Aramark faces scrutiny as contract is up for renewalBy A. Arif Husain
Food service is a touchy subject on campus - a balance between providing convenient, inexpensive, and palatable foods while maintaining such a system within its budgetary constraints.
It's a challenge of providing "the right service, in the right place, at the right price," said Aramark General Manager Robert McBurney.
Although much of last year's focus on food services was related to the re-engineering movement, other issues also drew concern.
Aramark, MIT's food service provider, was up for renewal this year. Despite overwhelming criticism from students, the Department of Housing and Food Services opted to grant Aramark a one-year extension until June 1997.
The decision was made to allow "all debates and information to get clarified [so that] we are in a position to make the best deal with a contractor," said Director of HFS Larry E. Maguire.
Food service at MIT represents a $9 million market. Aramark, formerly ARA, has been providing food services at MIT since 1986.
An Undergraduate Association survey conducted last spring showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents objected to keeping Aramark as a food service provider.
Maguire will work with the Institute Committee on Student Affairs to obtain student input in the planning process. The CSA will base its considerations on such student input and will encourage students to voice their opinions.
The committee has looked at options ranging from mandatory meal plans, changes in dormitory dining halls, and new food delivery and carry-out services.
Dining halls reconsidered
Dormitory-based dining halls have traditionally run a deficit. Although dining facilities at MacGregor House and McCormick Hall were closed in 1992, students are working hard to keep the ones at Baker House and Next House in operation.
Both dormitory dining halls are still losing money, but are no plans to close them, said Aramark General Manager Robert McBurney.
Before the transition, Baker Dining was losing $10,000 per month. It subsequently cut its losses in half last year, and has continued to improve this year, said Baker Dining Committee Chair Albert Hsu '96.
The CSA will evaluate among their considerations the possibility of reopening other dormitory dining halls.
The dining hall is a crucial part of a dormitory's residential environment, said MacGregor Housemaster Munther A. Dahleh. "It will have a strong social impact in the dorm [by allowing] students to interact in a more relaxed environment."
Aramark focuses on PR
In an effort to improve student relations, Aramark hired student managers and an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program intern.
Aramark hopes to facilitate "a personal connection between the students and the food service itself," said intern Dingli Chen '99.
Chen has been involved with planning various public relations projects and conducting small-scale student surveys. The results of the surveys were mostly negative, although Chen felt that students were honest and took the surveys seriously.
In addition, Aramark is considering converting Net-works into a franchised restaurant, Chen said. One possibility is Manchu Wok, a Chinese restaurant which has been successful with Aramark at other schools.
Chen decided on a Chinese restaurant because Aramark has been accused of not having a lot of variety, she said. Also, with a large Asian population on campus, Chen felt a Chinese restaurant would be received well.
Students dismayed by layoff
In a time when Aramark was trying to improve its public relations, the layoff of an employee late November was met with contempt from students.
Eddie Cogliano was manager of the MacGregor convenience store. Last year he had been removed from the Next House dining hall and Fast Eddie's convenience store in Tang Hall.
The decision to fire Cogliano was for "financial reasons," McBurney said. The change will help provide better services at a reduced cost, he added.
In response, Hsu and Next House resident Brian A. D'Amato '96 drafted a report to the Office of Housing and Food Services regarding what they felt was wrongdoing.
The report cited the MacGregor convenience store as one of only four Aramark operations which yield a profit, and credited Cogliano with the store's success.
The response argued that without Cogliano's receptivity to student input, such profits could not have been achieved.
"[Cogliano] was easily the most responsive Aramark employee to students," Hsu said.
Furthermore, Cogliano had a stake in the maintenance of Baker's dining hall, and influenced many renovations in Pritchett Lounge on East Campus, the report said.
The MacGregor store is now student managed, and the task of ordering products for the store was taken over by other Aramark employees.
Associate Director of Food Services John T. McNeill had "very strong feelings" about McBurney's decision, but said that food services does not have license to contest it.
"Until it affects service, we can have no say in how [Aramark] hires or fires, no matter what our feelings happen to be," he said.
McNeill said his major concern is that "business continues as usual."