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Underclassmen Should Remember Baker Dining Story

Guest Column by Albert L. Hsu

The dining hall at Baker House is open today purely because of the amazing amount of time and effort that Baker residents put into keeping our dining hall open, not to mention the customers. Do you know the Baker Dining Story? This year's freshmen and sophomores weren't around for the excitement of two years ago, and as I graduate, I'd like to leave this story of student empowerment for future generations of student leaders at MIT.

In 1993, ARA (now Aramark) informed Baker that they were closing the dining hall. It was losing $10,000 every month. Although MIT was reimbursing all of ARA's losses, ARA didn't care to improve the situation. There were only about 100 people eating at Baker Dining each night, the lighting was abysmal, and the food simply wasn't good.

That February, Nina E. Bishofberger '96 asked me to take over for her and James Evans '95 as chair of the dining committee. I soon found that our biggest obstacle was (soon-to-be former) ARA General Manager Robert McBurney. He didn't care for student opinion, and he wasn't interested in student efforts to keep our dining hall open. Even going into finals week that spring, McBurney was happy to show us his plan for campus dining that next year, a plan that slated Baker Dining to be closed.

Upon delving deeper, we found that our dining hall operation was a joke. For example, to break even under ARA's cost structure, we needed 300 customers each evening. For anyone who has ever visited Baker Dining, it is obvious that you simply can't fit 300 customers in a two hour period.

The Baker House Dining Committee then went to work: Stacy J. Morris '96 surveyed students while Jeff Temple and Jihyun Oh '96 publicized Baker Dining everywhere. Baker residents suggested many improvements, and Housing and Food Services Director Lawrence E. Maguire gave us the green light to try out our ideas.

We asked for better lighting in our dining hall, and MIT immediately put in more and better lighting. We next suggested an all-you-can-eat night once a week, extended hours, festive meals, and a Sunday brunch. McBurney tried to block us or change the rules.

The last straw came when we asked for a Sunday brunch. McBurney handed us an ultimatum: If we didn't break even on that first Sunday brunch, it would never happen again. Working with such helpful ARA employees as Eddie Cogliano, former manager of ARA's West Campus services, we found that we needed 200 customers to break even.

That Sunday presented many obstacles. Most people hadn't heard about the Sunday brunch; it was the first day of daylight savings time, and to top it all off, it was Easter Sunday. Yet we still managed to bring in 240 customers. The next day, McBurney informed us that we couldn't have another Sunday brunch. First, he tried to prove that our brunch did not break even. Unable to prove this, he then told us that we couldn't have another brunch because our success had "had a detrimental effect on Lobdell's brunch business."

At that point, we decided that we didn't need ARA. Students like Benjamin C. Matteo '97 and Oh had been researching other options for us, and we looked at hiring an independent chef, or getting a catering service. Our housemaster, Professor of History William B. Watson, looked into making a deal with a local culinary arts school while Baker President Adam P. London '95 arranged a special presentation by a Vice-President of Bon Appetit, a food service company in California, to tell us what they had to offer.

When we presented the results of our efforts to Maguire, he was apparently impressed. He told us that he would order ARA to keep Baker Dining open, and that the students would be in charge. Victory at last!

Over that summer, London, Cogliano, and I designed a plan which would put the Baker Snack Bar on the meal card and charge reasonable prices for quality food. In creating our business plan, we found all sorts of fishy expenses that were being charged against Baker Dining.

Student support was critical to keeping the dining hall open: Christina Perez de la Cruz '97 volunteered to manage the student workers; this is now actually a paying position. London spent hundreds of hours getting the snack bar. Laura C. Dilley '96 mobilized support from the vegetarian student group while Ashdown House residents made special dinner trips to Baker Dining.

Matteo and Oh suggested adopting the fraternity concept of "late meals," which we immediately implemented. We tried a few "cultural meals" to encourage ethnic groups to give us food ideas and dine with us. To increase business, Baker even instituted a mandatory dining tax which gave Baker residents discounted meals as well as six free meals. Throughout all of these efforts, extremely active dining committee members such as Steven E. Jens '97, Daniel M. Silevitch '96, Steven A. Gunzler '96, Evan F. Wies '96, Christopher J. Sarton '96, and Stacy J. Morris '96 made it all possible.

Temple (later replaced by David J. Murphy '96 and Amit R. Patel '96) volunteered time, energy, and creativity to publicize Baker Dining, and dozens of new customers tried us out. Meanwhile, under the management of Phil and Carlo, Baker Dining was ever-increasingly responsive to student input. At this point, Baker Dining needed roughly 200 customers per night to break even, and we were averaging 160. While Baker Dining was still losing money, it was losing only about half as much as it used to.

In McBurney's mind, however, Baker Dining was still going to be closed at the end of the year. By the end of last year, McBurney had established himself as the enemy of Baker Dining. The year before, he had successfully closed down McCormick Dining by waiting until the troublesome seniors had graduated and left; now that London was graduating, Baker Dining was going to be in trouble unless a new crop of students pitched in to keep the place open .

This past year, students have continued to make Baker Dining work. Catherine D. Conley '96, as Baker House president, was ever-supportive. When McBurney laid off Cogliano, dozens of students took some time out of their busy schedules to write e-mail in protest; Aramark's national headquarters suddenly realized that there was a problem, and they sent some vice-presidents to see what was the matter. At their focus groups in Baker and Next House, about a dozen students showed up to give them some feedback on how they could do a better job.

Baker Dining is now averaging close to 200 customers each night, and we expect it to start breaking even any time now. When last we talked with the Department of Housing and Food Services, we were assured that Baker Dining would stay open for the foreseeable future. Who saved Baker Dining? Who kept it open over the past three years? Helpful administrators, Baker's house government, Watson, student leaders, and the many patrons of Baker Dining, many of whom do not live in Baker but eat there anyway. These were the heroes of the Baker Dining story - a story of student empowerment. They deserve our thanks.