“It’s Miss Grace to you, shorty”

Longtime Bruff worker Miss Grace serves Tulane students their daily omelets—along with a side of prayer, encouragement and scolding

It is icy cold and scarcely past dawn when, with three loud thumps, the car doors slam shut, sending echoes reverberating across the empty McAlister drive.

In a few hours, this flawless-paved street lined with manicured trees and idyllic shrubs will be teeming with chaos—students and professors walking, running, biking past each other in a flurry—but for now, Grace Bridges, 64, along with her 40-year-old daughter and 24-year-old grandson, cherish the silence as they trudge toward the looming brick building in the middle of Tulane’s campus, readying for their day’s work ahead of serving food to Tulane students.

For the past thirty years, Grace has not only cooked breakfast for tens of thousands of students, but has also become a sort of mother figure to them. When a kid is stressed about a test or a break-up, she tells them to pray to the Lord for strength. When she thinks a student is being rude, she gives them a “lesson in manners.” She sees a different, more familial side of Tulane students from what the rest of the world sees—to her, for example, Mewelde Moore is not just a running back for the Steelers who played in the Superbowl, but rather a smiling, chirpy boy in grey sweatpants, ready for a hug along with his morning eggs after practice.

Today, like most days since August of 1979, Grace is the first person to arrive at Bruff Commons, Tulane’s student dining hall. She pulls on the starchy, white Sodexo Corporation uniform over her stout, portly body, and ties her poufy hair back in a knot. Though the Bruff workers aren’t allowed to punch in until 6 a.m., Grace is ready by 5:50, at the latest, to make sure she gets every penny of her promised $9.20 an hour.

“Everything be going up—groceries be going up, prices everywhere be going up,” Grace says, her voice baritone yet inflected with a distinct New Orleans accent, her round, dark eyes staring into mine. Her face is animated—every sentence is accompanied by an eyebrow arch or eyeroll that conveys her attitude. “Since I started here, they done raised my pay by a few pennies, but it ain’t enough. We be workin’ so hard in here, we could all use more money. We be workin’ real hard.”

Grace is one of thousands of workers employed by Sodexo, a France-based company that is contracted to serve food at hundreds of universities, corporations, hospitals, and jails around the United States. Last spring, hundreds of Tulane students and Sodexo workers held protests on Tulane’s campus for the workers’ rights to unionize and negotiate pay raises, sick day policies, and job security. Though she would have liked to see a union form, Grace didn’t participate out of fear of losing her job.

But even despite her low Sodexo wages and constant stress about paying her bills, Grace feels lucky to be employed at all. “I thankful to God for what it is, because so many people out there don’t have a job. Yeah, Sodexo could treat us better, but I still thankful to be here.”

For all their problems and disregard for employee rights, Bruff and Sodexo still provide a much better job than any other Grace has ever had. Before making omelets here, Grace used to mop the floors at Johnny Schwegman’s, a local supermarket chain. She quit when they refused her a ten-minute break throughout her seven-hour shift. “All those Swagman shops done closed now, they done went outta business,” Grace says, chuckling, raising her eyebrow at me.

From six to seven a.m., Grace joins about thirty other Bruff employees in chopping vegetables, frying bacon, setting up cooking lines, and preparing her solitary omelet station for the hectic morning ahead. She knows that as soon as the doors fly open at 7, the students that will file in will be arguably the hungriest of the day—all have been working out since 5 a.m., some with the school’s Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, others with the football, baseball, cross country, or swim teams. After them, she won’t stop making omelets—one after the other, after the other, with lines of kids stretching out the door—for the following four hours.

“The usual, baby?” She asks the first student of the day, as the line of forest green, grey, and black sweatsuits begins to form. With one hand, Grace cracks three eggs, splatting them into one of her three giant frying pans. She methodically turns the eggs over, sprays the pan, cracks more. “How you doin, baby?” Omelet flip. “Whatchu got, girl?” A pile of eggshells begins to amass to her right. After an hour, she has gone through well over a hundred.

Grace smiles. “Sometimes I wake up kinda down, you know, things could be better. But then I come in here and the students be all, ‘Oh hi, Miss Grace, how you doin’ today?’ and then I feel better.” It’s a mutually uplifting relationship, though—the kids consult with Miss Grace when they are going through a break-up, stressed with exams, or just having a bad day.

“They come in here and I say, ‘Did you pray today? Did you get up and ask the Lord for strength?’”

Grace’s boss, Lydia Speaks, a 37-year-old heavyset woman with large square glasses on, watches the buzzing omelet station from the side, peering down at her clipboard every now and then. “Grace is an excellent worker, we could definitely use more like her. And the kids love her—she’s like their mom away from home.”

Grace has seen it all—coaches forcing boisterous athletes to the floor mid-breakfast to do push-ups, drunken students passed out with their face in their milky cereal bowl, and countless sexual acts and fights that prompted chaos in the dining hall.

That’s all fine by Miss Grace—she appreciates Tulane students for who they are. But one thing she will not tolerate is lack of respect.

“You can tell the ones that had good home training versus the ones that didn’t. Some of them come in here all, ‘Hey Grace.’ Oh Lord, lord, it ain’t no ‘hey Grace’ to you. It’s Miss Grace. I got kids older thank you, grandkids older than you—my momma woulda knocked me upside the head. That’s just not appropriate, and they got to learn.”

With Grace, what you give is what you get. So while some students face a cheerful, upbeat Miss Grace, others are met with quizzical, cold stares. They don’t know how to act—many seem uncomfortable, trying to order as quickly as possible and then run away from the crazy omelet lady. But every time a student smiles at Miss Grace and asks how she is doing, she lights up, and smiles right back. And that’s what keeps her going.

Sometimes alumni come back, long after they graduate, to introduce their own families to Miss Grace.

“When I miss a day of work, I feel kinda sad, because some of these kids seem like my own children. I like making them they breakfast.”

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