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If you’ve been to the Food Zoo at the University of Montana in the past seven years, there’s no doubt you’ve been greeted with a warm smile and a hearty hello.
That person welcoming folks to the dining hall is Margo Kratz, affectionately known around campus as “Mama Margo.”
“This job and all of the students are so interesting to me,” says Kratz, whose official title is lead cashier. “People come from all walks of life. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you can’t judge a book by its cover. There are some students who come in who are a little bit insecure their freshman year of college, so I work extra hard to make them feel at home. And eventually I can see the difference when they start to come out of their shell.”
Born and raised in Missoula, Kratz graduated from Sentinel High School in 1972. She spent eleven years as a school bus driver for special needs children, but when an opportunity to work at the Food Zoo opened, she jumped on it.
And she’s found her niche.
“My life is the Food Zoo,” Kratz says.
“Mama Margo” recently sat down with the Montanan to discuss her job, her trove of letters, cards, and artwork from students, as well as the Food Zoo’s famous Omelet Bar, among other topics.
What do you love about your job? Why?
I love the kids, plain and simple. The students are what make me get out of bed in the morning and come to work. I obviously have to make a living, but they’re the ones who make it easy to come to work. I love getting to know them; I love joking around with them. If somebody needs a “mom hug,” I’m there for that. If they need someone to talk to for a little bit, I’m there for that. I try to get to know the students on a first-name basis. Since I’m a little older it’s a little harder, but I try my best. The kids respect me a lot, and I’ve managed to build a great rapport with them.
I actually had a former student employee who now lives out of state visit me here the other day. I worked with him a few years ago, and the two of us had had conversations about posture. He said, “Hey, look, Margo. I’m standing up straight – because of you!”
Sure enough, his posture was great. That exchange made my day.
Do you get students who come back to visit you often?
I do. They pop in and visit all the time. I see familiar faces at games and around town, too. I’ve received lots of thank-you cards and notes, and countless hugs. I actually brought some of the things with me to show you. This is one of my favorites. It says, “Margo at the Food Zoo is the highlight of my day. All of the staff should be as friendly and personable as she is.” That really means a lot to me.
Here’s another one from a parent, who ate here with her sons: “Double Margot’s salary. Not only was she a topic of our lunch conversation, but from where I was sitting, I could see her as she greeted each student on arrival warmly, individually, and personally. She makes an impact on students’ lives. How wonderful for students to encounter the quintessential “mom qualities” as they arrive to dine.”
I cherish this stuff. These things really make it easy to keep working. And I do feel like I make a difference for them, and I love it.
You always seem so cheery and greet everyone nicely when they enter the Food Zoo. Why do you think that is important?
Everyone needs to start their day out right. Students will say, “You always have a smile on your face, and that means a lot to us.” I just think that if I can smile, and that makes them smile, it’s worth it. I’m there to do whatever I can to make their time special while they’re away from home.
If you had to pick just one, what’s your favorite food to eat at the Food Zoo?
Oh, my gosh. I love the waffles in the morning. It’s probably not the healthiest choice, but if I’m on a diet, and I’m going to cheat, that’s where I would be, in the waffle line.
Omelet Bar days here at the Food Zoo are famous, and they always have a theme. What’s your favorite one? Do you like dressing up for them?
I do like to participate because I think the kids enjoy it. My favorite theme was the Beatles. We really went all out on that one as far as decorations go. It was a lot of fun. We’ve had all kinds of different themes: Alice in Wonderland, the 50s, western. They like to switch it up to make it fun for the kids. We also have karaoke days, and I’ve encouraged students who are shy to get up on stage and sing.
Have you done karaoke here at the Food Zoo?
I have. I had a boss get me up there, and they were singing. And I can’t sing. At all. And I have a little stage fright. But I got up there, and I did it. I don’t even remember what song it was.
Who is the most famous person you’ve seen eat at the Food Zoo?
I would say it’s Emma Lommasson. She comes in for her birthday each year, and she is such a joy.
What do you like about living in Missoula?
I especially love Flathead Lake, and I love the mountains. The only time I moved away was to Idaho Falls, Idaho, and it was such a shock because it was all flat. I love Missoula for what it offers—boating, fishing, the walking trails, Out to Lunch, Downtown ToNight, the rivers—all of the things you can do to have a good time and not spend a lot of money.
Favorite music: Classical.
Favorite movie: Pretty Woman.
Favorite TV show: The Blacklist or The Voice.
Other than the Food Zoo, your favorite place to eat in Missoula: The Depot or the Mustard Seed.
Favorite sports team: The Griz, of course!
John Heaney is the editor-in chief of the Montanan. An Anaconda native, John graduated from UM in 2002 and took the helm of the Montanan in 2010. In between, he worked for the Missoulian, the Spokesman-Review, the Coeur d'Alene Press, and the Anaconda Leader.