KU Dining reopens Underground, faces labor and supply shortage

Students eating at the reopened Wescoe Underground. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

The Wescoe Underground reopened this semester after being shuttered for the past year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of the smaller coffee stands and snack bars will remain closed because of a worker shortage says Jim Schilling, director of KU Dining.

In a Sept. 16 email to all students with a dining plan, Schilling said KU Dining is only 65% staffed this semester. The email said the Chick-fil-A and Southside counter service will be closed until the open positions can be filled, hopefully by Fall Break.

At the time of the email, only four options were open at the Underground: Ace Sushi, grab-and-go, Monsoon and the Coffee House. The Pizza hut at the Underground and the Coffee House at the Southside have been open since Fall Break, but the Chick-fil-A remains closed according to the KU Dining website.

In an interview with the Open Kansan, Schilling said the labor shortage forced KU Dining to limit food options and rotate what is offered at The Union Market and the dining halls. However, The Underground will not have a food rotation.

Schilling said the crunchy chicken cheddar wrap station is still closed because KU Dining cannot hire enough staff to open it yet.

“We currently need 200 more staff to be what we would consider fully staffed,” Schilling said in an email to the Open Kansan. To attract more employees, Schilling said KU Dining increased its base wage from $9.50 per hour to $11 per hour. Depending on the job, starting pay can be up to $15.10 and KU Dining jobs offer free meals as a benefit.

The global supply chain crisis is affecting KU Dining too. “We have significant shortages and missed deliveries from our vendors and suppliers and that affects them all the way back to, actually, the manufacturing and original sourcing points for everything,” Schilling said. “Inflation is really, really high on everything food-wise right now as well, too. So that’s creating some additional challenges.”

Damian Mendez, a Hugoton, Kansas, freshman majoring in computer science, said he is disappointed with the limited options at the dining halls, but understands that they are doing their best while understaffed.

Mendez said his brother went to and would tell him stories of Mrs. E’s in its glory days before the pandemic. “It would be full, all stations would be open, you could go anywhere,” Mendez said. “And now it’s like three options plus salad and the deli, so.”

Mendez said the food shortages affect the menu.

“The first time I actually ate at The Underground, I ate one of those BBQ pork buns and that was going to be my go-to option and then they told me that they’re low on supply, so they haven’t sold them since,” Mendez said. “I mean it’s kind of sad, but that’s how it goes when there’s a shortage of everything.”

Despite the limited options, Mendez said he is satisfied with The Underground since he enjoys the current options.

Schilling said the March 2020 campus closure and the reduced on-campus population last year forced KU Dining to reconsider its business model. He said about a dozen small coffee stands were closed since they were not self-sustaining even before the pandemic.

The prototype self-serve coffee kiosk in Anschutz is only able to serve espresso drinks due to a missing part. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

While Anschutz lost its café over the summer, it was replaced by a prototype 24-hour self-serve kiosk. Schilling said kiosks and fresh food vending machines are a potential future business model to replace the now closed coffee stands. Schilling said the kiosk is less costly because it requires only an hour or two of labor a day, which is already scarce due to the labor shortage.

However, the Starbucks self-serve kiosk in Anschutz is currently only half functional. Memorial Union director David Mucci said it is missing a part, meaning the machine can serve only espresso-based drinks and not regular coffee.

Currently, the KU Dining sign on the kiosk hides an empty coffee bean container and the non-espresso coffee options are not selectable on the touch screen for the kiosk.

“It’s just the same chip shortage that’s, you know, keeping people from completing car manufacturing is the same one that’s affecting this Starbucks unit,” Mucci said. There is no timeline currently on when the kiosk will be fully functional.

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