As Punahou’s food service director, Marcia Barrett ’74 Wright has fed generations of students, employees and others at the School for the past 32 years. She’s long held a commanding presence in the kitchen, cafeteria and snack bar, directing several dozen workers as they prepare and serve food for thousands on campus each day. At Carnival, Wright leads an army of staff and volunteers through the colossal efforts of preparing Portuguese bean soup, Hawaiian plates and other iconic favorites for tens of thousands of Carnival-goers.
After the pandemic upended the School’s traditional food operations, requiring lunches to be brought to classrooms across campus, Wright did a full pivot and rolled out new ways to safely feed the Punahou community during COVID-19.
Earlier this fall, we spoke to Wright about her responsibilities at Punahou, and what keeps her attached to the School after so many years in a high-pressure job.
How did the pandemic change food service at Punahou?
When we first shut down, we were thinking OK, we’ll be shut down for a little bit. But then we realized that the pandemic wasn’t going away, so we had to imagine different scenarios. We knew we would have to get food to our kids, but how would we do it? What equipment would we need? What would we be able to offer, and how are we going to distribute food to 3,000 kids in classrooms? We had to consider the scenarios, walk through them and figure them out. My assistant, Nelson (Uyemura ’93), worked with IT to set up the online ordering system, and we set up staging areas to deliver the food around campus. Jason (Ono ’95), another manager, was also instrumental in working with the kitchen cooks to adapt to the changes. We had to alter our whole way of thinking.
Carnival and Reunion also were changed, with food being picked up at drive-through events. Was it difficult to rethink such longstanding School traditions?
You just have to adjust and find a way to do things that need to get done. There are always obstacles, but you work it out.
Carnival was very different this past year, but in general, what is Carnival like for you?
I love it. There’s something about Carnival that reminds me of the lights of New York and Vegas. It’s the ambiance. There’s magic. Of course, it’s a lot of work managing so many people. We have to make sure the volunteers are all doing what they’re supposed to do, and that we’re complying with all the health rules, so we don’t get shut down. And we definitely have to have enough food, because oh boy, if we ran out of food at Carnival …
What were you doing before you came to Punahou?
I worked as a food service director in hospitals. I came from two different hospitals outside Hawai‘i. Here in Hawai‘i, you can’t be a director of food service in a hospital unless you’re a dietician, so when the food service director at Punahou opened up, I applied and got it.
What has kept you here over the years?
I love the challenges. Even when they’re frustrating, it’s very fulfilling to accomplish things and make changes for the better. It’s also very satisfying when kids love your food, and they come back after they’ve gone to college and tell my staff and me how much they love and miss our food. There are no words to describe how it feels when we hear that kids tell their friends, “Oh where I came from, the food was great.”
If you had to pick a few of your favorite foods at Punahou, what would they be?
Turkey stuffing pie – it tastes so good. And I would say when my production manager, Cindy Eulitt, bakes, her baking products are just out of this world. She has a true gift for it. When we opened up our bakery, she made everything from scratch, and it’s all so good.
It sounds like you have a cohesive team there at the cafeteria?
It is. My whole staff is great. I have three managers – Nelson, Cindy and Jason – and we all take on different roles working with the entire team of employees. We all have to come together and talk about the issues and what we want to do and where we want to go.
What do you like to do when you have time off?
I try to keep busy. When I lost my husband, I knew I had to keep going. I have a big family from my husband. He had five girls before we had my son, and they have grandkids and kids, so we do a lot of family stuff. I’m also very active in my church, and I volunteer for the Institute for Human Services, which feeds the homeless. There are so many homeless people, and helping them has been very fulfilling.
What do you love about Punahou?
Punahou has opened so many doors for me – I don’t even know how to sum up in words the feelings I have about the School. I love my job, and I love Punahou. It’s like being in a family and being at home. I love everything about the way I was taught when I was here, the way my son (Matthew Barrett-Wright ’10) has developed through Punahou and where he is now because of Punahou. I think my biggest joy was to know that I came here, and he got to come here, and hopefully, one day, when he has his family, his kids will come here.