Mom away from home

Kurt Snyder

Cafeteria workers make campus dining comfortable

Mary Kay Sizemore, Stewart Hall cafeteria worker, takes a moment from her day to catch up with freshman finance major Caleb Heitmann. He said that Sizemore takes good care of all the students.

Credit: Andrew popik

They see you every day. They know what you are wearing, where you are coming from and whether you are having a bad day.

Chances are, you do not even know their names.

Hundreds of students pass through the cashier lines in campus cafeterias every day. Often, the only words exchanged are “$4.98” or “Have a good day.”

But this is not the case at Stewart Cafeteria. Mary Kay Sizemore sees to it.

“It’s about relationships,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent are great kids — respectful, kind, nice. These people are wonderful.”

Sizemore is in her second year working at Stewart. She is an alumna, was a preschool teacher and spent 17 years working at a daycare center. But Sizemore came back to the university to work with students.

Sizemore’s relationship does not stop after the FlashCard is run through the scanner. She visits with students on her breaks. She asks them how their day is going and how classes are. On Valentine’s Day, she handed out lollipops to patrons.

“She’s kind of like the mom of all of us,” said junior psychology major Laura McCullough, who has worked with Sizemore since last spring. “Everybody knows that you can go talk to Mary Kay if you ever need anything.”

Annette Alexander has worked in the cafeteria at the Eastway Center since August. With steadier traffic, Alexander does not leave her place at the register as often as Sizemore, but Alexander still finds time to interact with customers.

Alexander said she does not know as many names, but she does know faces. Like Sizemore, she said she has not encountered any problems with rude or disgruntled customers.

“I’ve gotten acquainted with quite a few of the young ladies and some of the fellas,” she said. “They talk to me about subjects like their studies, their instructors, home.”

Kathy Samaco, general manager of Stewart, said the socializing between students and cashiers is encouraged if the cashiers have an outgoing personality. She said regular contact with the staff gives freshmen a comfortable atmosphere.

“We try to create a more intimate environment because it is a smaller cafeteria, especially the kids being in their first year,” Samaco said.

Stewart services the First-Year Experience residence halls. Nearly all of the students who eat there are freshmen. Sizemore said she takes it upon herself to make them feel as if they belong at college.

“I love the youth. I love the students,” she said. “They are wonderful. I believe customer service is really important. I’m glad I am in the freshmen dorm just for the fact I do have relationships with a lot of these students.

“We sit and talk,” said Sizemore, whose son is a freshman in high school. “They tell me about their lives. I tell them about mine.”

Freshman finance major Caleb Heitman said Sizemore stands out because she goes out of her way to build a relationship.

Sizemore “will come over and tease us while we’re eating, and you really don’t get anybody that cares like that,” Heitman said.

One warm spring day, students tracked mud into Eastway. Alexander noticed an overabundance on a pair of women that passed through her line.

“They were so dirty,” Alexander said. “I was like, ‘Where have you guys been? It looks like you guys have been mud wrestling.’”

Samaco said Sizemore is also busy behind the scenes in Stewart.

“She takes ownership of our special events to make them nice,” Samaco said. “We do a theme dinner once a month, and she helps out a lot with them.”

Samaco said Sizemore is in charge of the new bulletin board in the front hall of Stewart where the menu is updated two weeks in advance.

Sizemore said the staff routinely receives suggestions from students. Students suggested that the store in Stewart remain open later hours, and the staff has obliged. In addition, Sizemore said, students receive special discounts for shopping at the store in Stewart nightly after 7.

Monica Fowler, freshman pre-interior design major, said she uses the store for groceries and likes the selection at the salad bar. She said the atmosphere is more pleasant than at many of the other eating areas.

“It’s better than being snooty, better than some of the places in the Hub,” she said.

Eugene Walters, marketing manager for Dining Services, said the improvements in Stewart are all about making the on-campus dining more personalized. He said Dining Services accepts recipes from students and parents. Workers have even gone to the extreme of buying special ingredients for students with specific dining needs.

While Sizemore keeps the atmosphere upbeat for the customers in Stewart, she has the same effect on her fellow staffers.

“I’m so glad that I decided to work in this cafeteria on this campus,” McCullough said. “It just doesn’t really seem like the other cafeterias or jobs on campus — the work people on the crew are as close as we are here. Everyone is such good friends here.”

Sizemore is working on campus for a reason. She used to be a teacher in the field. She is still teaching, but now they are life lessons.

“Hopefully, maybe I can make a difference,” she said. “I’ve been through a career. I was a career woman. I worked at a major corporation. You know what it’s all about. It’s about relationships. You can have so many degrees, but if you can’t relate with people and get along, you are not going to go anywhere in life.”

Contact managing editor Kurt Snyder at [email protected].