Corporate vendors lose touch with community dining needs

Last Friday was the first of three dining presentations from the firms that have ap­proached Vassar to make a Request For Propos­al (RFP). In a nutshell, these three companies, Sodexo, Bon Appetit and our own Aramark, want to propose to Vassar (and us students) what sort of vision they will implement if put in charge of campus dining over the course of several years.

This is the byproduct of years of student complaints about food quality, a 2012 report on campus dining quality, not to mention my own work on the Miscellany writing on the poor din­ing options on campus.

Now it’s coming together with an action plan, where each company will go into great detail about why they are the foremost experts of dining services in the world, what access and potential they can provide in their capacity, and how they want to carry out their vision here at a school like Vassar College.

I couldn’t help but look on with amusement as Sodexo, the first of the three vendors, pre­sented its dining vision last Friday in the Villard Room. The very nature of the event felt so over­ly professional and structured–something they probably find commonplace at other, much larger institutions. They had this business de­veloper, and that marketing director, and this regional chef coordinator, and so on until at least half a dozen different suited ladies and gentlemen dotted the room, putting on those big grins you only see at conventions and con­ferences. They had this massive HDTV at the front with a slideshow of the various health and food initiatives they provide the world. Of course they had brochures all about Sodexo’s campus dining mission and what sort of success stories they had over the years.

Over the next hour and a half, Sodexo went into its vision about how they saw the faults in Aramark’s current dining situation. They talked about how the food was prepared far too early in the ACDC, prioritizing quantity over quality.

They talked about how, through all this data, social media and other initiatives, Sodexo has the tools to turn Vassar’s dining experience around, and that we’re on the cusp of some sort of dining revolution, just as they provided at Al­bany and Brandeis.

There were all sorts of things done to im­prove dining, including rewards programs, spe­cialty stores, SnapChat accounts for dining and more. Sodexo really emphasized how it was so student-friendly and really knew how to inte­grate its dining experiences into the hip, young, Millennial culture of “Mark Zuckerberg” and “Justin Bieber,” as expressed in their presenta­tion.

Let me be frank: I highly doubt we’ll see any major difference in what Sodexo, Aramark and Bon Appetit can provide as dining service pro­viders. These are massive companies all with the same clout and control over food processes and sourcing, whether it’s around the corner in farms along the Hudson Valley, or even around the world.

The fact of the matter is that I doubt it has much to do with these dining service providers that impacts poor dining quality, but the fund­ing from our college toward campus dining. So­dexo can have all these great ideas, but I won­der if we even give Aramark enough money to do the things it really wants to do.

This is also in conjunction with the fact that we are not a large school, so we can’t have as much variety as a school like Brandeis or Alba­ny when considering how many dining options will exist.

Marianne Begemann on Sunday at VSA Council already stated that once the new cafe in the new Integrated Science Center is complet­ed, there will be no more new dining centers or options on campus, and in fact we’ll probably close the Kiosk in the long term and adjust the capacity of the Retreat, among numerous other ideas rolling around with Master Planning. The point here is that Vassar is not Brandeis or Al­bany. When Sodexo talks about sushi bars and new cafes, that’s in partnership with the college in terms of funding those public works. Aside from improving the Retreat and ACDC, there will be likely few other major changes to dining facilities and options by that extension.

Of course these are just locations, but it’s hard to vision how dining will evolve much farther when we’re working out of the same core facilities, which will be improved, but only within the scale that Vassar sees necessary to meet campus dining needs. And as for the sta­tus quo, I don’t see much of a commitment in that department, with or without Aramark. When Vassar chefs prepare meals, they prepare from recipes that they get from Aramark staff, as well as work from whatever Aramark choos­es to order.

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints from students, among myriad other complaints about the quality of the food in the ACDC, is the fact that options are bland, tasteless and nausea-in­ducing. But this has nothing to do with who provides the food.

Aramark’s food service provider, Sysco, sells a huge range of products, and the problem is that we choose to purchase lower quality foods, more highly processed items, more prepared sauces and generic foods, and ultimately all those things that makes our dining experience such a poor one. Aramark doesn’t want to buy low-quality food, they buy whatever meets their schedule for spending however much money they are allowed to during the year. Even Vassar dining staff admit they know Aramark can buy better quality food, but choose not to, likely due to the limitations of what Vassar’s contract per­mits in terms of spending.

I will admit I’m working from some precon­ceived notions about dining here, as much isn’t shared about how Aramark is compensated, and my last attempt to acquire that information from Brian Swarthout came up empty handed, mostly due to the complex relationship dining has here between facility costs, food costs, man­ager costs and dining staff costs. I’ll also con­cede I don’t think there’s anything malicious afoot here–just that Vassar wants to keep a low-cost dining experience, and that’s far more impactful on our dining experiences than what Aramark can or won’t do on a daily basis. We’re not some big school with 15,000 mouths to feed, and when seniors don’t typically have to pay for a meal plan, that removes a lot of people from an already small campus.

These big ideas, and this professional pre­sentation grounded in big school successes sort of demonstrates not only how little Sodexo understands Vassar as a campus, but also how it seems that little will change after these din­ing projects are adopted, unless Vassar shows a more thorough commitment to spending more money on dining. There are many ways dining could evolve from here, and Sodexo has ex­pressed very clearly in its presentation that it wants to be a partner.

But to be honest, I think the issue lies in not just Sodexo’s “big school” mentality in its pre­sentation and style at these meetings, but also the fact that we are a small school. When we contract out big companies in such a small en­vironment, we’re going to get a watered down experience.

We need to look inward to smaller scale op­erations with all our smart residents to really figure out dining for the long term. Maybe my feelings will change as I observe the other po­tential dining service providers and their pre­sentations in the coming weeks, but I remain skeptical at best, and cynical at heart.

One Comment

  1. A few items first great article.
    Any food service is only as good as its employees and the person maaaging them. In your colleges case i am sure you have a few service manager and or director. I have been in the food service business for a number of years and most were at colleges and unveristies. yes true if you only have so much money you need to watch cost, But Like I said if you have good management who listens to you the student-customers you should have a good food service No Matter What you paid for the program.
    Listen to the customer, good management with a well trained stakk will give you a great food service.
    Like you said every management company is almost the same. the difference is the managers who run the program.

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