No matter the weather or time of year, lunchtime at the Retreat on an average Vassar weekday is a long and cramped affair. As students, faculty, staff and visitors pour into the café located on the south side of the College Center, a packed Retreat leaves patrons scavenging for open tables and enduring lengthy lines to both order food and pay for their meals.
Finding a way to ease the crowds of patrons has been an ongoing goal for both Vassar and Aramark, the College’s food service company. In reality, though, the woes of the Retreat actually spell a grander issue at work about the structure of dining on campus and what the future will hold for students.
As its food service provider, Aramark has been with the College for nearly 25 years, first arriving back in 1989 to help improve food quality at the All College Dining Center (ACDC) and replace a Vassar owned and managed dining system.
Since then, Aramark has expanded to manage most dining facilities on campus, including the Retreat, Express Lunch, Kiosk and UpC’s Java City. All of the dining facilities report to Maureen King, Senior Director of Campus Dining at Vassar and Aramark employee.
“The Retreat was never designed to handle the volume that it currently does,” said Maureen King in an emailed statement.
Since the Retreat moved into the College Center back in 1975, the College population has increased significantly, and the way campus dining works has dramatically altered. Every student on a meal plan is allotted an amount of dining dollars that can be spent at the Retreat, as well as at the Kiosk and Java City.
Originally, the Retreat had limited daytime hours and, for some years, was not even part of the meal plan. Over time, however, it grew to become an extremely popular dining option because of its central location on campus and was then included in the meal plan for all students.
In order to help relieve the volume of customers at the Retreat, Aramark has been searching for ways to encourage students during lunch to dine in areas aside from the Retreat, such as the Kiosk, Express Lunch and ACDC. The introduction of new sushi trays earlier in the month has been one particularly visible way Aramark is trying to help reduce waiting times.
But the woes of the Retreat’s crowdedness come amongst numerous other complaints about dining here on Vassar’s campus.
Two other common concerns include the prices of à la carte items at facilities like the Retreat, as well as the availability of late-night options. All of these issues continue to represent much of the criticism Aramark and Vassar receive over campus dining.
With respect to pricing, Aramark has complete control over the retail prices on campus and does not need Vassar’s approval. In fact, the prices of items at the Retreat and other facilities do not even need to follow a set guideline, such as a minimum or maximum profit margin.
According to Maureen King, the prices are set at the discretion of the Aramark managers here on campus. Maureen King noted, “[We] get from Aramark a retail sheet, which tells us by the area of the country what, for example, a bottle of soda sells for.”
That information is then used along with other known costs and the prices of similar items sold at local restaurants to determine the final selling price. Maureen King will also occasionally visit local businesses such as the Acropolis Diner and My Market when considering prices.
As a result of all of this, prices in the Retreat are generally less expensive than those found at local restaurants, but are also usually more expensive than the prices found at local supermarkets. This holds true especially for grocery items such as fresh fruits and milk, but also for prepared foods like sandwiches.
A 16 oz package of strawberries selling for $2.50 at Stop and Shop will go for $4.29 in the Retreat. Meanwhile, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, which costs $3.00 at Stop and Shop, sells for nearly double at the Retreat.
Though some students bemoan the prices of these groceries, Rory Moon ’15 sees the costs as a trade off. “I’ve complained about the price a lot, but one thing I try to keep in mind—and something a lot of students don’t think about—is that Vassar spends most of its money on making this education affordable for its students,” he said.
Maureen King, addressed the concern about pricing, stating that she does not see the Retreat as a dining facility that offers supermarket prices. Maureen King noted in an emailed statement, “I would classify the Retreat as a retail outlet.”
But while Maureen King considers the Retreat a location much like that of My Market or a local restaurant, Aramark remains one of the largest food service companies in the United States and likely has much greater buying power through itself and partnered suppliers, such as Sysco, than these local businesses. Greater buying power means Aramark can negotiate lower prices for the same goods or grocery items sold in locations such as the Retreat.
However, Aramark does not disclose exactly what profit margins it earns on the goods sold in locations such as the Retreat and other retail locations.
According to Bryan Swarthout, Director of Budgets and Enterprise Services at Vassar, Aramark’s compensation depends on a number of factors, including the amount of tax-exempt debt the College uses to finance renovations, such as the ACDC’s roof replacement.
“IRS rules require we establish a band around the potential compensation for Aramark to ensure they don’t earn excess profits supported by tax exempt debt,” said Swarthout. “Where within the band Aramark’s actual compensation lands is dependent on total revenue generated by the dining program.”
As a result, Aramark’s compensation varies. In the 2009/10 fiscal year, Aramark was compensated about $3.6 million, and in the 2010/11 fiscal year it received nearly $4 million, a $400,000 increase in compensation year over year.
Another aspect of pricing that remains in large part a mystery is the wide variety in meal equivalency value. Meals can be purchased in blocks of 10 or more at $12.50 per meal. However, retail prices for these meals vary across campus. For example, meals swipes used for breakfast and dinner at the ACDC carry different retail prices.
Meal equivalency for Express Lunch and at Java City also carry different values depending on the items purchased. The lack of meal equivalency at other venues also leaves most students without dining dollars, but with an excess of meals by the end of the semester—meals which won’t roll over from one semester to the next.
“The Retreat is fine in general,” said Moon, “not many options but for its size that’s reasonable—but it is way too easy to swipe your way through all your dining bucks there because of the pricing.”
With respect to late-night dining, Aramark recently operated a test run of “Late Night at the Deece,” which offered hot food options for three weeks this semester in the east side of the ACDC through late night hours.
While the new dining option offered a variety of food choices to students and was well received according to updates from the VSA Council, its prices were, much like with other facilities, compared to what restaurants charge.
At this time, though, there is no joint committee that exists at Vassar to collectively decide the goals of dining on campus. There was a Food & Dining Implementation Committee as of 2010; however, it is not a committee listed either on the VSA or Vassar College website.
Instead, both listed the VSA Food Committee, a student-organized committee that works with Maureen King to discuss student concerns about dining on campus.
The VSA Food Committee, however, has only a brief description on the Vassar College website, with few details on its specific goals and projects. According to current Committee Chair Sarah King ’16, its goals change year after year.
Instead of being given specific tasks by the VSA, the Food Committee focuses on whatever projects and goals are set by the chair of the Committee, who is elected by the student body during spring elections.
Sarah King noted that she rarely receives instruction by the VSA on what to discuss or proceed with the food service company, so she focuses on what concerns students bring to her.
Sarah King added, “If there was a concern from students to make a more structured Food Committee that could be done.”
Another now-discontinued committee was the Campus Dining Review Committee (CDRC), which was created during the 2011/12 school year to address concerns about poor food quality in the ACDC. The CDRC conducted a number of focus groups and surveys and toured other school’s dining centers, trying to find solutions to a number of student concerns.
Co-chair of the Committee and then VP of Student Life for the VSA Charlie Dobb ’12 worked closely with Director of Campus Activities and Assistant Dean of the College Terry Quinn and Maureen King to bring forward the concerns of students and improve dining on campus.
According to Dobb, Aramark was very receptive to this kind of student feedback.
He said, “Aramark struggled to come up with ideas, but they were happy to help where they could. Vassar is a unique dining audience and I think, frankly, Aramark just wasn’t sure how to most satisfy the audience.”
A memorandum from the 2012 CDRC notes over a dozen different changes that were made to the ACDC in response to the CDRC’s efforts. Dobb also noted that Maureen King was instrumental in helping implement these changes that were made to campus dining and listen to the resulting feedback. The CDRC then dissolved after completing its research.
For some though, these changes were not enough. “As a vegan, I was relegated to cobbling together a meal out of side dishes (hummus, steamed/roasted veggies, salad, etc.) rather than offered a hearty main dish,” wrote Alessandra Seiter ’16 in an emailed statement.
However, there is no exact answer as to solving these many concerns and complexities about campus dining. While Aramark has been at Vassar for nearly 25 years, according to Swarthout a new contract has not yet been proposed for the company.
“Vassar and Aramark are currently executing annual extensions of our relationship while Vassar evaluates strategic alternatives for dining,” Swarthout noted in an e-mailed statement. Aramark’s last five-year contract was initiated in 2008 and expired in 2013.
According to Dean of the College Chris Roellke, these “strategic alternatives” could mean potential alternatives to Aramark. He noted that he plans, upon his return from sabbatical next year, to discuss the current situation of dining on campus, which may include having a Request for Proposal (RFP) from Aramark as well as other dining services companies.
“With the current college store about to be vacated and the forthcoming opening of the new [science center], the timing could not be better for a comprehensive examination of dining services at Vassar.” Roellke noted in an e-mailed statement.
An RFP would allow these companies to pitch their vision of campus dining to Vassar and suggest new ways to approach dining on campus.
“Such an examination should include consideration of a potential RFP as well as other strategic alternatives to our current dining arrangements.” Roellke added. He also acknowledged the work of Terry Quinn and her efforts to work with Aramark to respond to student feedback.
“If Vassar were to hire a new dining service company, I would love to see a greater variety, quality, and frequency of vegan options in both the Deece and the Retreat,” said Seiter.
For Moon it is pricing and quality that are his main concerns. He stated, “It’s my opinion that the quality we get is a little below what we pay for, so if we were to switch I’d like to see the price go down or the quality of the food go up.”
In addition to adding the variety that Seiter and Moon hope for, RFPs could also give Aramark the opportunity to rethink dining on campus and propose new styles of dining.
One potential model is that of Middlebury College, where students can enter a dining hall as many times as they’d like during a set meal period during the day.
Dobb also noted that, while on the CDRC in 2012, a number of students expressed interest in having RFPs. However, according to Dobb, there was a cost analysis discussed and it was decided that improving Aramark facilities was the best decision for the time. “It was a money call, but we [students] were definitely interested in [an RFP],” said Dobb.
Yet, another possibility is for Vassar to consider returning to an in-house dining service, something in which the union workers at the ACDC and other dining facilities are interested.
Cathy Bradford, an ACDC worker and Shop Steward for SEIU, is one such person suggesting an in-house dining service, managed through SEIU as opposed to a food service company such as Aramark.
She’s confident that SEIU employees could potentially offer a less expensive but still effective dining option for Vassar’s campus.
For now, Aramark remains Vassar’s food services company, but an opportunity exists for Vassar to consider the dining options it has through Aramark, the dining options it wants to create with future spaces and whether the best choice is to continue building off our 25-year relationship with Aramark or instead start from scratch.
No matter who runs campus dining at Vassar, one thing it will demand is collaboration. Said Maureen King, “A lot of the decisions are made jointly.”
—Additional reporting by Contributing Editor Ruth Bolster.