Adapting to the Times: How a From-Scratch Kitchen Has Managed to Thrive Amid Labor Shortages

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Operator Spotlight: complement from-scratch with ready-made. Mary Molt, Associate Director of Dining Services at Kansas State University. Making Made Easy logo. Image of Mary, kitchen environment.

Mary Molt takes a lot of pride in how her kitchens make much of their food, from scratch. In the dining halls at Kansas State University, the kitchen staff work hard to produce quality food in quantity, made from real, fresh ingredients.

“Our recipe development over the years, especially in our baked areas, has been just exceptional. We make all of our pies, puddings, cakes, all those kinds of products from scratch.”

But the pandemic has hit the food service world especially hard, and the issues are two-fold.

We sat down with Mary Molt, Associate Director of Dining Services at Kansas State University, to learn more about how campus kitchens are coping with changes brought on by the events of the last three years.

Balancing Quality with a Drop in Skilled Labor

Mary has an exceptional career with K-State. She’s been at the university for over 50 years wearing many hats during her career and most recently working as a professor in part and directing dining operations. She has an extensive career as a dietitian under her belt and the operational experience to teach the next generation of directors and staff how to keep dining operations an important partner in helping K-State students be successful.

Mary has always prioritized high-quality cooking at K-State, insisting on a from-scratch bakery, and creating food experiences that feel more like a home-cooked meal rather than a frozen dinner. Her bakery turns out exceptional products and she gets a lot of positive feedback from students, guests and staff.

But the pandemic, coupled with major losses in the labor force, has challenged Mary to consider how she can balance the realities of an unskilled labor market, with the need for high-quality food.

“We make our biscuits from scratch, but we do keep some frozen General Mills biscuits around in case bakers get sick or can’t get it done. And frankly, the frozen biscuits that we use make better breakfast sandwiches — they are less tender and hold together better.”

Interior image of Kansas Stat University’s Kramer Dining Center with students engaging in conversation in groups.
Kansas State University's Kramer Dining Center

Using Central Food Stores to Combat Supply Chain Issues

Labor shortages aren’t the only issue. The pandemic has caused a major food supply chain problem, and Mary, like so many other operators, has to work hard to make sure they can get the supplies they need.

Mary is combating supply chain issues in a unique way: by seizing opportunities to buy in quantity and taking advantage of some opportunity buys. We have a food stores warehouse to accommodate quantity purchases so we’re at a little bit of an advantage to not be 100% dependent on just in time deliveries from a distributor.

“Supply chain, it's not without problems. Still not as bad as it was two years ago, but it's still difficult for some products. You used to be able to get what you wanted and on your timeline. Now you have to balance all that with what you can get.

Top-down image of biscuit sandwich with ham, cheese, and mustard. Shown on parchment paper with chips and pickle spears.
Complement from-scratch with convenient and quality products

Partnering with General Mills to Lead an Adaptable Dining Operation

Mary and her team have worked incredibly hard to continue to offer wonderful from-scratch meals in their kitchens. But changing times and dwindling labor forces is requiring Mary to adapt and General Mills will be her partner through it all.

“I’ve always enjoyed listening to General Mills insights, whether it's trends or whether it's their president speaking. They always have great insight into the trends and what the issues are.

But they also have helped us with product — the food, the frozen biscuits and the croissants and things that we've needed at different points in time. With General Mills, you don't have to really worry about what you're getting. You know what it's going to be, and their quality has always been great.”