February 15, 2011

With dining contracts ending, U of C calls for bids

With current supplier Aramark’s contract set to expire this summer, Campus Dining Services has been requesting proposals from potential bidders in the food services industry. The move is part of the Global Dining Initiative (GDI), an ongoing, campus-wide evaluation of dining services that school administrators hope will usher in a more unified and responsive campus dining experience.

Along with discussing an expansion to the flex dollar system into what administrators are tentatively calling Maroon Dollars, the University has determined several top priorities in what they will look for in proposals, including more freedom with dining payment.

“You as a student shouldn’t have to worry about whether those dollars are attached to campus or off,” Associate Vice President for Student Life Karen Warren Coleman said. “You should be able to eat at South Campus but also go to a student-run café, and wouldn’t it also be nice, if you could, to use it at Five Guys on 53rd Street?”

Administrators say that the timing of the search complements the GDI’s comprehensive approach to improve campus dining. The contract expiration coincides with the end of all but one of the nine contracts held by the U of C’s retail cafés, which Coleman said would allow them to better integrate campus dining.

At present, the third-party operators in charge of the cafés control the hours, offerings, and prices at their locations, and have a strictly contractual relationship with the University. “What you lose there is any sort of programmatic focus,” said Coleman. “It makes it more difficult to figure out, ‘How do you meet the needs of a student community? Could you stay open late, could you close early?’ And it’s really that vendor making decisions without University oversight.”

Director of Campus Dining Richard Mason said that Campus Dining Services is working to develop the technology and business solutions necessary to support a more fluid flex dollar system which could be used at places beyond the dining halls and markets both on- and off-campus.

The University has requested proposals from dining services only once since 1989, when it moved from independent to privately run dining operations. “The food service industry has changed drastically over the last decade with modernization and different offerings on different campuses,” Coleman said. “It’s really time to go back to the marketplace.”

Coleman said interested companies will submit their proposals by late March, at which time a 25-person selection panel made up of faculty, students, and staff will start the process of choosing a supplier.

When their initial contract expired in 1996, the University chose to maintain its relationship with Aramark after a competitive bidding process. The resulting contract—which was originally intended to last until 2004 but was extended due in part to the construction of South Campus Residential Commons—will expire on August 15.

“We’re very serious about putting this out there and exploring an opportunity for a new supplier. If Aramark ends up being that successful supplier, then great,” Coleman said.

There will also be a reevaluation of the dining plan, which switched to all-you-care-to-eat last year.

While the unlimited meal plan has ignited vocal frustration among some students, administrators say it’s difficult to determine what system would best suit the student body as a whole, because student reviews are mixed.

“The unlimited meal plan is kind of a lightning rod,” said Mason. “There are staunch supporters who really like not having to think about it...and there are others that [say,] ‘It’s too much and it doesn’t fit my needs and my lifestyle’... We’ll need to think about how to capture the things that people like about the unlimited meal plan and try to address the things that people don’t, and find a way to put together a meal plan program that’s able to balance that.”

Once a food service provider has been chosen—and especially if a company other than Aramark is selected—the transition into the new-look dining system will likely be a gradual process, especially with regards to any capital and facility improvements that may be required. “It will look different in some substantial way, but there will probably be, in year two and year three, continuations of some of those changes,” Mason said.