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Institute to Sign Dining Contract, Aramark Monopoly Will Remain

By Rima Arnaout

Hopes that financial competition in MIT dining services might bring increased food quality to the campus were dashed late last week when MIT signed a letter of intent with Aramark food services, giving the company rights to manage all on-campus dining facilities for three more years.

Three years ago, MIT, through the Institute Dining Review Working Group, began a review of the state of campus dining after student satisfaction had reached an all-time low. Their recommendations, released in the fall of 1997, called for the breakup of the campus dining monopoly by creating two dining zones, each of which would have separate dining contractors.

The intent of these recommendations was that competition would provide an inherent incentive to dining contractors to maintain a high quality of food service. MIT adopted the working group’s recommendations as official Institute policy shortly after the recommendation’s release.

This year, the Dining Implementation Team was charged with implementing the working group recommendations as well as overseeing the bidding process for new contractors.

Phillip J. Walsh, chair of the Dining Implementation Team and the original working group, said the decision to sign both contracts was a result of the stability that Aramark’s incumbency as MIT’s current food provider would give the administration in the midst of a dining system reorganization prompted by the working group proposals.

After the Dining Implementation Team heard proposals from Aramark and other food service contractors, they made recommendations to the administration. The final decision to re-sign Aramark rested with Executive Vice President John R. Curry and Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams.

“The dining committee decided that the risks of a major transition were too great at this point in time to move to a fully competitive system... We are prepared to undergo further transition to a fully competitive system if that is what it takes to have a quality food program on campus,” Williams said.

Community skeptical of change

Despite reassurances, some members of the MIT community seem skeptical about having Aramark on campus for the next three years.

“I have to admit to being surprised that Aramark was given both contracts,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart III, housemaster for McCormick Hall. “Because there isn’t much good will among most of the MIT community toward Aramark, they have no latitude to perform poorly in the future.”

Working group member Jeremy D. Sher ’99 said, “I am deeply disappointed in MIT’s failure to implement the [working group’s] model, designed and developed through an intense process of community feedback.”

Even members of the Dining Implementation Committee agree that in re-signing Aramark, MIT falls short of making sweeping changes to the dining system.

In a statement, Dining Implementation Group members Jake H. Parrott ’00 and John S. Hollywood G said that “the administration is unable and unwilling to assume managerial responsibility for a transition to another vendor in any part of the system. MIT cannot provide the substantial organizational commitment that would be required to educate a new vendor, establish new community relationships, and tolerate temporary service disruptions that might result from a transition.”

Walsh, who chaired the effort to build a new dining model, agreed that “always when you put in a lot of effort [into a project], you want to see everything you worked to suggest implemented, but there are times where you need to do as much as you can do at the time... [The Dining Implementation Team] felt that in this now is the time to stay with Aramark in both zones,” Walsh said.

New contract will be different

The administration maintains that although Aramark will be on campus for three more years, MIT’s relationship with Aramark will be different.

The new three-year relationship with Aramark is not an extension of an old contract but rather the beginning draft of a new one that will be negotiated in the next two to three months, according to Walsh.

Walsh said that blemishes in Aramark’s past, such as unsanitary food, financial losses, and continued unresponsiveness to student needs, were in part due to MIT’s disorganized dining system. “It wasn’t entirely clear what MIT wanted with the dining system,” Walsh said. MIT “wasn’t entirely pleased with it.”

Williams promised that the next three years with Aramark will “definitely be a different relationship. We will have our own director of campus dining. The director is being hired specifically to provide ongoing, effective management of dining services.” The director of Campus Dining will be named later this week.

One problem with previous Aramark contracts has been a clause under which MIT subsidized Aramark for lost money. According to Walsh, such details have yet to be negotiated in the new contract, but MIT has devised a system of incentives and sanctions to ensure Aramark’s performance.

“In agreements we’re going to have, there’s already language about expectations, projected performance, analysis, and benchmarking” of Aramark’s services, Walsh said.

“We have made it very clear that we will be looking to create our own system to evaluate their performance by a number of factors, including customer satisfaction. This will be carried out by Dining Office,” Walsh said.

The contract’s short duration is also designed to give the dining administration “a period of stability, an opportunity to fully think through our options and priorities” while being short enough to allow for change in three years, according to Walsh. “Originally, we thought that the new contract would be seven to ten years,” Walsh said.

“We also see what Aramark has been doing on campus as a show of their good faith intention to increase quality,” Walsh said. Walsh recalled the improved food service at Baker Dining, community meals at East Campus, and Pan Geos at Walker Memorial.

In addition, Aramark has proposed new programs such as sponsoring sports nutrition seminars as part of an enhanced programs for athletes, who usually miss traditional dining options because of sports schedules.

“Aramark’s service has improved considerably over the past year or so... I’m actually confident things will be much better than the past,” Stewart said.

Bidding process under scrutiny

Aramark is “so thoroughly unpopular on campus, that I had imagined that MIT would have to bring in a second contractor, simply to lend credibility to the bidding process,” Stewart said.

The bidding process, in which MIT invited dining contractors nationwide to present their proposals for MIT’s dining system, began last summer through the efforts of the Dining Implementation Group and the Procurement Office.

“One of the benefits of the Institute Dining Report was that we were able to know how to construct a bidding process,” Walsh said.

On Oct. 1, MIT invited companies to the bidding process. Ten companies came to the bidders’ conference in mid-October, where MIT explained what it wanted in a food service provider.

Of the ten that attended the bidder’s conference, five companies submitted formal bids. Aramark was joined by the Compass Corporation, Whitsons, Wood Companies, and Bon Appetit.