To serve 11,000 meals a day, they begin work at 0100 and don't close shop for 21 hours. In between, the professionals at King Hall exhibit unmatched teamwork and dedication to service.
The brass is polished, the deck-plates are freshly swabbed, and the equipment is rigged for sea. In the passageways, crew members move with purpose as they compete with the ever-ticking clock. Documents need signing, empty carts wait for the next load, and there is always one more inventory to take. A veteran of the sea might claim familiarity with this situation. But this is no ordinary ship.
In a passing second, the routine operation stops. A persistent nuisance rears its ugly head yet one more time. The main line scullery is rendered unserviceable as a result of a pipe rupture. Amid the chaos, one courageous lieutenant commander steps forward and takes charge of the situation. Exuding command presence, he issues the order:
Promulgate scullery emergency orders. Make paper plates and plastic silverware ready for immediate distribution.
. . . and so goes a typical day in the feeding of four thousand midshipmen.
Most people only know King Hall as a statistical anomaly: 372 tables tended per meal, 11,000 meals served daily, and $6 million worth of food consumed annually. Few people know the men and women behind the scenes who make those figures come alive.
Meal preparation is a skill that demands constant self-evaluation, as well as continual monitoring of others and the environment. To gain insight into a process I knew little about, I met with King Hall's managers. I learned that they make a giant effort, yet receive relatively little recognition. Dedication to service, a desire to learn from criticism, and concern for those who depend on their efforts combine to make them successful—both in the kitchen and as valued citizens.
A routine day in King Hall, providing 11,000 meals to a hungry Brigade of Midshipmen, begins at 0100. Just four hours later, Bake Shop Supervisor Clarence Washington arrives and evaluates the day's dessert status.
Mr. Washington is a 30-year veteran of King Hall, with 20 of those years spent in the bake shop. When his department's assigned strength fell from 21 to 11 over a few short years, he realized the importance of leadership and of inspiring his people to reach their full potential. Despite the cutbacks, his mission remained unchanged; finding ways to increase efficiency became critical. Even today, his experience and knowledge help the shop continuously discover ways to improve productivity.
His personnel reflect that motivation. His philosophy for maintaining a constant drive in his people is simple but powerful: "If you treat your people well, they'll do the job for you, even if it involves staying late. Without people, it's a hopeless situation." But Mr. Washington knows that as a leader, sometimes the best thing you can do for your people is to roll up your sleeves and join them. As often as three times a week, he'll forgo his 0500 arrival and join the force at 0100.
This morning a small problem surfaces as he discovers a short supply of cherry turnovers needed for today's lunch. Luckily, he spots the galley foreman and morning's next earliest arriver, Francisco Tubaya. Washington considers ice cream the perfect substitute for the absent cherry turnovers and Tubaya can assist here.
Mr. Tubaya directs all meal production and provides training, from safety procedures to equipment operation. The galley requires significant manpower, and he knows how important his people are. "The more they like you, the more they'll do for you," he comments to me. "I re member an employee hobbling in on crutches, telling me he liked working for me and didn't want to see me get in trouble."
Always busy, Mr. Tubaya still finds time to improve long-term efficiency. He recalls an ironic situation: "I recommended to the folks who make the Slicer Dicer machine that adding chutes to the machine for inputting the vegetables would be very beneficial. They agreed and built them into later designs and then tried to turn around and charge me $700 for the improvement. We never did get the addition."
Similar stories are never short in supply with Mr. Tubaya, who has been at King Hall for 41 years. He spent two years in the Marine Corps before returning home to Annapolis looking for a job repairing machinery—his real passion. The Academy told him there were no mechanic's positions; there was, however, work in the dining facility. That was April 1954. He has not thought about leaving King Hall since.
"My wife nudges me to decide when I will retire. But what else am I going to do," he quips. "It's a challenge every day. That's what draws me back after all the years." On this morning, it's the small challenge of making a simple menu change.
Mr. Tubaya relates the discrepancy to Mr. Eytchison, the inventory supervisor. Eytchison, who has handled big and small problems—here and as a Navy chief—issues the change document calling for 400 gallons of vanilla ice cream. Tubaya realizes that the request calls for verification from the warehouse people. On his way over to the warehouse, he remembers the Brigade is having their favorite lunch today—chicken tenderloins. Better verify the tenders are well in supply, he reminds himself.
Jerome Powell, the warehouse supervisor, assures Tubaya that the 2,700 pounds of chicken tenderloins are ready for delivery. In addition to overseeing a $350,000 inventory, Powell keeps a strict accounting of tenders and other high-demand goods. Like Tubaya, Powell's career spans several decades.
After almost five years in the Air Force, the lifelong Annapolitan searched for another way to serve. Mr. Powell found in King Hall a degree of loyalty and dedication difficult to match. He recalls a blizzard several years back that left the Academy all but shut down. Gate One was locked because of the conditions. Chuckling, he explains, "Out of nowhere came a number of workers, struggling to climb over the gate, because they knew they had to get to work to make breakfast."
Acknowledging that the Academy often catches the press's eye, Powell's advice is the same code he lives by: "Understand that negativity is part of life. Focus on the mission and uphold the integrity of the Academy. Get to the point where you've done all that you can for the school and the community."
As Powell breaks out the last package of chicken tenders, other members of the King Hall team are recovering from the scullery casualty. On the scene, Lieutenant Commander Phil Allison, satisfied with the compliance to his previous order, congratulates the crew and heads back to the galley. Not necessarily used to being a hero under these circumstances, he's anxious to tend to his daily work.
Supervising King Hall's overall daily operation is just one of Lieutenant Commander Allison's concerns. In fact, he is more interested in the vision of where the facility will be next week, next month, and next year. He shows concern for King Hall's customers—the midshipmen and their guests. "I talk with as many mids as possible, not in the hall, but on the Yard." He seeks feedback constantly, accounting for half of the Brigade's electronic mail messages. He mandates that either he or Lieutenant Lednicky, Assistant Food Services Officer, personally answer any questions. He does his best to ensure quality meals for the allowance of only $4.75 per person per day, but many dining improvements, such as the pasta bar and a more varied menu, he credits to the midshipmen.
He is driven—a quality he can take some kidding about. Because he sought the position of Food Services Officer, he is repeatedly asked if he is crazy. His logic: "We influence a midshipman's life more than their favorite professor. In many ways, a supply officer can have as much impact on morale as a good commanding officer." Again, he emphasizes how important communication is in this process. "I live for your feedback. I love this job. But give us a chance before you criticize."
I am made aware of the significance of communication as Richard LaRochelle, Allison's first assistant, delivers an urgent request. An officer representative of an extracurricular activity needs food prepared for a reception only four days away. Normally, ten days' notice is adequate, but Mr. LaRochelle and his staff are now quite proficient in satisfying the late requests. The ability to overcome obstacles makes LaRochelle an integral member of King Hall's leadership and his experience is an asset.
Because the Food Service Officer rotates every three years, Mr. LaRochelle provides the steady leadership that eases the transitions. Compared with Tubaya, Washington, and Powell, Mr. LaRochelle is still somewhat green, with only 14 years in the facility. But leading is nothing new to him. He retired from the Navy as a senior chief, and he provides fleet-wise advice to the Brigade, "Listen to your senior noncommissioned officers."
As Lieutenant Commander Allison and Mr. LaRochelle begin planning for the sudden request, the night shift starts arriving. They will serve dinner and clean up afterward. Overseeing the cleanup is Night Scullery Supervisor Horace Nutter, also known as "Sarge." The brigade knows him as the man who gave the Army 20 years but who talks only about his 4 years in the Marine Corps After President Richard Nixon ordered thousands of Marines discharged in 1970, Mr. Nutter and the Purple Heart he earned on a Vietnamese battlefield were left without a home. He then joined the Army and distinguished himself as a recruiter. He is happy sharing stories about his military experiences, but he won't stop in the middle of his current task to do it. You have to be willing to follow and listen.
"I'm not a politician, I'm a hard charger," he notes. Those words are not an understatement. Sarge spends 13 hours each day at the Naval Academy. First, he performs custodial duties in Bancroft Hall. When the day is done and his colleagues punch out, he hurries into the dining facility to begin another seven hours of work.
His driving attitude stems from a philosophy he encourages midshipmen to adopt: "Establish yourself as a strong leader by working hard and staying technically and tactically competent. Your followers don't care what your father did. They want you to be a true leader and to be ready for the unknown. And the unknown is combat."
At 2200 the doors are locked. Three hours later the facility reawakens with the clanging of pots and pans to begin another day.
When I set out to journey into King Hall, I feared my essay would have little to do with a midshipman's ambitions to join the naval service as an officer. But, in fact, these professionals, like those in the Navy, place a high value on commitment, communication, careful analysis, and teamwork—the same qualities the Navy wants in its future leaders.
The men and women of King Hall are driven in their efforts to be of service to the Brigade. Every professional could use their energy.
Midshipman Langton, a prospective submariner, is a first-classman at the Naval Academy. Before coming to the Academy, he spent three years in the enlisted ranks, where he completed the Nuclear Power Program and the Naval Academy Preparatory School.