What’s behind your lunch? Part I

What is a company with a history like that of Aramark doing running our campus dining service?

by John Hoff

Complaints about campus food service are nothing new. Words like dreadful and abominable can be found in the minutes of various campus committees, available over the Internet, mixed with the corporate name Aramark like a less than fresh stir-fry. These are not merely the words of students, but spoken by faculty members advocating on behalf of students, like professor Paula Rabinowitz, whose remarks were summarized in minutes of the Faculty Consultative Committee on July 12, 2000, as follows:

“The food is ‘abominable’ and ‘almost inedible.’ She also maintained that the retail food service has a nearly-captive audience because it is a long walk to find places to eat off campus – and then only to ‘abominable fast food places.’ Moreover, it is cold in the winter; people do not want to walk half an hour to eat. She said the food was demoralizing and that there are appallingly few choices. Many people now bring their lunches and eat in their offices, she said, which is a sad commentary on the food.”

A very specialized Google search allows viewing of documents generated by only particular colleges, like the University. You can punch in words like “Aramark” and “cafeteria,” turning up numerous university minutes, detailing a history of angry and disappointed students complaining about food service Ö and admittedly, documentation of improvements in response to those complaints. Most of the really intense gripes are from a period of about 1997 to 2002. In the past few years, it appears there is a kind of waiting game, perhaps waiting to dispute any renewal of a contract with awful Aramark. It is during this 1997 to 2002 period that one reads stuff like students making “severely adverse comments” about “quality, price and service.” That’s when you read phrases like “high prices, low quality.”

There are, however, two words which have apparently never been openly spoken on this campus in regard to Aramark and campus food service. Those two words are organized and crime.

I used to work for Aramark, which then was known as ARA. (The company changed its name in 1994; the name “ARA” derived from Automatic Retailers of America, the company’s roots being in the vending machine business.) My job for ARA was in Shenandoah National Park, Va., at a privately managed hotel complex. Most of the time the work was a blast and the people were terrific Ö but I heard consistent rumors that the company was, in fact, controlled or at least strongly influenced by “The Mob.” At first I laughed, and thought back to a much earlier job working for Godfather’s Pizza.

The mob indeed! Pass the tomato sauce, Vinny. But every now and then I would see or hear something which seemed to fit the rumors. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut and do my jobby-job checking in guests, hauling firewood and selling overpriced souvenirs celebrating Appalachian culture. After two summers of working for ARA, I became a firm believer in the rumors, and my lips were set in a firm line. There are some subjects where one does not freely offer an opinion. There are some people in this world who do not leave paper trails and do not play by rules.

So years later, when my Daily opinions editor brought up the issue of Aramark control of campus dining, I immediately fell into the old habit of whispering instead of speaking the unspeakable in a normal tone of voice. “Haven’t you heard?” I whispered. “Haven’t you heard the deal about Aramark?”

But my Aramark experiences predate the rise of the Internet. What once was whispered by employees, what once was momentarily on the newspaper rack but then fell into yellowed archives, can now be said openly. The Internet allows a person to speak aloud the unspeakable.

An alleged connection between Aramark and organized crime is made on the Internet by dubious names like “Thistle 9.11” in pretentiously named places like “angelfire.com” But using such fly-by-night sources as a starting point, it is possible to track down the credible sources that form the basis of (if not proof positive of mob influence) at least well documented rumors consistent enough to be reported by The Wall Street Journal and a book published by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, titled “Passing The Bucks.”

Thursday you will read of that documentation. Tonight, you may want to ask yourself this question: What is a company with a history like that of Aramark doing running our campus dining service? And do you really want to be giving these people your money?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].