William Armstrong, a painter in facilities management, sat on a bench. “I’m about busted,” he said with a laugh. “I can hardly get up after eating two good meals like that.”

And the winner was: “The Blue Column Bistro.”