Bobby Ramirez and Chef Sufi from Centerplate
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140,000 Meals and Counting: Inside Centerplate’s Kitchens for Operation Shelter to Home

In the six weeks since the start of Operation Shelter to Home, our San Diego Convention Center catering partner has prepared and served more than 140,000 meals.

As the number of temporary homeless shelter residents increased from 500 to approximately 1,200, Centerplate’s team has met the growing need, working collaboratively with the City, nonprofit shelter operators and Convention Center staff to plan menus and schedules. They’re familiar with serving large, hungry convention crowds but this effort has a different meaning.

“In more typical circumstances, we might have a huge event with four days of ramp-up, followed by two days to recover and plan for the next big event. In this case, the operation is seven days per week with multiple meals per day,” said Bobby Ramirez, Centerplate General Manager. “We’ve formed four teams working across two kitchens... all of them bring energy and positivity each day, showing an incredible ability to adapt and adhere to new health and safety protocols.”

"In this case, the operation is seven days per week with multiple meals per day.”
The Centerplate staff assemble bagels and juice into boxes.
Staff prepare the next day’s breakfast

Breakfasts consist of a hardboiled egg, oats, fruit, pastry, juice and coffee. Lunches tend to include sandwiches or salads. Most dinners feature hot entrees, along with veggies and dessert. Centerplate locally sources many ingredients from farms and small businesses, such as sandwich bread and rolls that come from O’Brien’s Bakery in Poway. To help keep costs low, the Centerplate team has made use of some donated items, along with products from other Centerplate sites that could no longer use their inventory due to COVID-19-related closures.

“We theme menus and have fun with creativity ... enchiladas for Cinco de Mayo, ham on Easter and the inclusion of some national food days, for example,” said Senior Executive Sous Chef Sufi Karaien. “Although the freshly made food is sent to our guests individually packaged, we adhere to our values and minimize waste wherever possible.”

Paul Delessio, Director of Coordinated Services for Father Joe’s Villages, said he has observed that the food has been well-received and “they can hardly keep up with handing it out.”

Chef Sufi in the East Kitchen with a giant cart of sandwiches
Far far away, behind the word mountains, far from the countries Vokalia and Consonantia, there live the blind texts.

When staff arrive each morning, they complete a health questionnaire and a temperature check before putting their personal items in individual bins, where they also keep boxes of gloves and masks. They then find their designated spot in the kitchen, marked by a taped “X” on the floor to ensure physical distancing. Before the shelter opened, the staff removed supplies and reconfigured the kitchen space to increase distance between food prep areas. As public health guidance evolves, they’re continuing to monitor industry standards and best practices to implement for this project and the return of convention business.

Centerplate staff member Bernitta Green puts cookies in the catering oven
Bernitta Green bakes cookies in an oven the staff say is “big enough to fit 52 turkeys!”

This year hasn’t been easy, but Ramirez is quick to find the silver linings and highlight the resilience of the Centerplate staff, and the support of its parent company Sodexo.

“Our team has shown compassion and understanding and quickly prioritized their roles to assist in the operation,” Ramirez said, looking across a prep table, where his colleagues laugh with one another as they package bagels and juice.

“We know how to feed a lot of people and we know how to be nimble and solve problems. Our seasoned experience really helped us to rise to this occasion. Our top priority continues to be the safety and health of our consumers and employees, and we take seriously our responsibility for the well-being of the communities we serve, like right here in San Diego.”

Authored by Maren Dougherty
Maren Dougherty is the San Diego Convention Center's Director of Marketing & Communications. When she isn't writing articles or talking to media, you can find her enjoying San Diego's climate. She loves running through neighborhoods, visiting Balboa Park, and relaxing at San Diego's beautiful beaches.