Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Aramark, What’s Your Game?

About four to five years ago, Sodexho was the food service provider at Johns Hopkins University. Sodexho predated my time at JHU, but those that were here at the time reported the food being of poor quality. One even described a "freshman negative 15." In addition, unrelated to Hopkins, Sodexho also managed a number of prisons, which drew the ire of many students who objected to paying a company that also ran prisons. Given the circumstances, the University was pressured into changing foodservice providers. They selected Aramark. Students that were here at the time reported a noticeable increase in the quality of food.

Although Aramark may have improved the food, there have been questions regarding Aramark’s treatment of its employees recently. There are rumors (and by which I mean that I did not hear this firsthand) the staff were treated much better by Sodexho and that Aramark had been paying below minimum wage, but that no one dared to complain for fear of being fired. After all, a job that pays less is still better than no job at all. It would appear, in part, that these conditions existed due to a conflict that resulted in Aramark employees at Hopkins being without a union to represent them for about a year or two (see JHU Newsletter: Workers vote, now have representative union). Other “rumors” aside, the same reference from the Newsletter cites that Aramark had been scheduling employees one to two hours below the minimum necessary to qualify as a full-time employee in order to avoid providing benefits such as health insurance and paid leave. How does Aramark get away with this sort of thing? In another article by the Newsletter back in April of this year (A Buffet of Choices), Hopkins was described as being in a contract with Aramark that prevents them from intervening in employee issues. In addition, because the term of the contract is multi-year, Aramark is really only motivated to perform well when it is time to renew.

Most students may not notice or care about how employees are treated as long as the food is good, but even students are affected by Aramark's practices, year after year. I acknowledge that some of these decisions may have been made by JHU Housing and Dining, some by Aramark, and some collaborative, but the issue remains regardless of who points a finger at who. One thing that has been noticed consistently is the annually increasing cost of a meal plan to those required to hold one. Not only that, dining dollars are never worth getting since there is a roughly 30% premium when converting cash to dining dollars in the initial plan. Some cite the lack of tax when using dining dollars, but let’s do the math: tax is about 5%, and 5% is much less than 30%, isn’t it? Plus if you use a rewards credit card, like what I use, then you can actually get a percentage of what you spend on food back. Dining dollars: 130%, credit card: 95%. And herein lies the problem: that meal plans are mandatory. If dining dollars and cash had a one-to-one conversion, then I wouldn’t have as much of a complaint. But that students are required to pay a 30% premium...what’s up with that? Officially it is to cover the staff and facility costs of running the dining hall. Why does that not apply to people paying with non-mandatory means (i.e. cash, credit, JCash), then? And maybe if dining services were increased year-to-year the complaint would also be less significant. But it just ain't so. Examples of what I mean (as of this semester, Fall 2010):
  • Cheese-stuffed ravioli and tortellini used to be available at the made-to-order pasta station at Nolan’s in previous semesters. Multiple staff have reported that, this semester, management prohibits staff from taking the pasta out of the freezers to make them for students. If anyone has an explanation, I’d love to hear it.

  • Levering Leaves, the made-to-order salad station, used to charge a fixed price for any number of toppings. As of this semester, the old price applies only up to 5 toppings, with an additional charge for any toppings over 5.

  • The omelet station at Nolan’s has been relegated to the 9pm-12am time block only. In the past, omelets could be ordered from 5pm-9pm, if not also during 9pm-12am. This was done to increase the amount of people that could be simultaneously served by the pasta station. However, an equivalent effect could be achieved by improving the workflow at a smaller pasta station rather than reducing options.

The second Newsletter article mentioned above proposes a possible solution: to allow competition between foodservice companies on campus. I can see why this type of situation could be difficult though, since it is less attractive to foodservice companies between lack of economy of scale and having profits reduced due to competition. The University may also be worried about higher costs. However, given what we’ve seen between Sodexho and Aramark, maybe it’s time to give the proposal a try, in some form or other. Something should be done; the status quo is not acceptable. Even if employees have a union, that a company would be willing to act in the way Aramark did in the absence of one is extremely unethical, and the way that money is effectively extorted from students when tuition is already $30,000 a year just adds insult to injury. As a bonus, while food quality is usually adequate, it could definitely be much better and would more than likely improve under a competitive system.

UPDATE 10/12/2010 9:19 PM:
It appears that Aramark has brought back stuffed pastas at Nolan's as of today or yesterday! Hooray!

UPDATE 10/19/2010 9:16 PM:
Hold your horses...last week there was tortellini on Tuesday, and there was definitely tortellini this Monday, but there wasn't any last Wednesday through Friday. I'm not sure if there was tortellini any other day this week so far, but it's not quite the same as it used to be. For one, each plate is only allowed to have 16 pieces of tortellini, instead of a big scoop like it used to be (this was a LOT of tortellini). The tortellini also seems smaller than it used to be.

Another thing I forgot to point out originally is that take-out boxes are now smaller, or at least the compartments in it for sides are. This really only affects the home station, but is still annoying. Also, the pans used to cook pasta at the pasta station are also smaller, as if trying to imply that portion sizes should shrink accordingly.

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