Zoe’s Bookside Bagels is coming back, but it might be several months before Western Washington University students can enjoy coffee and bagels in Wilson library again.
The popular bagel shop has been conspicuously absent as students returned to campus this fall. Other restaurants, such as Oath Pizza, Freshens Food Studio and the Subway at the Atrium, are also closed. This means students' dining options when eating on campus are limited compared to what they had pre-pandemic.
Stephen Wadsworth, resident district manager for Aramark, said the company is hoping to get Zoe’s open, “later this fall or early winter term."
Zoe’s isn’t gone for good, but in order to reopen they’re going to have to overcome a few hurdles. The Delta variant and supply chain issues played a role in Zoe’s extended closure, but the main reason they’re still closed? Aramark can’t find enough workers.
Wadsworth said Aramark had to start from scratch in the hiring process because of a lack of students on campus this summer. Many workers who would usually be back to work were also not there to make the expected return.
"Some of our long-term employees chose to retire,” Wadsworth said. “We also lost many of our experienced student employees that would normally return year after year while attending Western."
Wadsworth said Zoe’s is next on the list of dining options to be reopened, but it won’t happen until there are enough workers. Aramark also hopes to increase the hours of operation at campus dining options like Panda Express, which has been operating at reduced hours because of a lack of staff.
Wadsworth said students who want to help bring Zoe’s back should apply for a job with campus dining services.
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Aramark has a job listing for student food service workers at Western posted on their website. The posting doesn’t include any information about pay, but Wadsworth said in an email that student workers start at minimum wage, which is $13.69 in Bellingham. Student managers start at minimum wage plus $1 an hour. Wadsworth also said all employees get additional meal credit perks.
National labor trends
Zoe’s situation isn’t unique. Over the past few months, restaurants across the country have struggled to find workers. Wadsworth said the labor shortage is a major factor in the continued closure of Zoe’s and other campus dining options. He said they’ve struggled to find both full-time employees and student employees, who make up 55% to 57% of all hours worked in dining services.
James McCafferty, director of Western's Center for Economic and Business Research, said that workforce participation is lower than before COVID-19 and expected to get lower still. Additionally, the unemployment rate is getting much closer to normal, which is why the term ‘labor shortage’ gets used, McCafferty said.
"In food service you put up with crazy customers all day, deal with weird scheduling and all the other things that come with food service, so people are now looking elsewhere for a job away from food service," McCafferty said.
McCafferty said there are now more options for workers to choose from when looking for a job, and they can be picky, because it is now an applicant-ruled hiring process.
"People are gonna find better options,” McCafferty said. “Are you going to work in the restaurant where you have to deal with all this stuff?"
Wadsworth said the emergence of the Delta variant this summer impacted the number of workers and caused supply chain issues which have also prolonged Zoe’s reopening.
For Zoe's Bagels specifically, one major challenge is having enough bagel supply needed for the demand, Wadsworth said.
Pre-pandemic, Aramark would buy approximately 100,000 bagels a year from The Bagelry, a Bellingham-based bagel shop. To reopen Zoe’s Aramark wants to ensure The Bagelry has enough time to return their supply to total capacity for Zoe’s before they return, Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth said University Dining Services have been working closely with the campus administration since spring and summer of 2021 regarding their strategies for reopening and their challenges. Their main goal has been getting the three main dining commons open as well as Viking Union operations, convenience stores across campus and the Starbucks at the Atrium.
Kirsten Ritchie, a fourth-year student at Western, said she usually doesn't eat at school, but she wouldn't mind a bagel when she does.
"My freshman year, I went to Zoe's Bagels a lot,” Ritchie said. “I miss it. It was a good snack in between full meals. They had really good breakfast bagel sandwiches, and their sandwiches overall were really good. Sometimes you couldn't even go because the line was so long."
When the line was short, she would take advantage and get something even though she would not regularly buy food from campus.
"It was convenient because it was in the library; you could go really quick while you were studying,” Ritchie said. “They had a variety of coffee, bagels and snacks."
During a May 2021 Q&A to discuss fall quarter plans, Melynda Huskey, Western’s vice president of enrollment and student services, echoed student sentiment and said that she and other members of the administration were also missing Zoe’s Bagels.
“The salt bagels from Zoe’s, I think about those longingly from time to time,” Huskey said. “We will begin to open those as soon as we can do so safely, and there’s a plan for rolling that out.”
Almost six months later, the doors to Zoe’s remain closed. The bagels are coming back, but students are going to have to wait just a little longer.
Michael Flo contributed to the reporting of this article.
Joshua Solorzano (He/Him) is majoring in Visual Journalism and minoring in Spanish, reporting on the Campus News Beat for The Front. When he’s not doing school work or working he enjoys listening to music, exploring new places and learning about different cultures, as well as his own. You can contact him at email@example.com.