S.4 E.6: Meals and Minds

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services & Director of Dining Service Steve Kjellgren.
Posted on October 1st, 2020 by

Steve Kjellgren, Gustavus Class of ‘86 and Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services at the College, on the innovations he and his team, with the input of students, have introduced in the campus Dining Service over the years, bringing national distinction to the dining program and making it an integral part of students’ liberal arts education. You are advised not to listen on an empty stomach.

Season 4, Episode 6: Meals and Minds

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

The words “college food” do not typically whet one’s appetite, conjuring as they do, bland and boring mass-produced institutional meals. Happily for all of us associated with Gustavus, its food consistently ranks as among the best in the nation on college campuses, for its variety and quality, among other measures. My guest today, Steve Kjellgren, is a major reason why.

After graduating Gustavus in 1986 with a degree in psychology, and I’m happy to say, a minor in history, Steve eventually worked for a time in the hospitality industry before returning to his alma mater in 1994, as director of dining services. He is now associate vice president of auxiliary services with management responsibilities that have expanded to include campus summer programs at conferences and camps, the bookstore, the post office and print services. Under his leadership, Gustavus prepares and serves some of the tastiest and healthiest food in town, while also maintaining a focus on environmental sustainability.

Moreover, he and his dining services team are crucial to the successful functioning of Gustavus, try imagining a college unable to feed its students, and to its strong sense of community as well, which the act of eating together does so much to promote. For all these reasons, I thought it would be interesting and fun to talk with Steve about his work and the ingredients, both literal and metaphorical, of Gustavus’ exceptional dining services. Welcome, Steve. It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Steve Kjellgren:

Well, thank you very much. I’m happy to have the invitation to join you.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I wish we could meet and eat at the same time, but you’re in St. Peter and I’m up here in Minneapolis, so we can pretend we’re chatting over… Some of my favorites are the campus pizza and the gyros. I’m Greek American on my dad’s side, so gyros Friday, I’m there. Let’s start with you and your background. You grew up, I think, in International Falls, Minnesota. How did you get from there to Gustavus and then from Gustavus to the psych major?

Steve Kjellgren:

Well, great question. Actually, I was born in Ortonville, Minnesota, so that’s west central Minnesota. I think prior to being a year old, my parents moved back to their hometown of International Falls to be school teachers. I was raised in International Falls. It’s a hockey community and I probably am the worst hockey player ever to come out of International Falls, but I sure loved the game. I just was never as good as I wanted to be. While I have lots of folks ask me, “Did you play hockey at Gustavus,” I say, “No, I played at Gustavus. I didn’t play hockey.”

Hospitality was my first job. I was a bellman at the Holiday Inn in International Falls and, as you can imagine, entertaining fishermen from all over the country, and in fact, the world, leads one to see a lot of things that maybe 16 and 17-year-old people shouldn’t see all the time, but it certainly was an education in how to take care of guests and help meet needs. I wanted to be a helper. That said, I looked for a private college. I toured all of the Minnesota privates and went down into Iowa.

I wanted that experience that wasn’t a great big university. I think Gustavus was probably my last stop on a whirlwind trip, and it just felt right. We hear that time and time again from our students, our alums and our employees, our faculty. If you connect with this feeling that’s here, you just connect. I don’t know what the secret sauce is. I don’t think anybody’s been able to put an ingredient label on it, but it’s here and if you connect with it, it sticks forever.

That said, as a young person, I had a strong influence by a young medical doctor that lived in the neighborhood. I spent a lot of time with him and his family and thought a medical career probably is a start. Why don’t we take a look at premed at Gustavus? That lasted, with my good friend, dear friend, Jeff Rosoff. It was his first year at Gustavus as well.

Greg Kaster:

Professor of math, yeah.

Steve Kjellgren:

I took a calculus class with him at eight o’clock in the morning. I quickly found out that I wasn’t going to be able to get through the mathematics portion of a premed major. That was disappointing, but my gosh. What do you know when you’re 18 years old?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Steve Kjellgren:

Like maybe 70% or 80% of the other premed majors that come to Gustavus, you start investigating. I took some history courses with Byron and with Rodney-

Greg Kaster:

Byron Nordstrom and Rodney Davis.

Steve Kjellgren:

Right, and just said, “Oh, my gosh. History, I can’t learn enough. This is amazing.” Then I thought, “Practically, Steve, what are you going to do with that?” Then I took a psychology class with Tim Robinson, Introductory Pysch, and I said, “I think I’ve found it. I’ve arrived. I just can’t get enough of this, either.” With the help of Mark Kruger and Barbara Simpson and others in the psychology department, I really wound my way to… Well, I did an internship at the state hospital one January and it was a great internship. I decided I definitely did not want to work with that population. Within psychology, I said, “What else is there?” Well, with this hospitality background, the leading of employee work groups led me to emphasize and to narrow in on industrial and organizational psychology.

After Gustavus, I spent a year at the University of Minnesota, doing some graduate studies, then time at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, doing graduate studies. Then I decided I needed to get out and make some money. My first job as a manager was at a small hotel in Neenah, Wisconsin. From there, about a year later, I wound my way back to Mankato and worked for Aramark, which is a contract feeder for the university, a contract dining company.

Greg Kaster:

That’s Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University, about 12 miles out from St. Peter.

Steve Kjellgren:

Correct. That was an introduction by fire, really. Contract companies run pretty lean and so what I didn’t know, I quickly learned, both about managing people and about the industry, how to order food and how to prepare it safely and dealing with health inspectors and dealing with students who wished that they had something else to eat, and the challenge. It’s certainly a challenge. I had several positions there at Mankato State University.

Then an opportunity to come back to Gustavus in 1994 arose, and I jumped on it. Thankfully, Gustavus gave me a chance. It’s been just an amazing, amazing experience for me and I hope the university or the college has found some benefit to our relationship. Gustavus really is the best thing that ever happened to me. My wife is a Gustie. We graduated together.

Greg Kaster:

What was her major?

Steve Kjellgren:

She’s a nursing major.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. We have a great nursing program, yeah.

Steve Kjellgren:

Oh, my goodness, yeah. We’re non-traditional. She’s a nursing major. At the time, the first two years for nursing majors was on campus. The second two years was up at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. After our junior year of her being up in St. Paul, and me being down here, we decided to get married. I lived, actually, in the nurses’ dorm in an apartment with her our senior year and did course work remotely and took some university classes and then transferred credits back. It was a non-traditional path, but it was a full experience.

I was a CF one year, a Collegiate Fellow or a Resident Assistant. I lived with three other guys in a small room, lived with one other person as a first year. I really had a full Gustavus experience and I really couldn’t wait to get back here to pay back what I felt was such a blessing in the Gustavus education and community.

Greg Kaster:

Well, you’ve paid it back in large quantities. I can tell you that. I have to ask. Did you work in, I don’t know what it was called then, dining services as a student? Did you have any experience here?

Steve Kjellgren:

I did not. I worked as an intermural manager. I worked for Don Roberts, Coach Don Roberts and Jeanne Herman. Yeah, how did I end up back here? Well, it was the career path I found myself in. I had learned a lot at Mankato State in the seven years I was there. Quite honestly, in 1994, the dining program at Gustavus was not highly ranked.

Greg Kaster:

This is where I wanted to go next.

Steve Kjellgren

Steve Kjellgren:

I remember the college dining. Wonderful people worked there, but the facility really needed an upgrade and the program needed to be turned on its head. In fact, the admission tour guides would walk down the hallway past the college dining room and quickly usher their tour group and say, “That’s the college dining room; please keep moving.” That didn’t feel very good and I thought, “Boy, whatever are you going to do with this?”

Shortly after my arrival in ’94, my boss, Ken Westphal, the Vice President for Finance, said, “Why don’t you put a plan together? We don’t have any money to change our building or anything, but why don’t you do some investigating? What would it look like if you could just start over?” Where would I get the information to start over? I looked to our students and said, “All right, students. What do you love about what we do here. What do you wish we could do differently and if we could start over and have anything, what would that look like?”

I spent about a year and a half or two and came up with three common themes. It was a traditional meal plan. Everybody paid the same price. You could have access to 20 meals per week. Whether you ate them or not, you paid the same amount. What you ate when you came to eat, you paid the same amount, so if I had a piece of toast and a glass of water, I paid the exact same thing as someone who had a full breakfast. There was this equity that didn’t feel right for students. A large eater said, “It’s great for us because somebody that doesn’t eat much is actually subsidizing our meals.” The smaller eater said, “It just doesn’t feel fair.”

The other thing in an all-you-can-eat situation is a tremendous amount of waste, especially in a condensed, crowded area where people are all jostling for their position in line. You don’t want to go back into that crowded space so you take two or three entrees and a salad and a dessert and four glasses of milk and a stack of cookies and a banana and then you get out and you go, “Oh, shoot. I have to be in class in 15 minutes.” Where does that food go? That went right in the garbage, so we had a waste problem. We had an equity problem.

Then in the traditional system, you have meal periods of a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner. Breakfast from seven to nine or 10 and lunch from 11 until two and dinner from four to seven. That didn’t work for our students. They said, “We’re in class. We’re in labs. We’re on the athletic playing field. We need to be open early in the morning and stay open well into the evening so that we can come and go when it meets our schedule, not your designated meal period.”

We had equity, we had waste, and we had this sense of access. How can this work for a busy college student? Those three things together, we came up with an idea. In 1995, the internet was just being born, so you couldn’t Google college dining services and come up with, “Oh, here’s the model we want to follow.”

We came up with an idea of what if we had a la carte? Everybody still participates in the meal plan, but what they consume, they pay for. There’s a direct connection between their pocket and their cafeteria trade, or better yet, there’s a direct connection between their pocket, their money, and the garbage bin. If I took four bananas, I’m not going to throw three in the garbage, because I paid for them. I made this connection.

If we go a la carte, we’ve got the possibility of reducing waste. It seems like it’s more equitable because I can come when it works for me. I can eat as much or as little as I want but I know that if I eat more, I’m going to have to pay more on the backend. Then those later eaters, they could bring guests. They could bring family members, friends from off campus. They could use the meal plan in a way that made sense for them.

Then if we had a la carte, we could open things up and shut things down in terms of areas of a marketplace type cafeteria that we could be open from early in the morning until late at night. Depending on how busy it was, we would open stations up and we would shut stations done. Great. We had a plan. I sold it to the Board of Trustees.

Greg Kaster:

Always important.

Steve Kjellgren:

Always important. We still had no money to build a building, right, but we had a plan and that was great. We put the plan on the shelf. Then, in March of 1998, a major tornado came through Nicollet County and did a real number on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College and it forced our hand. We needed to rebuild. We had an opportunity to fund raise and put a plan together.

We pulled that plan off the shelf, blew the dust off of it and went to work. It was just amazing. Not that having that tornado experience was a blessing in any way, but it did expedite our plan and our hopes to put together a new dining plan for Gustavus. What I can tell you, in 2000 then, when we opened our doors, the dining service, the dining room, the market place cafeteria became the first stop of the admission tour and not the “let’s keep moving, please.”

Greg Kaster:

Yes. For people who haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s full of light. There’s a lot of banks of windows. There are different stations for different kinds of food. What I find so interesting is that the three areas you identified and worked to really transform didn’t have anything directly to do with what was being served, right? It wasn’t like, “Oh, we need to come in and change the menu. It was more profound than that.

Greg Kaster:

Those changes have really made our dining services distinctive nationally, in addition to the quality and variety of the food. Were there any complaints from students about the food itself beyond the three issues you’ve mentioned?

Steve Kjellgren:

Oh, formerly or in the new…?

Greg Kaster:

Formerly.

Steve Kjellgren:

Yes, well, of course. When you have an all you can eat system and you have this known revenue stream of every student who lives on campus pays into the program, you know what your top line revenue is and you have to make some assumptions of that. What if everybody maximizes what they eat, so this could be our potential food cost and we know what the labor is going to be. We know what the overhead expenses are. What you can manipulate is whether it’s a prime cut, a choice cut or a select cut. You have to be conservative. Not saying that anything was unhealthy, but it wasn’t the best. That’s just the way that that program operates.

When you move to a la carte, if the students want top sirloin steak, then you give them top sirloin steak, but they pay for it at the register. That’s how you manage the food cost. I hate to tell you this, but we had to make some assumptions about what the finances would look like in this new program and I made some really… I erred on the side of the student experience decisions in the way we allowed students to access their funds and the price point at the register. I didn’t want to have a bad experience this first year through. It turns out when you have 6,000 meals a day that you’re serving, if you make a little error on the finances, it can turn into a big one at the end of the year. The first year, I missed budget by about a million dollars.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, dear.

Steve Kjellgren:

That conversation in the president’s office wasn’t very comfortable. Again, my amazing vice president, Ken, and I just said, “All right. What are we going to do to fix this because if we don’t, we’ll both be looking for work someplace else next year?” We did some tweaking. The key to the program’s success is it has never stayed still. It has always changed and we changed, based on what we hear as feedback from students.

Every great thing that we do, I can’t take credit for it. I give the students credit. A student might walk in and say, and they did, our Gustavus Greens, the environmental group, walked into the office one day, just a year or two after we opened this new program. They said, “Have you ever heard anything about organic fair trade coffee? We really think we should have that here.”

I said, “Well, tell me more about it. I don’t know that much about it.” They did. They educated me and so I went to our coffee vendor, a long term relationship, and I said, “What can you offer in terms of organic fair trade shade-grown coffee?” They said, “Yeah, a fad. It’s not something we’re really interested in getting into.” I said, “Oh, okay.” Then a few months later, they were no longer our coffee vendor. I found somebody who was interested in that.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

Greg Kaster:

Sorry to interrupt, but this leads me to ask you, because this is definitely a hallmark of Gustavus’ dining services, the input from students that you don’t just wait. You actively seek it. I wonder if you could say a little bit about the different ways in which that occurs. You started to talk about this, obviously, but how have students, beyond the fair trade coffee, influenced choices made by you and your team? What are the avenues through which they can influence those choices?

Steve Kjellgren:

Right. On probably most college campuses, there’s something called the dining committee or the food committee or something. I wasn’t interested in having a group of students sit around a table and complain. That’s not productive. You’re exactly right. How do you give students a voice in a positive and proactive way? Just small winds at first and by saying that this kitchen that we have, this dining room that we have, this is not my kitchen. This is not the college’s kitchen. This is your kitchen and we want you to know that any time you want, you can walk back into that kitchen and ask a question, take a look at an ingredient label. This is your place so feel free to do that, first of all. It’s not off limits. It’s not this don’t go behind closed doors.

Informally, that started percolating and then I had lots of student groups and individuals come in and ask about, not only fair trade coffee, but what about fair trade bananas, what about hormone-free milk, what about local? Those things are hot buttons and they have peaks and valleys over the years. They change and we have to change with them, but about this time, I became acquainted with and now I’m very good friends with our very own food philosopher, Lisa Heldke.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, Lisa and I recorded an episode a few weeks ago, yeah.

Steve Kjellgren:

Yeah, so together, she and I asked this question. How are we making choices for our students? Are we being the moral compass here? Are we saying, “Well, because we’ve decided fair trade is important to us, even though it costs more, it that really our place to force our will on your choice making? How can we get those voices heard? She came up with this group we call the Kitchen Cabinet.

It’s a group of faculty, administrators and students who come together once a month for breakfast Monday morning at 7 a.m., so it self-selects some people out, but we don’t sit around and complain about things. We ask a question. Where did the noodles in the chicken noodle soup come from? What about those eggs? Are they free range eggs? Are the organic eggs? That’s the conversation that takes place in the Kitchen Cabinet and it turns out that that is a wonderful way to practice decision-making, to be participative and open and it can expand way beyond food. It’s a great model for anything that we do on campus that we need to have input collectively.

My goodness, we’ve just had such a good experience with that. I think we’re on 15 years or so of the Kitchen Cabinet. At one point, I think it was the most sought after committee on campus because, well, not only did you get a good breakfast, but it felt like we were doing something. It wasn’t just talking about it. We were actually doing something and some real stuff.

You talked earlier about, in addition to the food, what are doing, what are we providing in terms of supplementing or complementing the education of the liberal arts? Well, take a look at things like Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, who fight for contracts at college campuses and they spend big, big money to get those contracts to be an exclusive vendor. Why do they do that? Because we have students on campus for four years that are only going to have Coke products or only have Pepsi products and are going to develop habits. They’ll become lifelong Coke or Pepsi drinkers because of the exposure.

I thought, “Okay, so what else are we doing to our students?” How many times a day do we have an opportunity for them to say, “Hmm. Fair trade bananas. Tell me more about that and why would I pay more,” so that when they leave Gustavus and our liberal arts and they walk into a grocery store and they’re spending their own money, they’re making a choice. Do I buy the 19 cent a pound bananas, or do I buy the $1.19 a pound bananas because I know that I’m supporting something beyond the banana or beyond the peel, like our fair trade banana folks like to use as an advertisement.

Yes, there’s all kinds of reasons why we can educate outside the classroom. That’s what’s so fun about what I do, the fact that we can lift up the local farmers. We can lift up our own Big Hill Farm on campus.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I want to ask you about that in a second. I suppose all campus dining services could say this, but we really do, and you do deserve a lion’s share of the credit for this, is the way in which the dining services, it’s not just about feeding students, right? It really is a part of their education at Gustavus, and it’s a part of their education that will stay with them, we hope, as they continue on and leave the hill.

You mentioned the Big Hill Farm and that I did want to get into. We talked with Lisa Heldke about that a little bit. Tell us about the relationship of that farm, what it is and its relationship to dining services.

Steve Kjellgren:

Well, for full disclosure, it’s not a farm. It’s a couple of acres that we plant a bunch of vegetables on. It’s both educational and productive. It started as a thought. Again, it was one of those things where students walked into the office and they said, “We think we should have a farm on campus.” I said, “Great. Let me know when you get that up and running and I’ll buy all the produce from you.” That wasn’t the answer they were looking for. They just wanted to give me the idea and then let me do it.

A couple of years later, a different group of students came in and said, “We think there should be a farm on campus.” This happened probably over an eight to 10 year period. Finally, there was a group of students who said, “Super. What are our choices for where we might place this and we’ll get the volunteers together and let’s go.” It started off very modestly and then became under the direction of our Johnson Center for Environmental Innovation, former director Jim Dontje was their supervisor, a group of students who started planting in the fall and winter, started planting seedlings in the greenhouse and then spent their summers tending the garden.

It was not a success. Crops failed, or it turns out if you don’t know much about zucchini, you might think that a five pound zucchini is great because that’s a great big zucchini and why wouldn’t I want that? If I say, “We’re going to have to send that right back to the compost pile, that doesn’t feel very good, but it’s a learning lesson. Zucchinis need to be a pound or so or maybe less.

Or if all of the gardeners who are volunteering in the summer decide to go on the same two-week vacation, weeds are going to grow, pests are going to get in there, things will get away from you. There’s all kinds of learning that can happen. I like the productive kind, the learning by bounty rather than the learning by failure, but both kinds are important learning lessons,

Greg Kaster:

Both are important.

Steve Kjellgren:

Because of our current pandemic experience, we haven’t had any gardeners on campus. We haven’t had that luxury of having a campus garden this summer. However, we’ve got a couple of new cold directors of the Johnson Center. I think they’ll be interim until we find a permanent replacement, who are thinking about it differently, more sustainably. How can we make this a productive educational experience and have maybe a few failures in there, too, but mostly productive? Looking forward, we’re starting to have those conversations right now about how are we going to move this forward next year, hoping that we can be back to some former sense of business as usual by next spring.

Greg Kaster:

It will happen, I’m convinced. I just love that, the fact that the farm, the garden, is there. By the way, I didn’t realize. I didn’t know how often students come to you over the years. That’s news to me. As an avid gardener up here, a vegetable garden with my wife, Kate Wittenstein, formerly of the history department, we are part of a community garden. Then we donate some of the produce to the Food Shelf. The learning that goes on in that garden is extraordinary.

I had to learn the hard way about the zucchini, by the way. I had to learn that lesson very early on. It’s just terrific, I think, that we have that going, that endeavor. What’s a typical day like for you if there is such a thing? I can only imagine how busy… How many meals a day, on average, are you making?

Steve Kjellgren:

About 6,000 during the academic year. I come to work quite early. My day starts out around five o’clock or a little before. I take the dog for a walk and get into the office 6:30 a.m. or a quarter to seven. We open at 7 a.m. in the dining service, bookstore, and the post office a little bit later. I make rounds and check in with folks, look for any fires that need to be put out before we get the doors open.

Steve Kjellgren:

Then, as I’m going into, I guess, my 27th year here now, time is a function or a factor in the types of things that you are involved in that fall outside of your paid for responsibilities, so I’m on lots of committees. I’m part of the student conduct system, so I have a lot of things on my calendar that don’t necessarily fall under the auxiliary services title but are important engagements with the community as well.

My office door stays open, at least it did until we had to change things a little bit [due to COVID-19]. Honestly, what I do a lot… Oh, this is a great story. It’s probably been 15 years or so ago. I was following a couple of students through the market place as they were looking for lunch. This one student said, “God, there’s nothing to eat.” Okay, we had several hundred choices of things to eat, right? I tapped her on the shoulder and I said, “Did I just hear that correctly? There’s nothing to eat?” She said, “I mean I don’t know what I want.” There’s lots of opportunities for engagement to get to know students.

One of my favorite things is when a student walks in and they have a concern or a question or a gripe about something. It’s never very big, but to them it is, right? They can come in with an attitude and some disgruntlement and then by the time they leave my office 15 minutes or half an hour later, I know something about them. They know something about me and they want to know how they can get on the Kitchen Cabinet and be part of the solution rather than that faction who just finds things wrong and grumbles. That really is my greatest joy.

We have a really diverse and unique work group. We’ve got, in the dining service, 300 to 350 college students employees and 55 or 60 full time staff. As you can imagine, we work closely together and it’s like a big family. Like most families, there’s some dysfunction and so that’s where the psychology helps, I think, in how to navigate differences and getting along both with our student customers, our off campus guests, but most importantly, I think, keeping our staff all going in a productive direction and not being distracted by little things that get in the way that really aren’t as important as we might think they are in the moment.

Greg Kaster:

What about things like ordering? Not that you’re a chef, but talk a little bit about the executive chef, who he is, he or she, I can’t remember. Does that person do all the ordering or are you in on that as well?

Steve Kjellgren:

I am in on it a bit. The chef would specify what he or she wanted. We had Chef Paul Jacobson, Chef Jake, for years and years and years. He’s been retired now for a couple of years. We’re currently searching for just the right person to come back in and pick up where he left off.

We do have a purchasing manager and that is a full time job, shopping for prices. We take deliveries five days a week, six days a week. The loading dock is a busy place. We do shop around for both being price conscious but also what do we know about whatever commodity it is, where did it come from, who are we supporting or not supporting by making that purchasing decision.

Then what we don’t do is tell that story well enough. That is a challenge that, as some point, before I leave here, I hope I can get on top of. We tell the story again as part of the educational process of the institution and say, okay, this is something that you do every day. You’re going to eat every day for the rest of your life. How are you being a conscientious consumer? What choices are you making? Who are you supporting or not supporting in the choices you make? How are you going to share that news? How are you going to share that information with others and be an influencer?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s where the dining services has such, I think, an incredibly important role to play in educating our students, and not just our students, all of us at Gustavus as part of the overall effort towards sustainability or the greening of the campus. By the way, that reminds me. We should say something about the innovative Gustieware, as we call it. Tell us a little bit about that.

Steve Kjellgren:

One of the unintended consequences of having an a la carte program, well, it wasn’t unintended, but it was may be unrealized as to how big of a factor it would be, is that if you pay for four bananas, you can take four bananas out the door with you, right? You don’t have to consume them in the confines of the dining room. We ended up having just a ton of takeout containers, cardboard boxes floating around campus, blowing in the wind quite literally. When I did the math at the end of the first year or two or three, it was like a quarter of a million or 300,000 or 350,000 boxes that we were consuming.

Rightly so, some students were concerned about it as well. I said, “Well, gosh, what can we do about that?” I got the Student Senate involved. This was many years ago. They said, “We would pay for a container for every first year student when they come in that they could just reuse.” I said, “That’s very generous of you. I think I’ll call the health department and see if they’ve got any questions about that.” I did, and my first answer that I received was, “That seems okay.”

Then I think they must have gone back to their offices and started visiting and it turns out that customers cannot bring their own vessels into a licensed establishment and have them filled. They need to be owned by the institution or establishment and cleaned by the establishment. We couldn’t just give everybody their own copy and have them be responsible for it. We had to purchase reusable takeout containers.

Great story. It ended up, after some looking, being a product of the Nordic Ware Company, who also, I think, grandpa from the Nordic Ware Company was a Gustie at one point. There was a connection, albeit shirttail, to the college. That started our Gustieware program. It’s a microwavable reusable container. We have a couple of different sizes that students or others can use in lieu of a takeout box, a cardboard compostable takeout box.

The caveat was that you need to bring that vessel back to us so we can clean it. We fought that battle for years, but it turns out that students are great about taking the environmentally responsible choice option in a reusable takeout container but they’re not very good about bringing it back.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Steve Kjellgren:

They were floating around all over campus and the off-campus apartments, and faculty and staff are not immune. I heard one of the administrators say, “Oh, Steve, Gustie ware, I love the program. I must have about 15 of them in my office.” I said, “The idea is that you’ve got to bring that back.”

Greg Kaster:

I’ve seen them everywhere. I’ve seen them in the restroom. I thought at one point of doing a photo essay, a weekly essay for the student newspaper, where I found Gustieware this week. Anyway, how have you solved that problem?

Steve Kjellgren:

We did. We actually had another student. It turns out it was my daughter, who was doing a class project. She did a cost analysis of paying someone to go around campus and collect Gustie ware from designated Gustie ware bins versus the replacement cost of ultimately those Gustie ware pieces ending up in the trash. She convinced me that it would be cost effective to pay students and/or part time non-student workers to go around building to building and collect. We do that. It has made sense for us to do that.

In this time of pandemic, I don’t think it’s safe for us to be sending people into residence halls unnecessarily, especially non-student employees, to collect, so we’re going to suspend the Gustieware program just temporarily and go all compostable takeout containers in the short term here. We’ve had to make some tough environmental decisions that go 180 degrees in the opposite direction from where we want to go. I think all colleges are finding they’re in the same boat.

Disposable boxes and cutlery and cups are going to be in short supply as colleges ramp up because who, in the industry would know, and lead time on some of this is 12 to 18 months, if you’re going to influence manufacture of production, so we’ll see. It’s one of the unknowns as we’re moving forward. I’m sure you’ve visited about that with other people from campus, but it’s going to be an ongoing story about what kind of influence this pandemic has had on our ability to provide just basic needs in terms of feeding students and community members.

Greg Kaster:

Well, one thing I’m confident off, and I know everyone is, Steve, is your ability and the ability of your team to nourish the students both in terms of the food, but also in terms of their learning. You do such a great job at that. What time is it? It’s about 10 o’clock. My stomach is growling. I’m hungry. At this point, I would be heading to the market place for a little late nosh to bring back in my Gustieware. The other thing I love are the waffles with the Gustavus, the three crowns logo. Those will still go on, I hope.

Steve Kjellgren:

Of course. Yeah, of course, they will.

Greg Kaster:

You do a fabulous job. I know the dining service is just part of your now much larger portfolio. It’s great to chat. Good luck with everything as we transition to lots of unknowns. We’re bringing at least some of the students back in a couple of weeks, and I’ll see you back on campus at some point.

Steve Kjellgren:

I look forward to welcoming you and others back on campus, Greg. It’s been great visiting with you and happy to tell the story.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much, Steve. Take good care.

Steve Kjellgren:

All right.

Greg Kaster:

Bye, bye.

Steve Kjellgren:

Bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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