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Chef Steve Resigns, Questions about the Future of Dining Services Loom Large 

Photo by Caroline Bonnivier Snyder for the Bennington Banner

“It’s like coming from a broken marriage. It just feels split.” -Anonymous Bennington Dining Employee

Steve Bohrer, better known to Bennington students as “Chef Steve,” has resigned from Bennington College after 8 years. Steve was originally brought in as an Executive Chef and later became General Manager of the Dining Hall as well. Throughout his time at Bennington, Steve became somewhat of a campus celebrity, with a widely-followed Instagram documenting daily meals prepared in the Dining Hall. Steve committed to partnering with local farms and using fresh food as opposed to the canned and frozen food most college dining halls serve. An anonymous dining hall employee said: “The people that are in charge now don’t know what it was like before Steve made the changes he made, making sure we were getting local foods, fresh foods, and no canned foods.”

The reasons for Chef Steve Bohrer’s resignation remain mysterious. The announcement of his departure, emailed by Communications on January 26th, detailed only that Bohrer “decided to take a new job” and would be leaving Bennington on February 2nd—three days before his successor, Brian Flagg, took over as General Manager. The email included an attachment of the notice Bennington received from Aramark, the national food service company that formerly employed Chef Steve and currently employs several of the college’s dining staff members. The email from Aramark stated: “We are in the final stages of sourcing and backfilling Steve’s position, and an additional announcement will be forthcoming as the process completes.” Aramark has presumably not issued this second announcement yet, as Communications never shared a follow-up email with the college. 

Steve had a vision for what he wanted the future of Dining Services to look like. Many employees working under Steve appreciated his high standards and commitment to fresh food, although these high standards sometimes created tension between Chef Steve and some of the cooks in the dining hall. An anonymous source told the Lens “We had our bumps. I’m not saying everything was fine all the time. There were a couple years where I fought him tooth and nail.” 

Another reason for some of that tension is the fact that Dining Hall employees are split between those employed by Aramark and those employed by Bennington College. As stated by an anonymous source in Dining Services: “I think the fact that we have a lot of tension between us is because we are paid by different people. None of us, on our’” Management is made up of Aramark employees, while line cooks and general staff are Bennington employees. An anonymous Bennington employee told the Lens: “The unique part, that is not common, is that we are paid by Bennington but we are managed by Aramark. It doesn’t feel like it’s a unified front. There is always Aramark and Union Dining Employees.” 

This is not helped by the understaffing issue at the Dining Hall. Every employee the Lens talked to cited understaffing as the biggest issue faced by Dining Services. It is a struggle to find people who are both qualified and fit in with the Dining Hall environment. Louis Brodick, an employee the Lens spoke to, told us,“ Staffing seems to be one of the things that plagues us here. We don’t always have enough people to provide the type of quality that is expected of us.” One of the major exacerbators of understaffing in the Dining Hall is the amount of time it takes to hire new employees. 

The hiring process is executed partly by Dining Hall management and partly by Bennington’s Human Resources Department. Management reviews applications and interviews potential candidates, but HR is in charge of contacting and hiring applicants. Issues have arisen when HR has reportedly taken weeks to contact applicants that were approved by Dining Hall Management. After interviewing promising candidates, ” an anonymous source said it took HR roughly six weeks to inform the applicants that they were hired, at which point all three had found other jobs. “You can’t call them back six weeks later. What’s the rent like here? What if you’ve got a family? Could you do that? No. They can’t wait that long. If I can’t get back to them in two weeks, I have to write them off. If I’m looking for people, and I’ve only got two applicants in a month, then I can’t write them off, either.” 

The Lens reached out to Human Resources, but did not receive a response. 

In recent years, student overpopulation means that the staff takes on an even greater load. Bennington’s dining hall was built to accommodate only 400 people, but with the current student population more than doubling that at 888 (according to the college’s most recent Common Data Set) there is an obvious disparity between the number of students at Bennington and the services campus facilities and staff are realistically able to provide. 

For dining service workers, this steadily increasing demand is not being met with adequate support from the college. Another anonymous source in Dining Services told the Lens: “The ask of what is expected continues to go up. While the support doesn’t.” The source did mention that the college has made an effort to hire people temporarily since spring, which has proven to be helpful.

Although Chef Steve’s abrupt departure caught students by surprise, the Dining Hall employees who spoke with the Lens held more mixed opinions. Tara Haskoor, a former Dining Hall employee, said: “I didn’t know he [Steve] was planning on leaving, but he explained to me that he got a great opportunity and he wasn’t sure if he was going to take it, because he really enjoys the students here and what he’s done for the last seven years. It was a hard decision for him.” Cook Louis Burdick said he was similarly surprised by Chef Steve’s departure.

Some employees, however, suggested that the resignation was less surprising—it seemed a natural byproduct of mounting workplace stressors. A source close to the dining hall, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It wasn’t surprising because I’ve seen the struggles all over, so I kind of understood.”

The struggles were abundant. The employees who spoke to the Lens named a variety of issues as the harbingers of Chef Steve’s resignation—short-staffing, tension between employees, and student overpopulation among them—but most prominently, it was the lack of support from Bennington administration that seems to have prompted Bohrer’s decision.

“I think the only people he ever felt supported by were the students,” said an anonymous employee who worked closely with Bohrer.

Chef Steve’s “vision” for the dining hall came up in all of the interviews: employees spoke appreciatively of his passion for collaborating with local farmers and crafting menus from scratch. An anonymous source said of the Dining Hall’s mission to acquire fresh, local ingredients: “Chef Steve was instrumental in setting that up. He had a vision. I’m hurt by that not being there. It’s a loss. I don’t want to see it change, because I think it was honest and genuine.”

Bohrer’s high standards often clashed with the resources provided by the college, however. “He had a vision, and with that there was the battle of, ‘I don’t have the staff to perform these tasks,’” said another anonymous source. It seems that, as Chef Steve’s ambitions expanded, he continuously pushed for support from the Bennington administration only to be met with backlash. “He, or we, outgrew what was provided.”

The new General Manager of Bennington’s dining services, Brian Flagg, met with the Lens to discuss his experience in the culinary industry and his ambitions for the coming term. Despite the short amount of time he has worked at Bennington—he started on February 5th—Flagg seems comfortable around Roz’s student employees, eager to sample their newest drinks. 

“Going on 38 years now I have been in food and beverage,” said Flagg. He started as a bartender in college, but his job has since taken him everywhere from Vancouver to South Korea. He has worked in baseball stadiums, boarding schools, and most recently, a ski resort in the Catskills. 

To Aramark, however, Flagg is completely new: “The day I started at Bennington College was the day I started with Aramark.” He cited the shorter commute and his familiarity with the region as reasons for choosing Bennington, and said his experience so far has been favorable. “Everyone on the Bennington College side has given me great support. The thing I found most interesting is that everyone is willing to jump in and lend a hand.”

Flagg has already witnessed the effects of understaffing in the Dining Hall. He referenced wages as one of the leading contributors to this issue: “To staff it [the Dining Hall] is really tough and a lot of restaurants in the area pay so much more. Restaurants are paying folks 20 to 23 to 24 dollars [an hour] now to start.” By comparison, Bennington College currently offers $17.50 per hour for the roles of Part-Time Dining Worker and Utility/Dishroom Worker, according to their listing on Indeed.

Flagg’s primary focus is to keep Dining Services functioning normally for students, or as he put it, “To get the term started and not really rock the boat.” This includes ensuring that staffing issues go largely unnoticed. “One of my first tasks is to see how we can streamline the dining process upstairs to make that [understaffing] less obvious to our consumer, which is the students.” 

To make understaffing less noticeable is not an easy task. Flagg himself expressed willingness to go the extra mile in the kitchen along with his co-workers: “Just because you get hired as a cashier doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to grab a broom or a mop or jump in the dish room. I’m the GM and I have an apron in my office because I’ll jump in the dish room anytime I need to.”

An anonymous source from the dining hall expressed a similar sentiment about Chef Steve’s tireless work ethic: “I mean, how many nights did you see Steve pushing a broom and cleaning the floor?”

These statements highlight how understaffing at the college puts pressure on employees to go above and beyond their paygrade, when they’ve already put in countless extra hours that week.

Flagg’s role as General Manager should not be confused with the role of Executive Chef—a position that Chef Steve held in addition to being the General Manager. Bohrer’s dual wielding of these roles gave him a unique insight into the day-to-day operations of the Dining Hall, since he oversaw kitchen staff in addition to his administrative duties as General Manager. 

An anonymous dining hall employee highlighted this contrast when asked about their experiences working with Flagg so far: “He seems very nice, personable. I haven’t had a bad encounter. He’s doing more administrative work. Chef Steve did that and he also did the food.” This conversation happened days prior to a meeting on February 27th where Flagg was formally introduced to the dining staff.

Bennington’s dining hall is currently operating without an Executive Chef. The most likely candidate for this role seems to be current Chef Manager Joshua Ruff, who (in tandem with Chef Matthew Daigneault) has been responsible for curating weekly menus and ordering ingredients, most of them locally sourced, in the past years. However, Flagg expressed that Aramark is not necessarily looking to hire or promote an employee to Executive Chef: “We’re evaluating whether the Executive Chef model is the best way to go or if there’s another way.”

In many regards, the future of the Dining Hall rests with the ambitions of its staff. Flagg said he is committed to evolving sustainability efforts. On February 23rd Roz’s cafe launched their new late-night menu, a program students have been requesting for years. Currently the menu is limited, but Flagg hopes to expand Late Night Roz’s if it proves popular with students. He told The Lens  “I’d like to see an open mic night or poetry night, or a game night at Roz’s Late Night. There’s a lot of opportunities there.”

Despite understaffing issues, tension, long hours, and miscommunication with the college administration, it is clear that the priority of Dining Hall management and staff is ensuring the best possible experience for the students. What students value most about the Dining Hall—local ingredients, high-quality food, and a menu that strives for range and innovation—is not going anywhere.

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