Sit-Down, Self-Serve Summer Commons Provides Hope for Fall Semester

On May 28, a complete transformation hit campus, for both first-years and recently graduated seniors alike: sit-down, self-serve Commons.

Governor Janet Mills ended Maine’s mask mandate for vaccinated individuals on May 24, the Monday of Commencement Week here on campus. Also ended was the enforcement of six-foot distancing indoors and capacity limits on business, allowing them to return to 100% capacity. 

Because the approximately 100 summer students are all required to be vaccinated in order to live on campus, all of these changes gave Commons the freedom to begin to slowly transition back to its pre-COVID-19 status.

“We weren’t really in the position to make the flip [right when restrictions lifted],” said Christine Schwartz, Assistant Vice President for Dining, Conferences and Campus Events, “Mostly because we’d taken everything out of the operation and put it in the old book store [in the basement of Chase Hall].”

In the first weeks of summer, most of the tables returned to the dining area, but with only two or three chairs each. It wasn’t until the weekend of June 26 and 27 that Commons truly began to look like its old self again with six or more chairs at each table, but Schwartz says that “things are still being put back in place.” 

Much beloved Commons staples that have made the journey back so far include the toasters, a fully-stocked spice rack, and ice cream, including a limited Sundae Sunday bar.

The Bobcat Bar, located in the back to the left of the bakery, is open for lunch and dinner, while the Grill, on the bakery’s right, is open for breakfast and lunch. The Brick Oven serves pizza or sandwiches at lunch, along with garlic bread on Sunday nights, while the Pasta Bar (opposite the bakery on the back of the round) opens for dinner. The Vegan Bar (across from the cereal wall) is available for all meals, as is the Salad Bar (on the left of the round).

While pre-packaged sandwiches have left in place of the Deli’s make-your-own options (found on the back right of the round), they might not be gone forever. Schwartz shared that, “philosophically we are looking at a very, very limited grab and go. Because what we heard from our community was communal dining, together, so that says to me that the grab and go is not really the draw. It’s not who we’re built to be and not who we are…[but] we’re thinking about over lunch a series of those [pre-made] sandwiches and potentially a salad option so that you could just buzz in, grab a sandwich, grab a salad, and go.”

The thought of returning to sit-down dining at all was foreign in April 2020, when even getting food for the seventy or eighty on-campus students was difficult. 

“It’s a little surreal,” Schwartz said about the summer return. “We would just like to be back, you know, Adventures in Dining, events, doing what we do and spending time with you all.”

It’s surreal for students, too.

Elysia Garza ‘22 and Margaret Horvat ‘23 were on campus this past year, and are currently working as summer interns for the Admissions Office. Garza said that she “was surprised at how much better the food was compared to grab and go, even though it’s literally the same thing, but just the impact of being able to sit down [on the dining experience] was really surprising.”

Both feel that having Commons back has radically changed the social atmosphere on campus; Horvat went so far as to say that she’s “gotten to know more people this summer than this entire school year” through eating with them in Commons. However, there are a few things they aren’t ready to part with just yet.

“I liked being able to have snacks in my room. I love having one dining hall, but it was really nice to take stuff out. I think keeping some of those take out options would be nice,” Horvat said. Garza added that “there were a few of the premade [sandwiches and salads] that I really liked, and if those were around [she] would really appreciate it.” She also thinks keeping the to-go cups for hot drinks will discourage the stealing of Commons mugs that plagued pre-COVID-19 Commons.

Their co-worker Noah Pott ‘22 was one of the few juniors who was able to do his planned off-campus study programs this past year: he attended the National Theater Institute in Waterford, CT, in the fall, followed by DIS in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the spring. 

He shared that coming back to Commons as he knew it “definitely eased the transition…the hype leading up to that first meal back was quite substantial, I was like telling my parents, ‘Mom, I’m really excited to eat in Commons!’ It was like I’m home again.”

For the incoming first-years and rising sophomores, dining inside Commons might be a little overwhelming. Pott and Horvat want them to know that sitting in Commons for hours, the “Commons linger” as Horvat called it, is very popular and a great way to spend time with your friends. “You can always go back for seconds!” Pott added.

Garza said that every seating area in Commons has its own vibe, so figure out which is best for you–and the room by the dish return is the arcade, not the fishbowl! (That is the room surrounded by glass that everyone can see in and out of, hence the name.)

What exactly Commons, and dining in general at Bates, will look in the fall is not yet set in stone. The Den in particular is in flux due to nationwide labor shortages, with more staff needed in order to operate seven days a week with normal hours. Dining does plan to continue to partner with Easy Eats to offer Den delivery.

In the coming weeks, Dining will discuss their current plans with both a student, faculty, and staff advisory committee as well as the Mayo Clinic before fully releasing them to students. “I don’t wanna say anything until we really know,” said Schwartz, “…But everything that’s been happening in the dining room right now is potentially a sign.”