We caught up with Humberto Lopez, the Soda Center Catering Manager for the past 14 years, and he gave us a lot of insight as to what it’s like to work at the Soda Center. In terms of preparation, Humberto says that the staff usually gets to an event anywhere from an hour before an event, to half a day before an event and they usually get done about an hour after the last guest leaves. He has about 30 staff, with 3 full time, and about 27 student workers. They spend approximately 12-16 hours a week working in the Soda center, and have fairly flexible schedules. For each event, Humberto tries to schedule approximately 1 worker for every 12-15 guests at the table setting, and 1 worker for 20 guests at a buffet style event. They average about 10-12 events a day, depending on the complexity of the events.
The Soda center workers are responsible for many of the successes that take place during an event. They have to check the arrangement and number of tables in the conference rooms to avoid last minute reorganization and are responsible for reorganizing the kitchen, cleaning dishes, and prepping food for the events. The staff also has many different outfits depending on the event. They all come in with their soda center polo and black shoes, which are provided for them by the school. And depending on the events, they can wear the same polo for casual events, switch to a bow tie and collared shirt, and they even have a new black shirt, tie, and apron outfit for special affairs.
The catering staff generates the “banquet event orders”, and Humberto and his staff look over them every Monday to begin the week. When asked if Humberto’s staff love or fear him, he said, “ to be honest, they are scared of me sometimes. They are sometimes afraid to tell me when they can’t work, but I always tell them that school is first.” This is why Humberto puts up a separate schedule in the kitchen. If students have a final, or class, or even a birthday, he allows them to cross their names off the list to work that day and over the past 14 years, he has only let two people go. When we interviewed the Soda Center student workers, there were mixed responses. Some said they loved the job and enjoyed the perks of spending time with coworkers and eating great food. One student worker claimed that there is sometimes a fear of getting yelled at during a stressful event, and management is sometimes moody, but overall the job is great experience for the real world and sometimes really fun.
Humberto orders a lot of their food from a company called Gourmet Express. He says, about 1/3 of the food is bought pre-cooked while 2/3 is prepared in the kitchen. For very large events, approximately 400 to 500 people, they buy the products directly from an outside caterer, but if the event is less than 100 people, they prepare everything in the kitchen. With the dessert items, they make about ½ and order the other ½ from Gourmet Express. The students are not responsible to cook. They usually prepare salads and plate desserts, but the kitchen is generally supposed to come and help them when needed.
The variety of the food is also something the Soda Center Catering Staff pride themselves on. For the regular group meetings, such as the Moraga Movers and Rotary, they have a 13-week meal cycle, so they never feel the meals are repetitive. Humberto and other Soda Center staff say that people claim their food is “great”. Although Humberto swears it is the same food they serve in Oliver Hall, randomly surveyed students say the food is better, and it is because it comes with quality service and a nice presentation.
Does the catering staff give special treatment to high paying customers? Absolutely not. There are no prices listed on the menu that goes out to the staff, so everyone is treated with the same quality and respect. Although when Humberto knows that the president, large donors, and the executives are there for an event, he pays close attention to the customer relations of his staff. Attending catered events in the soda center may be free for students, but events generally are priced at $11.00-$11.50 per plate. Some programs, such as Moraga Movers and Rotary, do not have to pay for event space, but they donate to the school and provide scholarship funds for students.
Overall, the Soda Center has its ups and downs. When asked what is the worst and best part about your job, this is how Humberto responded: “The worst is when the staff does not take the job as seriously as I do. I have been in food service a long time and I hate to see that sometimes they just don’t show up. Also, sometimes the dishwashers and other appliances break down and it takes the school a long time to respond. As a result, my employees are left doing a lot of that by hand. The best part about the job is seeing people enjoy themselves and providing employment for and with students. I feel proud to teach them to be responsible and to learn to interact in a work environment. Every day after events have all been completed, we sit at the table with all of the workers and talk. Some student claim that they have had more dinners with the soda center staff than with their own family at the dinner table, and they have since become like a family with us”.
Check out some pictures of the Soda Center: Ice T and Soda