University seeking changes to dining as Aramark contract ends

“How you can deliver quality food is what we’re looking for in the next contract.”

By Wendy Lee

UChicago Dining’s five-year contract with food provider Aramark Corporation will soon expire in June 2016, opening the door to negotiations with other providers.

The University will work with Envision Strategies, a food service consulting firm, to launch a request for proposal (RFP) process. Through the RFP process, a wide range of food service companies, such as Sodexo and Compass, will have the opportunity to bid on a contract with the University through the submission of a competitive business proposal. During the fall and winter quarter, the University will assess the bids it receives, and a dining provider will be chosen by the end of winter quarter. The contract with this new dining provider will begin next fall quarter.

Members of the College Council (CC) met in the Cox Lounge of Stuart Hall on Tuesday, October 20 to discuss the future of on-campus dining with Richard Mason, the University’s executive director of dining. The news of the contract expiration pleasantly surprised Calvin Cottrell, a Class of 2018 representative.

“A lot of us were very excited about the news,” Cottrell said. “Mr. Mason made it seem like he was looking for some substantial improvements.”

During the meeting, Mason expressed a need for higher quality food in the dining halls. To him, this means improving the quality of the ingredients, the state of facilities and equipment, and the care with which the chef prepares the meal.

“We want to make sure we provide dining that really builds and sustains community. In order to build community, you have to really enjoy your dining experience,” Mason said. “How you can deliver quality food is what we’re looking for in the next contract. The framework is in place, but we’re looking for consistency in the quality of food and the quality of service. We want to continuously raise the bar on the food we offer.”

Cottrell, however, noted that one of CC’s biggest concerns with the contract expiration was with the transparency of the bidding process itself. Students in CC expressed concern over Aramark’s eligibility to bid for another five-year term due to Aramark’s ties to University Board of Trustee member Joseph Neubauer (M.B.A ’65). Neubauer is the previous chief executive officer and chairman of Aramark. He retired from Aramark in 2014, and was elected vice chairman of the Board of Trustees in 2012.

“My understanding is that the University is going through the bidding process…to see what other options are out there,” Cottrell said. “[But] in the past, Aramark has had a privileged position in the bidding process. We want to make sure the bidding process is open and fair so there would at least be the possibility of getting [a new dining provider].”

Second-year Max Freedman, a Jannotta House dining representative on the Campus Dining Advisory Board, says it’s likely that Aramark’s contract with the University will be renewed because of the company’s history of reliable service. For Freedman, however, his problem with Aramark is its lack of accountability as a food service provider on campus.

“The very fact that I first raised concerns about allergen and nutrition labeling inaccuracies last November means that they have had 11 months to fix a real liability, and only now have they committed to presenting the dining reps with a plan for moving forward,” Freedman said. “Aramark does well with incorporating what we like when we request it and replacing less popular options…On the other hand, the fact that systemic issues such as alerting students with allergies or with dietary issues like diabetes are allowed to persist indicates to me a kind of complacency that comes from a lack of accountability.”

Another major concern for students is whether staff members employed by Aramark will continue to be employed by the new contractor.

In regard to Student Government (SG) members’ concerns about the existing staff’s employment with the change in contract, Mason stated that the University’s priority is to keep existing staff, regardless of the dining provider.

“We expect that whoever we work with will work with our union staff,” Mason said. “If we were to make a transition, the successful company would interview existing staff first and work with the staff who are already here.”

Mary Abowd, the Campus and Student Life news officer for the news office, said that the University will take student, faculty, and staff input heavily into account.

“We believe that with input…we will be able to continue to meet the needs of our diverse campus community with a top tier, high quality dining program,” Abowd said in an e-mail.

In the case that Aramark’s contract with the University is renewed, Freedman hopes that the company prioritizes increased transparency during its next five years on campus.

“The University needs to demand the same standard from its contractors as the City demands from all food service outlets,” Freedman said. “While Aramark has been more helpful than most students imagine…they have been shockingly negligent to this issue which I would argue is one of their most basic responsibilities.”