End to Dining Monopoly Is Welcome
Last week, the food services working group announced its preliminary recommendations for the future of dining at MIT. The group proposed breaking up the dining monopoly currently held by Aramark. The tentative plan will allow every dining hall on campus - including several long-dormant dormitory dining halls - to be reopened under the control of a separate outside bidder. In addition, other facilities, ranging from LaVerde's Market to the food trucks to Au Bon Pain in Kendall Square, may become eligible to accept the MIT Card.
These proposals could translate into very welcome changes, and they open up the way to a far better dining system. Despite repeated arguments that only a monopoly can take advantage of economies of scale and test new concepts, six years with Aramark has shown that a dining monopoly cannot effectively serve students. The new competitive system will allow multiple companies to bid for contracts and then compete with each other to attract customers. The result will be nimble and aggressive contractors who can adapt rapidly to students' needs. The expansion of the MIT Card to local restaurants is another excellent idea that can benefit both MIT students and those businesses.
Reopening closed dormitory dining halls is a trickier proposition, and one which should be carefully considered by the Institute before opening the halls to outside bidders. Residents of McCormick Hall, Burton-Conner House, and MacGregor House were justly upset when their dining halls were closed several years ago. But while the convenience of dormitory dining for residents is indisputable, reopening dormitory dining halls for business might not be economically feasible.
The central issue is what matters more to MIT students and the administration - community or cost. It is well known that reopening the dormitory dining halls will require that some group invest significant amounts of capital in the dormitories. MIT or outside vendors will have to re-equip and refurnish kitchens and dining rooms that have lain fallow for years.
In all likelihood, it will take a while for the dining halls to start turning a profit. And if Baker House's student-run dining hall is any predictor, the dining halls may never be out of the red. Aramark's difficulty in making Baker Dining self-sufficient will prove a warning flag to prospective bidders. It is quite possible that no large company will bid to take over dormitory dining halls, maybe forcing MIT to pay a well-known contractor to oversee the dormitories - maybe Aramark. MIT might also end up offering prospective bidders first dibs on more profitable areas, like Lobdell Food Court, to sweeten the pot - a situation that could lead back to a virtual monopoly.
There are also dormitory-specific questions. For example, many MacGregor residents have grown accustomed to MacGregor Convenience, one of the few popular Aramark enterprises. Because of space constraints, reopening MacGregor's dining hall might force the convenience store to close. If most MacGregor residents would rather have the convenience store and a choice has to be made, the convenience store should stay.
All of these issues will require some hard choices about whether the convenience and community spirit fostered by dormitory dining is worth the economic burden. The tentative plan does not consider these fiscal matters, which they could open the door for substantial changes to the plan later on.
The dining group's report laudably reflects a long process of working with students and listening to their ideas. However, the report has the worrying tendency of being all things to all people. While that may not be bad for a first draft, some things will probably have to be cut. Dissolving the monopoly has been a long time coming, and such a move will serve students well. Dormitory dining, however, deserves further scrutiny.