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ARA Returns, but Accepts Risk of Loss

By Reuven M. Lerner
News Editor
____Students and administrators spent several months last spring discussing possible changes in the meal plan and the choice of a contractor to provide food service for the next five years.

Discussion about the meal plan began one year ago, when the Undergraduate Association Council recommended that MIT adopt a new food service plan. The proposed plan would have reduced dormitory dining service to dinner only, given meal card holders a 10 percent discount on food and required meal plans only for students living in dormitories without dining rooms.

The chairman of the UA Food Service Committee, Paul L. Antico '91, explained that discounts would make the meal cards more attractive to faculty, graduate students and staff, most of whom do not currently hold meal cards.

"It is our belief," said Antico, "that a 10 percent discount on food purchases to those paying with a meal card will provide the food contractor with a significant profit, and there may even be no need for mandatory meal plans in the next two or three years."

The proposal also recommended that the McCormick Hall dining hall be converted into a health food facility where health, vegetarian and kosher foods would be sold. Dining facilities would no longer be available, and a mandatory meal plan would no longer be required for McCormick residents.

Students expressed dissatisfaction with the Institute plan described by Lawrence E. Maguire, director of housing and food services, that would have required students to eat five dinners per week in a residence dining hall at a cost of $500 per term. If the student wished to eat breakfast or lunch at MIT dining facilities, they would have to purchase more money on their plan on a declining balance system.

"The point of view of the administration," Antico said, "is that contractors would need to be ensured that some people would eat at the dormitory dining halls. If people don't, then MIT loses money."

Profit and loss

But by the summer, when MIT awarded ARA its second consecutive five-year contract, the Institute no longer had to worry about making a profit from campus food services. Under the new contract, ARA was entitled to keep any profits it might make -- but it would also have to live with its losses. This was a big change from previous years, when MIT covered ARA's losses.

MIT earlier turned down a proposal from ARA that would have simply renewed its old contract, eliminating any other companies from consideration. The Institute instead allowed several companies to compete for the contract.

While some of the five companies that submitted bids were never under serious consideration, members of the search committee split over which company should be awarded the contract.

Of the four student members of the search committee, only Antico, a graduating senior, ranked ARA higher than the other companies. Two students preferred Marriott, while another ranked the two of them equally.

The new contract included several provisions that the UA had requested, including having residence dining halls open only for dinner and requiring a $1,000 declining balance. Some aspects of the MIT-ARA relationship, including the Institute's right to to set prices, remained unchanged.

The profit-and-loss contract is believed to be the first of its kind in a university setting. "Now they've got to please you in order to make you spend your money. The community will see a `can we be of service' attitude from both MIT and ARA," said John T. McNeill, associate director of food service.

ARA responded to the new profit-and-loss system by adding services that appealed to students more than the traditional cafeterias. Networks, the ARA restaurant on the first floor of the Julius A. Stratton '23 Student Center, began selling Pizza Hut personal size pizzas. These pizzas, according to Alan Leo, general manager of MIT Food Services, account for 40 percent of Networks' sales.

But not all of ARA's experiments were successful. ARA's proposal to call Networks "Hacker's Haven" was quickly withdrawn after students expressed their displeasure with the idea of diner-style food in a restaurant decorated with pictures of famous hacks.

Students also complained when ARA closed Lobdell Court at 2 p.m. during the 1992 Independent Activities Period, forcing them to stand in long lines at Networks. In addition, complaints about the food's quality and prices remained constant.