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Aramark Not to Blame for Dining Problems

Guest column by Ricardo J. Torres

All of the recent commentary has led me to the conclusion that the community is not very well informed on the workings of dining services at MIT and of food service in general. I say this with the knowledge that not very long ago I was very critical of Aramark. In fact I have never and will probably never have a meal plan. There are several issues that make it difficult for food services to function effectively.

In order for Aramark to get access to dining facilities, MIT must make them available. As it is, MIT is pressed for space, and requests to create new facilities are further scrutinized because it is expensive to convert building space into the facilities necessary to store, prepare, and serve food. Furthermore, a food service contractor is bound to MIT by tight restrictions. The physical structures, as well as much of the hardware of the facilities belongs to MIT, and Aramark must go through MIT for any repairs. Thus, in order for Aramark Dining Services to get an oven, chipped wall, or refrigerator repaired, it must be authorized by MIT. Again, because MIT has to struggle to keep costs down, it is often a slow and bureaucratic landlord.

All non-student workers that work over 20 hours per week must be affiliated with the local hotel food service union. This means Aramark must pay extraordinary wages. For example, a pot scrubber gets over $10 an hour and a cook over $13. Plus, Aramark pays almost two dollars an hour on top of this for union benefits. Obviously, Aramark would prefer student employees, paying them well above MIT minimum wage. Ideally, this has the solution that MIT students seek employment with Aramark. Unfortunately, most students neither wish to be employed in a food service job, nor are reliable during peak class load times during the semester. Aramark continues to seek student employment, but understands that the main concern of all students are their classes.

Furthermore, these labor costs are exacerbated by the need for a distribution of dining facilities throughout the campus during a wide range of hours. For each hour a facility is kept functional, the amount of labor obviously rises. All universities of which I have some knowledge have fewer hours of operation and are more centralized in the locations of facilities, especially when compared with the physical size of MIT. In fact some, places have a policy to not schedule classes during lunch hours. Similar arrangements are made for breakfast and dinner.

Complicating matters further, MIT does not have mandatory meal plans. I do not know of a university with a successful dining service that does not require some kind of a mandatory meal plan. Generally, a meal plan is paid for along with tuition and reserves some number of meals per week at a particular site on campus. Regardless of whether or not the student attends the meal, the money is not reimbursed. This assures the food service organization will have a fixed minimum revenue for any particular meal, in order to base costs. People paying cash for a meal only add to this minimum revenue. On the other hand, the eating patterns at MIT are quite erratic, with no guaranteed base revenue for any particular meal.

Here are just some costs that food service at MIT has that a restaurant does not. First, Aramark has to replace its dinnerware about twice a year. The costs of this gets into six figures and forced Networks to go from glass tumblers to paper cups. Aramark also has to pay around $50,000 a year for cash registers that provide the Department of Housing and Food Services with MIT Card transactions. Aramark has suggested point-of-sale machines, but nothing has come from this.

The community doesn't realize that MIT, not Aramark, operates the MIT Card facilities. MIT has just asked Aramark to take care of some of the clerical work involved in changing student meal plans because of the convenience of the Aramark office. Aramark agreed because it is beneficial to them to make meal plan changes convenient and efficient. This has nothing to do with what organizations can access MIT Card facilities.

In its editorial ["Dining Process Must Move to Bidding," Feb. 4], The Tech erroneously states Aramark was keeping out competition by not allowing third parties access to MIT Card facilities. Domino's Pizza accepts the MIT Card and is probably making a killing off of it. LaVerde's Market was asked if they wanted to set up a contract for the MIT Card but declined.

Then there are the exorbitant wages and union benefits. Due to some voices in the community, Aramark has kept Itza Pizza open from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Because a minimum of two people are required to keep this facility open, this service has lost money, with little or no exceptions, every night. Yet, the facility cannot be closed during off hours because some sector of the community wants pizza at the Student Center at night.

I am quite disappointed that The Tech would not gain an understanding of the issues before forming an opinion as expressed in its editorial. Aramark is doing as well a management job as any company could, given the obstacles. Aramark still has much to do, first in getting student involvement so the community will be educated and give feedback, and then implementing a system where this involvement yields greater community satisfaction at a lower cost. My opinion is that Aramark is beginning to accomplish this, and another contractor, at best, would take several years just to reach the position Aramark is in now.