Striving to Salvage Reputation, Sodexo Begins New Contract By Featuring Retail Brand Names
By CONNOR RYAN
For years, Dagger John’s, tucked deep in the belly of Rose Hill’s McGinley Center, has been where Rams of a certain generation would huddle after football games, beer in hand, to reminisce about late nights spent on Eddie’s. Its dust and homey taxidermy served as a kind of nostalgic flourish.
But, under the cover of summer vacation, the room — along with most other on-campus eateries — has been refreshed and infused with a dose of popular retail. The goal? To mend the jagged relationship between Sodexo, Fordham’s food service provider of past, present and future, and the student body.
And, for the most part, the pretzels from Auntie Anne’s and the sandwiches from Così seem to be doing just that.
“I am thrilled about the new menu options,” Matt Cucino, FCRH ’14, said as he sat in Dagger John’s Monday evening with a container of mushroom chicken from Panda Express. “The healthy entrees taste so much better this year.”
Most students, in fact, appear to be bound by positive agreement — a stark difference from years past.
When asked about Rose Hill’s food quality this semester, 73 percent of Fordham students said it was good or better, according to a survey of 143 students conducted this week by The Ram.
Seventy-three percent of freshmen say the food is good, 12 percent say it is excellent and 15 percent label it fair, according to the poll. Additionally: 57 percent of sophomores, 62 percent of juniors and 77 percent of seniors call the food good.
The survey is based solely on anecdotal response and is not scientific, but the results suggest that most students appreciate the changes that have been made to Rose Hill’s dining services program this summer.
Despite the seemingly positive trend, Jeffrey Gray, senior vice president for student affairs, is mindful of Sodexo’s bumpy history at Fordham and looks toward future improvements.
“I’m pleased to see a favorable initial response from the students,” Gray said in an email. “That said, we can do better yet in the future, and improved student satisfaction will be an area of continued focus and monitoring to ensure that our dining services remain responsive to student needs and changing trends.”
Panda Express, a Chinese restaurant, Jamba Juice and an abbreviated Starbucks are housed in Dagger John’s. Auntie Anne’s has joined the deli under Queen’s Court. Così, a well-known soup-and-sandwich brand, has been moved into Campbell Hall. A café, ZeBi, has been installed in Faculty Memorial Hall, and a small food kiosk has been added to the basement of Keating Hall. [For reviews, pg. 14]
In addition to renovations, Fordham has implemented new meal plan options that allow for students to use “meal exchanges” instead of declining balance dollars at each of the on-campus retail outlets — except for Panda Express.
McGinley’s Marketplace and the Millennium Grille under O’Hare Hall went largely untouched this summer.
The decision to sign a 10-year contract with Sodexo, Fordham’s food service provider of roughly 20 years, was announced on the sunny afternoon of May 15 via online press release. It was days before far-flung relatives would swarm Edward’s Parade in ties and dresses to celebrate the Class of 2013. Rose Hill was quiet.
For a few, it marked the end of an exhaustive yearlong review process, comprised diligently of extensive closed-door deliberations, service evaluations and research collection. But, for most, it was only just the beginning of another decade with Sodexo.
As with any school, a constant ebb and flow of students keep faces fresh on campus. But, a steady culture of dissatisfaction among students in the cafeteria has remained a sullying common denominator for years at Fordham.
The sentiment was confirmed in 2011 when three Rose Hill eateries were slapped with a number of violations by New York City health inspectors, and again last August when The Princeton Review — a widely read resource for prospective college students — decried Fordham’s food as the worst of any college’s in the country.
Whispers and casual complaints had suddenly been handed a national megaphone. Amid the poor press, administrators recognized the need to take immediate action.
“We plan to win back, and keep, the confidence of the Fordham community,” said Bob Howe, senior director of communications, soon after the ranking was published.
Weeks later, administrators hired the Rochelle Group, a consulting firm that specializes in food service evaluation, to investigate the dining services program at Rose Hill and Lincoln Center.
The group completed its evaluation in January and submitted a report to administrators after having spent weeks tasting food, touring facilities and interviewing students.
The report found no blatant problems with the overall dining operation. But it highlighted “a strong disconnect between student expectations and perceptions,” said Stephen Erdman, FCRH ’13 and former executive president of Rose Hill’s United Student Government.
The consultants encouraged Fordham to terminate Sodexo’s contract and issue a request for proposal (RFP) to various food service providers. It did, and the Rochelle Group narrowed the list to five vendors. Three submitted formal proposals, including Sodexo, but one later dropped out.
It came down to Sodexo and Aramark, one of the food providers that appeared on the coveted Princeton Review best food list this year. (Sodexo did not make it on that list this year.)
The responsibility of deciding the winner was placed on the shoulders of 19 administrators and students, who were divided into three committees: student engagement, working and steering.
After reading through proposals and sitting through presentations, slightly more of the student representation favored Sodexo’s bid without having any knowledge of the financials at stake, Gray said during an interview in May.
When students were told that Sodexo had offered Fordham nearly $30 million more than Aramark in capital investments, the group eventually moved to vote 8-0 in support of Sodexo.
Brendan Francolini, GSB ’14 and executive vice president of USG at Rose Hill, was a part of the selection process. He said the decision was ultimately about the food.
“What we saw with the proposals from Sodexo was that food options are going to expand incredibly over the next year and over the next two years,” he said in May.
In the end, the committee approved the Sodexo contract by an 18-1 vote, according to Gray.
He conceded that Sodexo’s investment in on-campus renovations played a role in the food provider’s selection.
“At the end of the day, the physical changes and a lot of the meal plan changes and a lot of the things that have to happen have to be backed by resources,” Gray said.
Deming Yaun was hired by Fordham in May to be the dining contract liaison between the University and Sodexo. And although he is optimistic about the future, Yaun says he understands that reversing the historically negative perceptions of Sodexo will take work and time.
“When a ball is rolling in the wrong direction in as large a business as this really is, it does take a herculean effort to catch the ball, gain control of it and start pushing it back,” he said.
Sodexo is not there yet.
Fordham was again slated at the top of The Princeton Review’s worst food list this year at number five.
When asked for comment, Howe said the ranking was based on two-year-old data. But David Soto, the publication’s college ratings director, told The Ram the ranking was based in part on data collected last year.
Administrators are quick to want to switch perceptions and stay far from that list, which is generated solely by student surveys.
The new contract specifically stipulates, for example, that Sodexo will incur a $3 million penalty if Fordham’s name is not off the list in the next few years, Gray confirmed.
And so, plans for additional changes continue to roll on.
Administrators hope to see Chipotle, the popular Mexican food chain, in the space of the Millennium Grille by next fall. Once Fordham receives permission from the restaurant, the Grille will need to be expanded to allow for additional seating per Chipotle’s specifications, according to Yaun.
The forthcoming installation of a Starbucks near Rose Hill’s campus prevented one from being installed over the summer on campus. But, administrators are hopeful that a full-service Starbucks will be placed on campus in the near future.
Ultimately, Yaun says he has a clear-cut plan for the future success of Sodexo at Fordham.
“We, as an administration, have to help students understand the positive, while being completely honest about where the program has to go,” he said, sipping Jamba Juice during an interview last week. “Eventually it will turn around.”
Girish Swaminath contributed reporting.
The survey was conducted by: Connor Ryan, Canton Winer, Kelly Kultys, Katie Meyer, Katie Nolan, Dan Gartland, Matt Rosenfeld, Max Prinz, Devon Sheridan, Jack MacGregor and Grace Lilly.