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You want it? You got it!

As long as you're willing to cough up the dough, ARAMARK offers Elon students choice for a price.

by Hannah Williams,
  • ARAMARK is the only food source offered by on-campus dining locations. The company pays for the food, employees, liability insurance and all associated costs, while Elon owns and maintains the facilities and pays ARAMARK per meal swipe. Each swipe can cost up to a hefty $9.80. Comparing that to other universities, Elon pays a little more than a dollar extra per meal. With the falling economy, these expenses are starting to hit students hard. (Photo by Angie Lovelace)

  • ARAMARK is the only food source offered by on-campus dining locations. The company pays for the food, employees, liability insurance and all associated costs, while Elon owns and maintains the facilities and pays ARAMARK per meal swipe. Each swipe can cost up to a hefty $9.80. Comparing that to other universities, Elon pays a little more than a dollar extra per meal. With the falling economy, these expenses are starting to hit students hard. (Photo by Angie Lovelace)

  • ARAMARK is the only food source offered by on-campus dining locations. The company pays for the food, employees, liability insurance and all associated costs, while Elon owns and maintains the facilities and pays ARAMARK per meal swipe. Each swipe can cost up to a hefty $9.80. Comparing that to other universities, Elon pays a little more than a dollar extra per meal. With the falling economy, these expenses are starting to hit students hard. (Photo by Angie Lovelace)

  • ARAMARK is the only food source offered by on-campus dining locations. The company pays for the food, employees, liability insurance and all associated costs, while Elon owns and maintains the facilities and pays ARAMARK per meal swipe. Each swipe can cost up to a hefty $9.80. Comparing that to other universities, Elon pays a little more than a dollar extra per meal. With the falling economy, these expenses are starting to hit students hard. (Photo by Angie Lovelace)

Elon University sets lofty expectations for its dining services. And ARAMARK, its food service provider, fires back with higher prices to cover the costs of operating Elon’s top-of-the-line campus dining and catering program.

ARAMARK serves up more than 200 million meals annually at more than 500 higher education institutions nationwide.

Elon has been contracting with dining services to ARAMARK since 1960. The two share an exclusive contract that is renegotiated each year, according to Vickie Somers, Elon’s director of auxiliary services.

“You need to have that [exclusivity] to have a successful contract,” Somers said, citing peer institutions where dining services have crumbled when multiple providers were allowed to compete.

 “As long as ARAMARK’s satisfied, [the administration is] satisfied and the students are satisfied, then [Elon’s administration and ARAMARK] just sort of sit down and talk about what we want to do for the next year,” Somers said.

In fall 2008, about 75 percent of Elon’s 4,992 undergraduates purchased meal plans from ARAMARK, far more than those required to do so by the university because of their on-campus residency.

All swipes are not equal
Although an all-you-can-eat dinner in a traditional dining hall at Elon is advertised at $7.25, a meal plan swipe in a retail location is only worth $2.50.

“The $2.50 represents what it would have cost us in food to feed you in one of the three dining halls," said Jeff Gazda, resident district manager for ARAMARK. "If you don’t eat in that dining hall, I save around $2.50 in food costs, but I don’t save labor costs. I don’t save direct expenses. Unless everyone left and people could go home, certain costs are fixed.”

“On average, a third of what you pay, Elon uses to maintain the facility,” Gazda said. “The remaining two-thirds is what we have to pay for the employees, the food, the dishes, the cleaning and the cooking.”

ARAMARK also figures in additional funds for administrative costs and other business needs, as well as profit.

Students at Wake Forest get $4.23 in exchange for a meal plan swipe in their retail locations on campus, including an ARAMARK-operated Starbucks and Subway.

Price per meal is only part of the picture
Elon’s meal plan swipes may be pricey, but by purchasing a meal plan, a student is investing in the comprehensive dining services of the university.
At Elon, ARAMARK operates 14 dining locations in eight buildings, offering its students various choices including three all-you-can-eat facilities; whereas,Winston Salem State and Wake Forest have just one traditional dining hall each.

Elon students indicated their desire for sustainable products to decrease their carbon footprint in ARAMARK’s annual dining-services surveys.
“Since we’re a tuition-dependent school, the students ultimately will pay the cost,” Somers said.

Students forgo meal plans to cut costs

“I actually like being able to use my Phoenix Cash on and off campus, and not having to calculate a weekly balance of meal plans is really nice,” said Amy Reitnouer, an Elon senior who lives off campus and decided she’s better off without a meal plan.

The cost of a 9-meal plan for the academic year is $3,747. Reitnouer’s parents agreed that instead of paying ARAMARK, they would deposit $200 per month into her Phoenix Cash account, totaling $1,600 for the eight months she will be at Elon this year.

While she still frequents Acorn, Brown & Co., Varsity and downstairs McEwen, Reitnouer uses most of her monthly $200 to grocery shop off campus and cook many of her meals at home.

 “I don't miss the plan at all,” Reitnouer said. “I'm saving more than $2,000 a year.”

ARAMARK capitalizes on required residency

Not all Elon students are able to opt out: Students are required to live on campus for their first two years at Elon, and all students living in residence halls must purchase a meal plan.

The required meal plan is an Elon policy, Somers said, and it’s in place as much for parents’ peace of mind as it is for the students’ well-being.

Freshmen are required to have at least the 11-meal plan regardless of their housing assignment. Sophomores must buy at least the 9-meal plan, unless they reside in university-owned apartments and can then purchase the 5-meal plan.

If students choose to live on campus during their junior and senior years, similar rules apply: Traditional hall residents minimally require the 9-meal plan, those in specialty housing select from the 5-meal plan or higher and university apartment-dwellers are encouraged, but not required, to purchase a plan.

Catering to convenience
ARAMARK’s exclusive presence on Elon’s campus gives it a monopoly over student dollars, but Somers said an exclusive contract is the only solution to achieve Elon’s caliber of dining services.

“I think it’s a matter of economies of scale,” Somers said. “If [food service providers] know they’re going to have a certain amount of business, then they can plan for that. They’re set up and ready to provide for that. They’ve got the labor here. It works better.”

At Elon, ARAMARK can plan on all meal plan business and all catering orders for on-campus events.

“It’s highly recommended that we use ARAMARK for our events,” said Student Union Board President Jenn Montrose, who coordinates a host of student events on campus. “Just because Elon does have a contract with ARAMARK, it doesn’t look good if you’re ordering out. We try to use ARAMARK as much as possible.”

Somers said it’s permissible for students to solicit food from off-campus vendors for informal events with Gazda’s permission. Usually, if the vendor is willing to donate the food, that’s OK. Otherwise, ARAMARK has an opportunity to match the price.

Universities outsource for efficiency

A recent study of food service outsourcing on U.S. college campuses published in the International Journal of Education Management suggested most universities outsource because it provides higher quality, better service and lower costs in most cases.

ARAMARK is a $12.4 billion corporation that provides food service, facility maintenance and uniforms to hundreds of schools, prisons, health care facilities and entertainment complexes in the United States and around the world.

“Any of the companies that you would have operating your food service are probably going to be the same, in terms that they’re large and they’re international,” said Somers, citing these qualities as advantages for bringing new perspectives to campus dining.

A 2002 survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers showed that 9 percent of responding schools didn’t outsource any services and 65 percent of respondents were outsourcing between two and five.

Somers listed ARAMARK and Sodexho, the two largest food service providers in higher education, and a third company, Chartwells, as the main alternatives to self-operating campus dining, which at Elon, just isn’t feasible.

In 1960 when the in-house dining services manager retired, Elon turned to then-Slater, now- ARAMARK, to run campus dining.

ARAMARK: One brand among many at Elon
In addition to ARAMARK, Elon also has contracts with Barnes and Noble to run the bookstore, Coca-Cola to operate campus vending, Macgray to manage the laundry system and LRG to handle trademarks. Somers said these outside vendors help rid Elon of extra responsibilities.

“We’d have to buy all the washers and dryers, service the washers and dryers,” she explained, referring to Macgray’s contractual duties, “and collect the money for the people who still use money and not their Phoenix Cards.”

“There’s a lot of liability in the foodservice area: the equipment you’re using, the preparation of the food,” Somers said. “You really want somebody who knows what they’re doing.”

Elon builds trust relationship with ARAMARK
“I think Elon is a great example of a really true collaborative partnership,” Gazda said. “We customize things to the university. Our goal is to be solution-providers for Elon. In essence, do everything we can to help Elon succeed in achieving its mission and goals.”

Gazda cited ARAMARK’s purchase and renovation of Brown & Co. as a trust-based venture that enables an easier collaboration. “We would not probably have done this at a lot of campuses, but because of the tenure here and our partnership we were approved,” he said.

“It helps if you want to do something new and innovative,” Somers said of the extended partnership with ARAMARK. “You’re a little bit more willing to take risks, if you’ve had that partnership for a while. There’s that trust factor there.”

ARAMARK aims for transparent future

As ARAMARK is a for-profit corporation, it maximizes earnings by minimizing costs.

“I don’t want to beat my budget. I want to be right on my budget,” Gazda said. “I don’t want to be below my budget, because I have no reason to do that. I don’t want to be behind my budget, because I like my job. If I have to be behind my budget, I will to take care of you guys.”

Gazda said there’s a lot of confusion about where meal plan money is going.

“What I want to do next year is full transparency,” he said. “Maybe even have a whole page on the Web site that says, ‘Where do my funds go on the meal plan?’”

Until then, students can use the “leave a comment” function on the campus dining web page or stop by Gazda’s office in the Colonnades to inquire further about ARAMARK at Elon.



COST CLIMB COMPONENTS

When pricing meal plans, Somers said Elon factors in food, labor and facilities maintenance costs, and looks at other universities’ prices to stay competitive.

Somers explained that ARAMARK pays for the food, employees, liability insurance, and all associated costs, while Elon owns and maintains the facilities and pays ARAMARK per meal swipe.

EMPLOYEES
Staffing Elon’s numerous facilities is expensive. Gazda said ARAMARK employs more than 300 people on Elon’s campus, paying all waged, non-student employees $10 per hour.

MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR
Elon has a zero-deferred maintenance policy, meaning that anything needing fixing will be fixed.

“For instance, the ice cream machine in upstairs McEwen is on its last leg,” Somers said. “So, I’m putting in a request for that ice cream machine to the tune of $14,000.”

GREEN ADDITIONS

This fall, ARAMARK distributed reusable aluminum water bottles to all resident students, installed filtered water dispensers to minimize the amount of plastic bottles used at Elon and introduced composting at all its dining facilities to dispose of waste more responsibly.

ORGANIC OPTIONS

Organic and locally-grown fare comprise 60 percent of the groceries for sale at Fountain Market, the ARAMARK convenience store located on the first floor of the recently constructed $6.7 million dining facility, Colonnades. Sustainable products mean higher costs.

COLLABORATION WITH ELON
At times, ARAMARK helps fund collaborative ventures, like the construction of Colonnades dining hall and the renovation of Brown & Co., leaving the university indebted to the food service provider. If Elon elected to work with another company, it would have to buy ARAMARK out for a fee proportional to the recency of the development.