What’s behind your lunch? Part 4

A dirty thumbnail history of Aramark’s troubled relationship with the University via Daily archives brings us to the present day.

John Hoff

Aramark, which runs your campus dining, started its troubled relationship with our University rather like an aggressive would-be boyfriend. In fact, the romance metaphor was used in a Daily article published May 14, 1997, which said “The University’s lone food service candidate has proven it is smitten with the school, as it takes the first steps toward establishing a relationship.” The article said Aramark “will court the University” and “discuss the school’s needs and the advantages the company provides for meeting those needs.” Aramark even bragged of its “experiences” on other campuses. Aramark was, at that point, explicitly hoping for “exposure.”

However, the relatives didn’t like Aramark, the mysterious new boyfriend who had been so many places and done so many things. On May 23, 1997, employees were quoted in a Daily article speaking about the future of food service. They had fear about the new boyfriend. Fear that benefits and wages would be drastically cut, relationships altered. But the University threw itself into the arms of Aramark. In a prophetic letter printed in the Daily that same month, a student said the University should have “done its homework” about Aramark, saying that he had encountered Aramark at Clemson University and the food was “absolutely horrible.”

But our University was already very much in bed with Aramark. One letter from a student in the Daily implied the University should have learned something from “the infamous Coke deal.” There had been a domestic quarrel on May 21, 1997, with a Daily article titled “Students grill food vendor.” The students were described as “armed with questions” and echoing concerns. Some neighbors also got involved in the issue later in the day, including Thomas J. Hughes, president of the Dinkytown Business Association and owner of Annie’s Parlor. Hughes was interested in having a malt stand. Another neighbor from the Cedar Riverside Business Association expressed concern about how the University had thrown up a wall with the Carlson School of Management, “threaten(ing) to destroy whatever sense of community remains in his neighborhood.” Aramark tried to sound reassuring, but ultimately “could not guarantee that any of the student suggestions would be implemented.”

An ominous article in the Daily dated June 3, 1997, pointed out that even the State Capitol didn’t want to renew its contract with Aramark, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said Aramark was “totally insensitive to the needs of legislators of having food available throughout the day.” In the Daily on March 5, 1998, employee feedback said the “2-month-old transition to Aramark Corp. management has been a little rough.” Aramark promised “physical face lifts” on campus dining sites. There was talk of cold potatoes, watery pop and “the same old greasy crap.”

In a Daily article published June 8, 1998, students called the food “unrecognizable” and compared it unfavorably with the chow found in homeless shelters. A treasured gathering spot called Cafe of The Americas was wiped out in the fall of 1998 due to the sale of the Newman Center to the University and the University’s exclusive dining contract with Aramark. February 1999 brought criticism of Aramark from faculty, including accusations of not abiding by waste policies. That same month, law students thought they were not getting adequate food services and that this had even impacted socialization at the Law School.

On April 20, 1999, the Daily said in a scathing editorial that the company had pursued money while forgetting its relationship with students. At that time, Stadium Village Burger King sold a burger for 89 cents, while Aramark charged $3. Students in the dorms were, however, trapped in their relationship with Aramark. There was discussion of an ongoing fruitfly problem, employees making do without needed supplies and unclean silverware and dishes. The words of the Daily shouted, “Aramark offers low quality food at a high price. Congratulations on making such a nice profit. Now when are you going to begin thinking about the people you should be serving, students and staff?” Associate Vice President of Student Development and Athletics, Housing and Dining Services Ronald E. Campbell replied in a letter published about a week later that the Daily was “misleading” and had “inaccuracies” and said that change had been difficult, but “we are listening better and learning more.”

There was a long lull after the harsh attack on the Daily by Campbell and corrections printed about the article, especially concerning alleged profit numbers. Then, in February 2003, more than 600 students and patrons petitioned for expanded food court hours in Coffman Union. In March 2004, mandatory meal plans were condemned and the University was urged to “exercise its right to opt out of the contract [with Aramark].” In November 2004, the grievances of a cook named Gary Strafelda were aired by Daily reporter Bryce Haugen. Another article said lower level managers and employees are bullied and overworked, putting in 60 to 70 hours a week though told at first they would work 50. In April 2005, a Minnesota Student Association statement asked that one stadium concession be designated for student-group fundraising.

Thus, in a four part series, we have come all the way from the very roots of Aramark to the concerns of our campus in the present day. What, you have to wonder, does the future hold? Will this campus be trapped forever in this abusive relationship? Or can we get ourselves a damn divorce?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected] Editorials and Opinions Editor Karl Noyes assisted in research.