University prepares to potentially cut ties with Aramark, open bidding process for new vendor

After years of controversy surrounding company, AU will explore other options

University prepares to potentially cut ties with Aramark, open bidding process for new vendor

The One Card & Dining Services office in the Mary Graydon Center. 

American University is preparing to solicit bids for a new food service provider after years of outcry from students and parents about Aramark, its current vendor. A source familiar with the matter told The Eagle that it is unlikely Aramark will remain AU’s food service provider. 

Mark Story, the University’s director of strategic communications, said that the offices of Dining Services and Auxiliary Services, along with the Procurement Department, are collaborating to create a request for proposal, or RFP, which will be released later this month. During this period, which will last approximately 10 weeks, different food vendors will be able to bid for the contract to provide dining services to AU. 

Aramark will be allowed to bid under the new RFP, Story said, and will be treated fairly in the same way as all other companies. However, a source who has spoken with administrators about the process said it is unlikely that Aramark will be chosen for the contract. 

Once the bidding process closes in either late May or early June, the University will evaluate bidders based on a series of criteria before deciding which vendor to award the contract to, Story said. The University plans to announce the opening of the RFP to the AU community later this month. 

The University’s priorities for a food service vendor, Story said, are good food, high-quality service, sustainability and cost-effectiveness — not only at TDR, but at all campus dining locations. AU will transition to the new contract over the summer and aims to be fully converted and functional by move-in for the fall semester, he said. 

“The University is approaching [the process] from the perspective that food service is a major factor in creating an optimal campus experience and sense of community,” Story said. “This is novel for the University to approach a request for proposal looking at it like that.”

AU is hiring a consultant to ensure the RFP is comprehensive and error-free, Story said. Another important facet of the bidding decision process, Story said, is the new Dining Project Committee, which is made up of student representatives, faculty and staff from Dining and Auxiliary Services. The group meets every two weeks. 

Charles Smith, the executive director of Auxiliary Services, referred The Eagle to Story on matters concerning the RFP when reached for comment. 

Earlier this year, students spoke out against proposed meal plan changes for the 2019-2020 school year because of increased costs and complaints about poor food quality, The Eagle previously reported. Story said a combination of these protests and general “concerns from the AU community,” particularly from students and parents, led the University to seek other food providers. 

“Students and parents have become pretty vocal over the last several months,” Story said. “If you’ve seen [President Sylvia Burwell’s] strategic plan, at the heart of that is student retention. The heart of student retention is making sure you have a good experience here, and dining is part of that.” 

Aramark has served as the University’s primary food provider since 2013. In the past six years, the company has consistently been at the center of a series of controversies concerning workers’ rights as well as student complaints about food quality and Aramark’s affiliation with more than 500 correctional facilities.

“We have a long relationship with Aramark, and I think that that’s an opportunity for good things to build up,” Story said. “That’s an opportunity for some-not-so-great things to build up, too.” 

In 2015 and 2016, students were particularly vocal about how Aramark treated its workers at the University. Former professor Jim McCabe was arrested in TDR after advocating for workers’ rights in October 2015, sparking outrage from students. Organizers held a major protest about the plight of workers in April 2016 and made waves on social media by sharing stories about the company’s alleged mistreatment of AU service workers.

Student Worker Protest Oct 2015.jpg

Student worker advocates protest on the steps of the Mary Graydon Center on Oct. 30, 2015. ZACH EWELL/THE EAGLE

More recently, the University has faced multiple lawsuits regarding Aramark and the closure of Megabytes Cafe. Tom Gera, the owner of Megabytes, filed a lawsuit against AU in December after the University changed the locks on his restaurant following multiple videos of rodents in the cafe, claiming that AU wanted to push out non-Aramark businesses. 

Then, in February, a former Aramark employee sued the company and the University, alleging that he was wrongfully fired after providing gifts to AU employees who worked with Aramark. In the lawsuit, the employee argues that he was removed even though he was instructed by a superior to provide the gifts. 

The Rival American first reported on the wrongful termination lawsuit. Story told The Eagle that the University does not comment on pending litigation. 

In addition, the Washington College of Law recently ended its relationship with Aramark. The school’s new provider as of January is French food service vendor Sodexo, according to Robert Campe, the associate dean for finance, administration and strategic planning at WCL.

In an interview, Campe said the law school’s contract with Aramark ended last summer, but the company agreed to continue service until the college could find a new provider. Under Sodexo, he said, there have been no major changes as of late January, although he expects some difference in hours of operation and an increased level of sustainability. 

Campe added that the overall costs of delivery and catering have decreased under the new provider. 

When AU changed food service providers in 2013 from Bon Appetit to Aramark, food service workers were transitioned smoothly and almost all retained their jobs, Story said. He expects this to remain the same if a new vendor is selected and anticipates no layoffs, although he said it was impossible to be sure. 

At WCL, most workers were kept on, though a few were transferred to the AU main campus and one or two took new jobs at unaffiliated locations, Campe said. 

However, The Eagle reported in 2015 that multiple food service workers lost pensions when new vendors took over at the University, forcing some to work significantly past their expected retirement age.

While questions remain about how a new vendor would affect workers and food service at AU, Aramark has not said how it will react to AU’s decision. Aramark was formally notified of the RFP process on Tuesday, Story said. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“Everybody is going to be given an equal opportunity because if you don’t do that, what it ends up is you get sued,” Story said. “[Administrators] are bending over backwards to make sure that [every vendor] is getting an equal opportunity.” 

Kelly McDonnell contributed reporting to this article.

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