Uncovering The Lives of Oberlin Dining Hall Staff

You walk through the glass doors of Mudd Center and turn left along the well-worn path to Azariah’s Café. At the counter, the two regular baristas, Tyler and Sam, greet you with a, “Good morning! What can we get for you?” Tyler takes your order for the Ethiopian light roast (his favorite, by the way) and asks, “Room for cream?” You nod as Ed Sheeran plays from the speaker in the back corner. The coffee beans plink into the cup to be ground, and Tyler hands it off to Sam, his wife, who finishes up your pour-over. “Ethiopian coffee,” Sam calls to you, handing you the drink with smiling eyes. This personal interaction lifts your mood before the coffee even hits your lips. As you walk out, steaming cup of coffee in hand, you’re grateful for the good vibes you can consistently rely on. It’s not surprising the line has grown to 10 students, most of whom come here religiously, counting on the welcoming atmosphere to invigorate them at the start of the day. 

Tyler serves you coffee at Azariah’s Café (Sydney Rosensaft)

Originally from Ohio, Tyler and Sam spent the last few years teaching in Kentucky — up until this summer when their friend offered them jobs at Goldberry Roasting Company. Tyler jumped at the opportunity, explaining, “Being a barista has been my dream job for a while. I get to do what I love: drink coffee and talk to people. As we say, we serve coffee and smiles.” Tyler is always down for a light-hearted conversation. Tyler chats about music with Conservatory students, since he likes to play guitar in his free time. Their musicality often goes over his head, he humbly says with a laugh. Recently, Tyler has been seeing more and more students come in with skateboards under their arms, and he has decided to take up skateboarding himself. Through Oberlin’s bone-chilling winter, Tyler plans to watch YouTube tutorials to prepare for a warm spring of skateboarding. It’s nice to see a friendly face like Tyler’s nodding along and relating to your interests.

Goldberry made a good choice recruiting these personable individuals. Tyler and Sam are two of five employees at this small coffee business, which, for the past decade, roasted beans out of a basement. Eventually, the business grew and bought a storefront in Ashland, Ohio. Contracted under AVI Fresh, Goldberry opened its second location in Azariah’s Café this year, with dreams of someday serving other college students across the country. As it scales up over time, it will add more locally-sourced products to the menu. Currently, this includes coffee beans from independent farmers in Mexico and the famous Snoogle pastries from Kiedrowski bakery in Amherst, Ohio. Snoogles are a Northeast Ohio classic, a Polish puff pastry wrapped in cream cheese and coated with vanilla bean glaze. (Fun fact: Other bakeries in the Greater Cleveland area have copied this delicacy and invented parodied names like snuggles and snoogies, much to the frustration of Mr. Kiedrowski.) The heart of Goldberry’s mission is to directly support small business owners. By drinking Goldberry’s coffee, you are elevating a business that cares about serving joy.

Around 1 p.m., you’re craving a smoothie, so you trek down the long halls of Stevenson Dining Hall until you hear the loud whir of the blenders coming from Biggs GoYeo. You step into the bright room and hear Rita, the cashier, kindly but firmly telling the clustered students to “Space out please!” Rita could well be one of the main reasons Oberlin College’s case count has stayed so low. After you order your Go Mango Go smoothie (Rita’s favorite, by the way), you watch Rita simultaneously manning  the register and stocking the fruit and are impressed with her work ethic. Did you know Rita is a veteran Stevie worker and has been here for the past 18 years? She spent most of that time at the deli bar, where she had the chance to get to know student workers. One of those workers, with whom she formed a special bond, came back after graduating to reconnect and give her a handknit scarf. 

Rita takes your meal swipe at Biggs GoYeo (Sydney Rosensaft)

“That was kinda neat,” Rita says. “Most students don’t have the time — especially with so much technology these days.” 

Two years ago, Rita fell while packing grab-and-go sandwiches in South Hall, injuring her knee. After taking some time off to recover, she moved to Stevie, which requires less time on her feet. 

“Would you like a pastry with that?” Rita asks, ringing you up. 

You politely decline, but it feels good to know she is looking out for you, making sure you make the most of your meal swipe. Rita’s kindness reminds you of your grandmother, as she adds a loving touch to Biggs’ atmosphere and connects personally to you. Rita’s loving spirit holds true outside of work; she picks up her great-grandchildren and spends time with them after school. They play on her 11-acre farm, running through rows of flowers and fresh vegetables. One of her sons lives in southern Ohio, and on his monthly visits, Rita shows him the ropes of all her signature recipes. Recently, they made spicy salsa, a six- to seven-hour ordeal resulting in 60 jars’ worth of Rita’s famous dip. You’re struck by how Rita has such a rich life on her farm and so many grandchildren to care for, yet still radiates individualized compassion for each student. 

Finally, your hectic day is coming to a close, and it is time for your ritual dinner at Lord-Saunders Dining Hall. The comforting smells of wing night (Eugene’s favorite, by the way) envelop you as you walk in, joining the snaking queue — the horde of ravenous students bopping along to the music. After you swipe your ID, you hear Eugene calling your name, welcoming you, as always. Eugene is a pillar of the smooth operations at the ever-busy Lord-Saunders. He helps where help is needed: serving on the line, refilling food, keeping track of the happenings in the kitchen, as well as personally greeting each student and joking with the student workers beside him. He is so positive and full of life that even at your tiredest moments he never fails to lift your energy levels. But did you know that you energize him too? Eugene works a different job before his shift at Oberlin and sometimes comes here exhausted, but as soon as students arrive and food starts flowing onto plates, Eugene comes alive. 

“It’s a real enjoyment for me to come here — I love it, I love my job,” he says. “The students energize me.” The enthusiasm that both you and Eugene feel when you see each other is contagious and boosts the energy in Lord-Saunders, which is the perfect way to end your day. 

Eugene has seen students come and go during his six years at Oberlin. Before the pandemic, Eugene felt very connected to students when Lord-Saunders was open for indoor seating. 

Eugene helps you with food at the buffet in Lord Saunders Dining Hall (Sydney Rosensaft)

“This hall right here used to be so much fun,” he reminisces. “The mix of everything, the flow, and atmosphere,” and especially the radio and live performances. He loved checking in with students to make sure they had enough food to eat, offering them seconds. Even now, he is adamant that students need not use another meal swipe for another helping of food. This was especially important to him at the beginning of the semester because leftovers were just thrown away. Eugene tells you that Oberlin has now arranged for the extras to be donated, as they had before the pandemic, and you see how glad he is that no food is going to waste. 

When Eugene isn’t working, he enjoys being outside and with his family. Often he drives his wife home from work and enjoys spending a relaxing evening with her and their two poodles, Jock and Jelly Bean. In the winter he likes watching movies, and during the summer he has extended family over to play in his pool. Last year, Eugene made an effort to go to all the student concerts he was invited to, wanting to support the people he sees everyday outside of the dining hall context. 

Students lead busy lives, engaging in activities both inside and outside of schoolwork, punctuated by three meals a day. It’s easy to snatch your food and rush through the line back to the habitual rhythm of your established schedule. However, it is important to get out of your own head and remind yourself that dining staff lead intricate lives outside of serving coffee, smoothies, wings, and smiles. These short, daily encounters are an intersection of all our lives, an opportunity to experience the magic of connecting with another human being. By taking one minute to talk to the people that provide you with the food and energy to get through your busy days, you will brighten your day, their day, and make Oberlin even more Oberlin. So next time you’re about to walk out the door, turn around, look them in the eyes, and say, “Thank you.”