Faculty criticize

John Adams

While food service provider Aramark Corp. did what the University asked of it one year ago — turn debt into profit — faculty and staff are not satisfied with the quality and prices of food.
A survey of 2,500 faculty and staff, of which 150 responded, resulted in resounding negative feedback about nearly all retail food services on campus. This despite the fact that Aramark has turned what was a $1.6 million liability, the former University Dining Services, into a $2 million surplus.
Aramark will distribute student surveys Wednesday through Friday at residence halls and retail outlets.
The 150 or so e-mailed responses were prepared for a Feb. 2 Aramark evaluation meeting between the Senate Committee on Finance and Planning, and Vice President McKinley Boston, whose office signed the contract.
The 10-year contract was signed a little more than a year ago amid projections from the vice president’s and president’s offices of affordable, quality food for the University. But the recent comments tell a different story.
Nearly all the University’s retail outlets from the Bistro West on the West Bank to the Terrace Cafe on the St. Paul campus took a tongue-lashing from faculty and staff.
Steve Gudeman is chairman of the Finance and Planning Committee which initiated the e-mail in response to “grumbling” about the food quality since Aramark took over food service. Gudeman, an anthropology professor said good food is an important part of a university:
“Students need places to talk over food. It’s critical. We can do better. We must do better.”
But Ron Campbell, associate vice president of student development and athletics said the responses are deceiving. Campbell said the responses represent a small percentage of the University consumers. Campbell, who signed the contract, added that evaluations are being done constantly by Aramark and the University, and in those Aramark is doing better. But Campbell admitted there is some room for improvement.
“Some people say it’s worse than it’s ever been. Quite honestly I don’t believe that. We will make it successful,” Campbell said.
Aramark officials have seen the responses from staff and said changes are being made to accommodate them. “No one was pleased with the responses,” said Aramark district manager Doug Hubbard. Hubbard said Aramark is responding to the issues that they could — operational issues.
But it would take more than an improvement in operational issues to bring back the group of applied economics professors who had a table every day in the Cherrywood room on the St. Paul campus.
“It was a nice quiet place where we had our own table. Everyday you could count on four to 12 people there, the conversation was very collegial,” said Jerry Fruin, an applied economics professor.
Fruin said no one from his department goes there since Aramark took over food services, but he doesn’t place blame on Aramark. Fruin said the University forced Aramark into a rigid price system to make money on the deal.
As for the pricing of the food, Hubbard said Aramark shops the competition and tries to set their price within about 3.6 percent of a competitor. But a check in local restaurants found that percentage off in comparison to food prices at the University.
While Aramark sells its burgers for more than $3, the Stadium Village Burger King sells burgers for 89 cents. A bagel from Bruegger’s is 59 cents; from the University it’s 89 cents. Want a turkey sub sandwich? $3.99 at the University, or 99 cents at The Taste of Manhattan in Stadium Village.
Other campuses in Minnesota with food service from Aramark also have lower prices. At Southwest State University a quarter-pounder with cheese is $2, while at the University it’s $3.19. A 12-ounce bowl of chili at Southwest State is $1.80, while an 8-ounce bowl of chili at the University is $2.
The money is put back into food service, Campbell said. Some people think the money is “going into a big University black hole. That’s not true,” Campbell said. He said in addition to the $2 million, about another $400,000 is divided among Coffman Union, the St. Paul Student Center and residence halls.
Aramark is also required to solicit proposals from national, regional and local food providers as part of the contract. Hubbard said no commitments have been made but Aramark has spoken with Starbucks and Java City, both coffee shops. Hubbard said the possible renovation of Coffman Union has made Aramark take a wait-and-see approach to bringing in private food vendors.
The next meeting to discuss the Aramark contract will be with the Twin Cities Campus Assembly on Feb. 18. Aramark is required by the contract to be “responsive to community needs” and “include students in the decision-making process regarding food choices, availability, quality assurance and pricing.”