Digesting campus food options

Giving Sodexo a “critical mass” is best practice for the University, according to Housing and Hospitality Services

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Five years ago, an external review found that Queen’s campus was overcrowded by independent food operators. Currently, there’s been no official rule established, but the University has adopted a practice where these outlets are now disallowed from opening.

The University’s primary contractor, Sodexo, serves over $1 million worth of meals per academic year to members of the Queen’s community.

According to Bruce Griffiths, director of Housing and Hospitality Services at Queen’s, providing Sodexo a “critical mass” when it comes to on-campus food services is the best practice and is the way in which almost all universities operate.

“The recommendation of our experts was merely that competing operations divert sales from the University’s food services, which means there is less margin to the University to offset residence fee increases and to support student affairs programs,” he told the Journal via email.

Sodexo has been a vendor at Queen’s since the 1960s. In November 2007, Queen’s engaged in a review process in which four food vendors competed for a contract with the University. Based on the criteria in the review process and the recommendation given, Sodexo was chosen as the primary contractor.

Common Ground Coffeehouse, the Garden Street Café in Botterell Hall, The Tea Room and the Tim Horton’s operations in Biosciences Complex are among some of the food service establishments on campus not owned by Sodexo.

These businesses have been able to compete with campus staples like The Lazy Scholar. The Lazy Scholar processes 2,800 transactions per day on average.

Student-operated Common Ground processes between 1,000 and 1,500 transactions per day.

Some of the non-Sodexo food retail options on campus have been partially developed by Sodexo personnel. For example, the Farmer’s Market at Queen’s was started by Joli Manson, the general manager of Sodexo at Queen’s.

“[The Farmer’s Market] began in 2006 as a sustainability initiative with the vision to provide the campus with easy access to locally produced food and to provide an alternative to the traditional commercial food industry,” Griffiths told the Journal in a 2011 email.

In the same year, vendors of the farmer’s market located at Union St. and University Ave. were asked to stop selling hot foods at their stands because the serving of hot food didn’t fall under the traditional definition for farmer’s market food — farm products, baked goods and preserved foods.

Marco Venditti, owner of the Pasta Shelf, withdrew his business from the Farmer’s Market but he understood the reasoning behind the request.

“I thought it was important for us to go every Wednesday,” he said. “We went one week after [the ban started] and we didn’t sell anything.”

Venditti said that the 10 weeks Pasta Shelf had a stand at the Farmer’s Market meant an extra $800-1,000 being made for the company each week. He said that he’d go back to the Farmer’s Market if they were allowed to sell hot food.

“I was a little bit disappointed when we got the boot, but I couldn’t be bothered to fight it,” he said.

Existing campus fry trucks, on the other hand, are still allowed to operate due to their location on city property.

Lizzy’s Tall Fry, a food truck located on Union St. outside the JDUC, is owned by Liz Gallant who said she’s noticed a slight increase in customers since the hot food ban at the Farmer’s Market. She mostly relies on fast preparation to draw customers there rather than another on-campus food outlet.

“We try to get food as prepared [ahead of time] as much as we can to make it quick for the students.”

“So they don’t have to wait 10 to 15 minutes for lunch.” Gallant has owned the truck for 12 years and her husband, Jimmy, has owned Jimmy’s Chip Truck outside Botterell Hall for over 30 years.

“I kind of married into it,” Gallant said.

City bylaws only allow two spots for food trucks on campus and vendors are required to hold a permit — one at Division and Union Streets and one on Union St. close to University Ave.

The Licensing and Enforcement division of the City of Kingston doesn’t collaborate with the University when allocating these permits.

Jimmy’s Chip Truck is classified as a semi-permanent establishment and doesn’t fall under this specific regulation. Gallant’s truck is parked on the street meaning it doesn’t have to comply with any University regulations.

If Gallant were to up and move to Guelph, she wouldn’t be able to bring her chip truck to the University of Guelph’s campus.

Unlike Queen’s, Guelph doesn’t allow independent food retailers on campus for liability reasons. This includes hot dog stands and chip trucks.

“If someone comes on campus and poisons someone, the liability for the University is very high,” said David Boeckner, executive director of hospitality services at Guelph.

The fry trucks on Queen’s campus aren’t owned by Sodexo or Hospitality Services, and so liabilities or incidents wouldn’t affect them.

Although Sodexo is the most dominant retail food operator at Queen’s, this isn’t the case at most Ontario universities.

Of the 20 Ontario universities that participated in last year’s Globe and Mail student feedback survey, only two have a contract with Sodexo — Queen’s and Brock University.

Aramark, the most popular food services operator in the province, supplies schools such as University of Toronto, York University, Carleton University and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Some universities operate independently and don’t have contracts with large companies. The University of Guelph has consistently received high grades on student feedback surveys spearheaded by publications such as the Globe and Mail and Macleans.

Last year’s survey found that Guelph had the highest-rated food services of all participating Canadian universities. They received an A grade, with Queen’s and Western University tied for second with a B grade.

“We’ve always been successful the last 39 years running it ourselves,” said Boeckner. “I’m sure the contractors have been in to talk to the president and VP. I know they have. But I think they’re fairly pleased with the operation.” Food services at Guelph have operated independently since 1973.

At Guelph, a Hospitality Services Advisory Committee is comprised of students, faculty and staff and meets biweekly to discuss issues such as pricing and surveys the campus cafeterias every two weeks. Twenty out of the 22 - 23 members are students.

“It gives us a lot of information about what they like, what they don’t like and we are able to respond to them accordingly,” Boeckner said. “A lot of schools don’t [engage students]. This is why they don’t do as well on their surveys, I think.”

Sodexo Contract

In 2010, Sodexo was chosen to be the official primary contractor for food services at the University after a review process that took over two years.

Up until that time, Sodexo was the school provider, but had to re-apply when its contract expired. Three other operators applied in addition to Sodexo: Aramark, Brown’s Fine Foods and Chartwell’s.

The successful company was chosen based on three main criteria: management and catering; menus, programs and services; and financials and pricing. Since Sodexo earned the highest grades in these three categories, it was recommended to be the main contractor. Brown’s Fine Foods was recommended as a secondary contractor.

In Sodexo’s new contract, renovation plans were laid out for some of the food facilities which would be partially paid for by Sodexo. For example, Sodexo covered one third of the $1.3 million it took to open the Canadian Grilling Company restaurant that opened in Mackintosh-Corry Cafeteria last year.

Rosie Hales and Alison Shouldice

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