University Catering with Terri Franks
Catering is never an easy job, but university catering means feeding tens of thousands of students, student-athletes, faculty, donors, and other distinguished guests in a variety of settings, from dining halls that offer three or more meals a day to multiple large-scale campus events like gameday suites and graduation celebrations. Terri Franks has decades of experience at the University of Georgia, where she is currently an administrative associate at the Visitors Center, and spoke to us about the challenges of university catering.
From Game Days to the Olympic Games
“Before my work here at the university, I worked for Hyatt Hotels,” Terri tells us in explaining how she got started in the commercial catering business. “We had a dining hall on campus that was primarily for male athletes, and that was my first job on campus.” She notes that this was before NCAA regulations changed, when athletes could have separate living and dining accommodations. “After that, I went into catering, and I was the catering manager on campus for almost 15 years.“
Terri left the university in 2000 to focus on her family, but returned in 2007. Through her various positions at UGA, she’s catered nearly every type of event imaginable.
“The biggest thing I’ve ever done was punch and cookies for 10,000 people,” Terri tells us. “We would do anything from a coffee break for 10 people to a cook out for 3,000 people on graduation day. We did a lot of things for the President’s House. They did a pre-game event at the house, normally, where they invited all kinds of people, you know, from donors to state politicians. On game days, we did all the catering for the stadium, for all the club-level boxes that people had. But we also did a lot of events for the different colleges on campus. We have 16 different colleges under the University of Georgia, so they would contact us for everything from coffee breaks to dinners, receptions, breakfast, brunch, just about anything.”
Terri says that despite working at a southern school in the Southeastern Conference, football season wasn’t their busiest time of year.
“The spring was really a busy time,” Terri says. “People think, ‘Oh, football season’s really busy!’ Well it is, but it’s really only six days a year. In the spring time, when a lot of the schools and colleges are wrapping up their academic year and having lots of events to recognize their faculty or their student organizations, that was our busiest time.”
“We never really had a downtime,” Terri says. “In the summer time, we did all of the orientations for incoming freshman in June, July, and the very first of August, so we would have that all summer long.”
Terri and her team worked from just one building on a sprawling campus, which could be difficult.
“We’re a university right now of about 35,000, including graduate students, with about 750 acres on our main campus,” Terri explains. “Anywhere people figured out they could have an event, they had it. We were housed in the student center and we did have catering in our building, but for most of our catering, we would load up trucks and go to different buildings on campus to different locations and venues.”
Sometimes, a busy day meant serving multiple events with limited means of transportation.
“On game days, we probably did 20 events with not that many vehicles,” Terri says. “Logistically, you had to coordinate when what vehicle could go out at what time to take which event, and then come back and do more. You might have to take two or three different events out on one vehicle and make different stops.“
Despite its many unique challenges, Terri admitted that one of the most difficult aspects of the job was a common concern with any catering job: not leaving anything behind.
“Anything that you had to leave house with, of course, was always hard,” Terri says. “Not a coffee break for 10 people, but if you had to do a major served meal in a different venue, you had to transport every single thing. People don’t realize that you have to take every single thing you would need, down to the salt and pepper shakers. If you don’t, you’re outta luck. You might be 30 or 45 minutes away when you realize you don’t have something.”
Graduations and game days could be demanding, but Terri says the hardest event she ever catered was the 1996 Summer Olympics. The games were officially hosted in Atlanta, but the University of Georgia was among several locations selected to hold events.
“We started planning far in advance,” Terri tells us. “We had to put together kind of like an event booklet, with set menus that people could choose from. [We offered] a lot of things that were buffet-style, a lot of salads, things that could be transported easily that didn’t require prep or service once you got there. We didn’t have the manpower to stay and serve that, so we had to set it up and leave it. We couldn’t come on campus; we had to bus in our employees because of parking and security. So that was another big issue, just making sure you had people at work. We almost had to work around the clock to get it all done.“
In addition to the hectic schedule, Terri says, “The Olympic Committee was very particular about what it was served in. It had to be done so meticulously – not that that wasn’t what we did every single day, but people would stop and inspect it before it even went in. For instance, if we had a hospitality suite set up for the parents and the VIPs that were attending the volleyball event, [the food] had to be inspected before it could even be set up.”
If there’s one truth to any catering job, it’s that no matter the size or location, something won’t go according to plan. Terri shared a few anecdotes with us about the catering crises she’s faced in the past.
“You’d get to the venue, and somebody thought one person counted the plates, but the other person thought they counted the plates, and you only had half the plates you needed,” Terri says. “So what do you do? You go back to get more plates, or you wash them as they get dirty.“
“We were doing a wedding reception and we had our tall rolling racks sitting on the lift of the truck about to lower them down,” Terri says. “Without realizing that those carts were on the back of that lift, someone got in the truck and pulled it forward a little bit, and all those sheet pans hit the ground. It was a mess.”
“One time, we were doing a barbecue and every time we sprayed the barbecue sauce on the chicken, it would flame up really high,” Terri says. “[Another time] we had a reception for 3,000 people on graduation day, after commencement. It poured rain so they canceled the event. We had 50 gallons of coleslaw, and what do you do with all that? You change your menu in the dining halls and send it to the dining halls.“