From The Observer
After the clock has hit zero and the Alma Mater has been sung after the Northwestern game Saturday, thousands of students and fans will stream out of Notre Dame Stadium and into North and South Dining Halls for a decades-old Game Day tradition: the post-game Candlelight Dinner.
The dinners feature top sirloin and an assortment of cakes and pies, and the dining halls, which stay open until two hours after the game ends, are decorated with tablecloths, low lighting, music and candles.
Marc Poklinkowski, South Dining Hall’s general manager, said the dinners often draw 2600 to 2800 people to South as opposed to 2000 on a normal Saturday. The planning for the dinners begins over the summer, when the dining hall staff puts together the menus and places the food orders. Each manager then takes on one game day, organizing and overseeing decorations and food prep.
Poklinkowski said for each Candlelight Dinner, South Dining Hall orders more than 600 pounds of top sirloin and around 200 cakes and pies, while increasing its normal fare — 600 pieces of fish, for example, instead of 400.
On Game Day the dining hall staff springs into action long before dinnertime — a cook arrives to start preparing the top sirloin at 8 a.m., Poklinkowski said.
Paula Roberts, the manager in charge of the Northwestern Candlelight Dinner at South Dining Hall, said the cashiers arrive at 7 a.m. to prepare for brunch and start selling tickets to visitors — and they’ll stay until dinner is over.
“[The staff is] real flexible with us, because football is so huge on campus, and when they know it’s football and we have a game, it’s done,” Roberts said. “They’re here until they’re done, and they know it’s expected of them, and we’re grateful that they give us their time like that.”
Due to students’ brunch and President’s Brunch, though, preparation of the dining rooms doesn’t start until mid afternoon, Poklinkowski said.
“The brunch ends at 1:30, and people don’t really clear out until 2 or 2:30, so we really have three hours to turn both dining rooms over — including resetting this from the President’s Brunch, which has a completely different table setup — back to normal, getting the table covers on, getting everything all lined up,” he said. “It’s a pretty labor-intensive task.”
But the dining hall staff rises to the challenge, Poklinkowski said.
“Everybody is just kind of doing their thing, every nook and cranny is being used,” he said. “Anywhere we can get people to work on a game day, we do.”
By 5:30 p.m., the dinner is ready — tables covered, candles lit, cakes and pies plated. Usually, Poklinkowski said, people trickle in throughout the evening, but the staff braces for the post-game rush.
“We love it if it’s a blowout or something,” he said. “People will leave early, and it’s actually kind of helps us overall, if it’s bad weather. If we could get five, six, seven hundred in before the end of the game, it’s a lot better for everybody involved.”
But when 1700 people converge on South Dining Hall at once, the staff works to keep the line smooth and orderly, keeping the line of students separate from that of cash-paying customers and regulating how many people are in the serving areas at once.
“That line’s intense,” Roberts said.
The dining hall once timed how quickly they could get every diner through the servery and into the dining rooms, Poklinkowski said .
“We can have everybody with food, sitting down, in an hour,” he said.
Poklinkowski said it usually doesn’t matter whether the game was a win or a loss and once students and visitors hit the dining hall, they’re happy.
“I know somebody that’s not a Notre Dame fan, and he’ll ask me, ‘You know, what was the mood in the dining hall, after a tough loss?’” Poklinkowski said. “And you know what, everybody always has fun. A lot of times you can’t tell if we’ve won or lost. Everybody always seems to be in such a good mood when they come in. …The game is over; now it’s time to come and enjoy dinner.”
Poklinkowski said there is usually a minor rush after the post-game Masses end, and then the line dies down and South closes. The employees, however, stay to clean up, count down cash drawers and prepare for breakfast the next day.
In the end, Poklinkowski said, the Candlelight Dinner is an important part of the Game Day experience.
“Our goal is really to help make game day special during students’ time here,” he said. “We’ll even hear that from some of our alumni student workers. [They’ll] say, ‘Man, I had to come back for the Candlelight.’ It’s part of their Notre Dame experience.”