On February 12, UChicago Dining’s Campus Advisory Board (CDAB) visited Northwestern University and Wheaton College undercover as part of their consideration of alternative food service providers. This visit followed food providers Sodexo and Bon Appetit, which serve Northwestern and Wheaton respectively, submitting proposals to the University.
Even before these proposals were considered, many students on campus had stated their hope that the University would either sign with a company other than Aramark or would consider an independent dining contract.
Among these students is second-year Emma Gardner, who found a screw lodged in a piece of grilled chicken while dining at Bartlett Commons on January 11. After posting a photo of the ordeal on Overheard at UChicago, she found that many students also shared similar experiences. Her collection of photos—which she presented to Assistant Director of UChicago Dining Stacey Brown—includes images of insects in bits of salad, smoothies being served in containers labeled “Food Waste Only,” and even a bolt found in a slice of pizza.
Gardner had five meetings with UChicago Dining to discuss the ongoing issue and would prefer that the University not sign with Aramark and instead consider a company that serves safer and healthier food.
Some UChicago students believe that UChicago dining services should operate on an independent contract. The University’s Fight for Just Food group argues that UChicago Dining should consider self-operation, an option they think has not been entirely exhausted. The group formed in the fall quarter of 2015 after becoming aware of Aramark’s prison funding.
The group drafted a “Statement of Purpose” about their dissatisfactions and what they would like to see from UChicago Dining. Besides the members’ disapproval of Aramark’s link to prisons, they write that funding prisons creates a controversy between the University and the heads of Aramark. “The University has been signing multi-million dollar dining contracts with Aramark for decades, despite an obvious conflict of interest between the University’s board of trustees and Aramark’s [past] CEO of 30 years, Joseph Neubauer,” the statement said.
Neubauer joined the University’s Board of Trustees in 1992, three years after UChicago signed with Aramark. According to Acting Associate Vice President of Communications, Jeremy Manier, the Board is involved in contracting University administration but is not involved in any dining decision processes.
In addition to this discrepancy, the statement read UChicago Director of Dining Richard Mason “has shown little to no interest in seeking and incorporating student input in the contract decision process.” Lastly, the members cited that many of their questions about self-operation from a Dining Town Hall meeting on January 27 still remain unanswered.
“In our meetings with Mason, he never considers self-operation. We think it could really work, and then we could also decide where the money goes. We should not be funding prisons,” third year Fight for Just Food member Julia Epplin-Zapf said.
UChicago Dining is now using those opinions, along with their own expertise and past experiences, to review the reputations of Aramark, Sodexo, and Bon Appétit at other campuses as well as how self-operated universities’ dining systems function. For a local comparison, Dining and CDAB, a group of three Student Government (SG) members and three Inter-House Council (IHC) members, are reviewing food served at other Illinois universities. Aramark serves food at Loyola University Chicago, Sodexo at Northwestern University, and Bon Appétit at Wheaton College.
Aramark Corporation, previously founded as Davidson Brothers in 1936, is an American food service, facilities, and clothing provider with $14.3 billion (2015) in revenue, as reported from Google Finances. Until he retired in 2014, UChicago alumnus Joseph Neubauer served as chairman and CEO of the company, based out of Philadelphia. Sodexo, formerly Sodexho Alliance, is a French food and facility service management corporation with $22 billion (2015) in revenue, also reported from Google Finances. Bon Appétit is an American food provider based in Palo Alto, California. This company is a part of a larger, British food service provider called Compass Group. According to their website, Compass Group’s revenue stands at approximately $14.5 billion (2015).
According to U.S. school ranking and student review program Niche.com, formerly known as College Prowler, Aramark currently maintains a “B-” rating from Loyola as of June 8, 2015 and and “A-” rating from UChicago. Loyola student contributors Amy Tolle and Nathan Ramin authored the most detailed rating on the site. They said that the quality of food is standard but that the students are given limited access to food.
“It could be worse. That seems to be the attitude most students have about Loyola’s on-campus dining options,” they wrote. “One of the primary complaints about Loyola’s dining is that the University has its meal plan system set up so that students can’t use it anywhere except in the [three] dining halls and the two on-campus coffee shops. Most schools will have a program set up with local fast food establishments or family-owned businesses allowing students to use their campus cards to pay for food; this is not the case at Loyola.”
Loyola students actually show greatest concern in the viability of Aramark’s custodial contracts rather than the quality of food. On November 20, four Loyola students and the University’s entire student government organization protested in solidarity with dining hall workers and Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
The controversy began in 2003 when CPS reported that Aramark and Sodexo consistently overprice their budgets for providing food and cleaning various facilities. Most recently, CPS reported last April that the companies fired custodians and dining hall workers as a means of saving money even after billing CPS $86 million instead of the original $64 million. In an article published by WBEZ last April, several school administrators stated their dissatisfaction with Aramark’s business tactics.
“That’s pretty astonishing. If you have a signed contract that says ‘X’ numbers of dollars, that’s what it should be and it should be up to Aramark to absorb those other costs,” principal of Hanson Park Elementary in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood Dave Belanger said.
Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, hopes that schools do not sign with either of the two companies.
“Aramark and Sodexo should pack their bags because they need to leave town. There is no way we’re not going to continue to fight this,” she said.
Aramark spokeswoman Karen Cutler believes that CPS is responsible for the over budgeting, and that Aramark billed CPS after the board failed to hire 100 more custodians.
Northwestern University has maintained a dining contract with Sodexo since 1998. In 2012, the U.S. employer equality index Human Rights Campaign (HRC) named Sodexo one of the “Best Places to Work.” Since 2007, the company has received a 100-percent rating for creating an inclusive environment for all employees, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.
However, following this previously clean record with Sodexo, Northwestern has faced complaints about workers’ rights within the last two years. On January 24, the Daily Northwestern reported that more than 80 students and University employees marched down Sheridan Road demanding better treatment of food service workers. Workers specifically negotiated for the ability to work 40 hours per week instead of 37.5 hours without the possibility of working overtime. Students’ increasing awareness of the issue from conversing with dining hall workers created further dissatisfaction, which led to the march. This march is similar to a protest from last year, where more than 1,000 Northwestern staff and students signed a petition that criticized Sodexo supervisors’ disrespectful behavior toward workers.
Despite the rise of this issue, Northwestern has agreed to keep Sodexo as its food service provider in 2018 and will instead consolidate its three contracts, which provide food to the Student Affairs for the Evanston campus, to the athletic department, and to the Chicago campus. All students are originally given 14-week meal plans that provide three meals a day for six full days a week and dinner on Sunday. Students also receive a quarterly allocation of Wildcat Points, the Maroon Dollar equivalent at Northwestern.
According to Dining Director Ken Fields from another Daily Northwestern article, “[Consolidating] would help improve transition between different areas. We work with Athletics to allow students to use meal swipes at basketball games and football games in the concessions area, but those are really two separate entities kind of working together even though they’re both Sodexo. We try to look for ways we can find additional opportunities to expand,” he said.
Northwestern Dining and Sodexo also created a new Food Advisory Board this past October. The group is similar to UChicago’s Dining Advisory Board in that it strives to improve the University’s food quality and meal plans. Members of the previous student dining board at Northwestern focused on separate sections of dining like vegetarian options and sustainability but noticed that the quality of food declined and that they were not responding to students’ requests for more options.
Sodexo’s dining services have a “B+” rating on Niche at Northwestern. Students commented on the Niche site, mostly saying that the quality of food that Sodexo provides is average and that the company could provide more varieties of food.
“The idea behind starting [the new Food Advisory Board] was to get a wider student base of opinions about the food and how we can improve it,” third-year Sandeep Bharadwaj said.
The board hopes to make some changes, including more meal plan options and a larger variety of food for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free students. “We’re going to get all of the students in the room and see what the students want to make of it.” It’s really up to them… Food is such a source of community and to be able to have students who are actually involved in shaping their community is really powerful,” Rachel Tilghman, Sodexo’s Director of Communications and Engagement, added.
Breakdown of Bon Appétit
The last company the University is considering is Bon Appétit, which replaced Sodexo at Wheaton College approximately 20 years ago. Tony Dawson, the Auxiliary Services Director, says that Wheaton has been contracted with a private food service provider for at least 30 years. Bon Appétit’s meal plan is similar to Northwestern’s but serves 18 meals a week instead of 14.
“We have been extremely happy with Bon Appétit. Our account is regularly rated in the top tier by the Princeton Review; more importantly, we consistently earn “A+” marks from our students in Niche.com surveys. The management team is proactive and responsive, the culinary team is innovative yet sensitive to student tastes, and the catering team provides excellent support to our fund raisers, summer conference groups, and campus departments,” Dawson said.
Dawson believes that Bon Appétit has optimal leadership and communication.
“Bon Appétit leadership, from bottom to top, takes an interest in our account… [In addition] Bon Appétit regularly polls the student body to ensure that menus and service meet with their approval. [The food provider] does many other things for us, including special events for students during finals weeks, concessions at games, special pricing for department functions, discounted pricing for faculty and staff, etc.,” he said.
Raul Delgado, Bon Appétit’s General Manager at Wheaton, says that Bon Appétit does not thinks of itself as a contract food service provider but rather as a restaurant in order to heighten its quality of food.
“Contract food service providers sometimes act as if they have this captive audience that they can count on coming through their doors every day. They can tend to fall in the complacency trap serving the same food or not putting an effort into making things different daily, adding new twists, changing presentation, etc. Bon Appétit has always looked at itself as a restaurant company first and foremost, and like a restaurant company, we believe we need to earn your business with every meal we serve… It’s a delicate balance of dependability and excitement,” he said.
Delgado added that Bon Appétit does not fund prisons, which he knows has been a concern of UChicago students.
“Bon Appétit has never provided service for any prison facilities. We operate in only three business segments – educational institutions, select corporate dining locations, and museums and other cultural centers. Our parent company, the Compass Group, does not serve prisons either; it divested itself of that segment of the business several years ago,” he said.
The Future of UChicago’s Dining Contracts
Based on UChicago’s experience with dining over the last 30 years, the University will most likely sign a contract with Aramark, Sodexo, or Bon Appétit. Fight for Just Food students are still pushing for a rejection of all three companies for an independent contract and will continue to hold on-campus meetings.
To get a clearer picture of what an independent contract would look like, Mason considered Cornell University’s in-house food services. The Cornell Dining meal plan enables students to access the All You Care to Eat dining rooms for a reduced price and make tax-free food purchases at campus cafes, food courts, convenience stores, and coffee shops by swiping their IDs.
Part of what makes this wide variety of options available is Dining’s work with Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. The School of Hotel Administration allows students to improve customer service and business skills by operating restaurants and cafes on campus. This employment saves the University from hiring workers from other food companies.
Although some UChicago students believe that UChicago dining services should operate on an independent contract, Mason believes that the University does not currently have the necessary resources for successfully providing food on its own. The University’s last independent food service program ended in 1989, when according Mason, many other Universities had moved from self-service to food contracts.
“Industry wide, the trend is that universities are moving to contract companies. Fairly few Universities go self-operated, then on a contract, then self operated again… With the University itself doing its own dining, there’s a number of questions that you need to ask yourself. Is it part of your core competencies?” he said.
Delgado recommends that universities view contract service food providers as restaurants if they want food that matches the caliber of their school. “Complacency is the enemy of excellence,” he said.