Behind the Counter – Working at Ortega Dining Commons

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Cassie Pataky

Senior Staff Writer

“We look after each student with a lot of care,” Abraham Cortez, a cook at the Ortega Dining Commons told The Bottom Line (TBL).

Many students survey the dining commons for the best food, never giving much thought to who cooks and serves it. Ortega, a take-out dining commons at UC Santa Barbara that also provides catering services, is run by four cooks and serves over 1500 students a day. It is the cook’s responsibility to create the menu, prep and cook the food, be conscientious of allergies, take care of the student workers, and much more. Ortega also employs over 60 student workers to put together meals, stock food, clean, and interact with clients, all to help the dining common run smoothly.

In order to encourage a positive working environment, Cortez describes the delicate balance of pushing students slightly past their comfort zone but not so far that they feel unsafe and unwelcome, understanding that he works with many new students who are already adjusting to a lot of new experiences. 

“We try to make Ortega as welcoming as possible,” Cortez told TBL, “because we know that students are far away from home.”

“The cooks are very nice and caring. They always ask how your day is going and are super easy to talk to,” said Annette Franco, a second-year psychology and brain sciences major who works at Ortega.

The cooks often speak to the students about their lives outside of the dining commons, from cracking the occasional joke to what they thought of the new Black Panther movie. By letting students into their lives, the cooks also encourage the students to open up about their experiences.

Sometimes, during a slow day on the job, the student workers at Ortega Dining Commons find ways to make their time at work more enjoyable by asking each other about classes or battling to connect their phone playlist to the communal speaker. Those who have gotten to know one another well have become friends and sometimes spend time with each other outside of work. Mikaila Angevine, a second-year sociology and feminist studies double major, met their best friend Amalie, a former student worker, at Ortega.

Aside from their coworkers, some student workers pointed out that the working environment could be better. For example, installing AC, heaters, or even chairs to sit down in would improve the student workers’ experience. 

One student worker also added, “I work hard and nothing happens except a simple thank you.” It can be disheartening to work in an environment that doesn’t seem to recognize the amount of effort you put in. 

There are still many benefits to working at the dining commons that keep employees there. Because the dining commons are university-affiliated, the managers understand that students have classes, and there are few conflicts with schedules, allowing students to focus on their academics while still making some money. Ortega, specifically, isn’t open on weekends or too late at night. 

“At Ortega, I feel less exhausted and I have way more time in my day, especially to get some homework done,” Franco writes. Plus, there is free food! Students can eat anything from the kitchen on their break.

Working on campus, even if it is a dining commons, also emphasizes the learning environment of the university. Cortez encourages students who work in the dining commons, saying, “We want you to work with us, work around us, and especially learn and take this home and to the future.”

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