Aramark & Bennington College: We're All In This Together

To see what real determination looks like, ask David Rees—the College’s Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration—about the Commons renovation project; his passion is visibly unequivocal. “We’re going to get this right,” he says, “this is a real moment for the whole place, it’s a tremendous opportunity for Bennington College altogether: more than just dining, more than just a building, it really is the heart of the place.” A heart is an apt metaphor: the College’s intention to renovate Commons will entail nothing short of open heart surgery. The genesis of the College’s new engagement with Aramark Corporation—the multinational food service provider which will be managing the College’s dining operations beginning next year—is complex, but the Commons renovation project is where it begins; what it ultimately entails for Bennington will be defined by the vigilance and hard work of the entire College community.

“The commons project is the driver of all of this.”

For all its romanticism, Commons is a building of unlovable eccentricities, and the building’s original logic has become anachronistic. The sealed third floor—which consists of beautiful, airy and surprisingly vast performance spaces and studios—became redundant after VAPA opened, and lean budgeting throughout the 80s allowed it to fall into disrepair. The rear of the building, aside from being less than stunning architecturally, houses a hodgepodge of offices and programs devoid of consistency. Dining operations sprawls awkwardly over two floors and makes due with a problematic kitchen space last renovated some four decades ago. Down Commons is a dim morass of makeshift spaces and curious restroom placement. With few exceptions, Commons lacks most of what one would reasonably expect in a collegiate commons—a coffee shop, a pub, flexible space for bands and other performances and, above all, students.

A more fundamental difficulty with the building is architectural—in 1932, Commons’ northern face was, functionally, the rear perimeter of the campus. VAPA’s completion shifted the campus’ center of gravity, leaving Commons where it was never intended to be: the middle. The building’s original dynamic was one of servers and served, and travelling from the front of Commons to the rear is legally impossible without a hairnet (or a lockpick, less legally)—evidencing an obvious dimension of the building’s failure in its new context. “That building is a really interesting problem for us,” Rees says, “if you were going to build [a commons building] today from scratch, it wouldn’t look like that.” This is why Commons, as it exists today, has reached its expiration date.

But what will its rebirth entail? Dining Services’ operations are a vital, non-negotiable part of Bennington College’s functioning: the campus has to eat, and this prerogative would seem to preclude the possibility of closing the dining hall for any extended period of time. Until the College’s architects make further progress on the building’s schematic design the timeline is impossible to divine, but a gut renovation of a building like Commons will likely take months—possibly over a year. During that time, 700 students and the College’s faculty and staff will still need to eat, and given the student center’s limited capacity there isn’t an obvious replacement which fits the bill. Temporarily moving dining into Crossett was briefly considered before being rightly abandoned, and it wasn’t until late last year that the Commons project’s leaders began serious discussions about a different kind of solution. This is where Aramark comes in.

Bennington College’s administration and Board of Trustees has made a decision about Commons: its renovation has been deemed of great importance to the College’s prosperity and ongoing welfare. Institutionally, the project is an unstoppable force just as its dining operations are an immovable object, and in this instance the two are set to collide. It was this impending collision that wrought the Aramark contract: a Faustian bargain, but a clear way out.

Before getting in to where the College is going, however, it will be useful to look at where it is now.

The Pangaea Connection: A Food System Case Study

“Entrepreneurial” is not ambitious enough a word to describe Bill Scully, nor is “affable” kind enough. The Bennington alum has been the College’s Director of Dining Services since 2008, and operates a number of restaurants locally as well: Powers, Pangaea and Allegro are all Bill Scully productions. Soon enough the College may be buying electricity from his hydroelectric project just down the hill, but that’s a story for another day.

Upon arrival, Bill was initially charged with reigning in the costs of the College’s Dining Services operation. “When I got here, there were a lot of things lacking—there were no menus, no price structures—it took me three years to really get this place where I thought it was running the way it needed to be running, asking questions like ‘what are our operating costs,’ meaning, like, what’s our food cost per student—those are things nobody had ever really asked before.” Excepting inevitable complaints (many of which have run in the Free Press), Bill, by most accounts, has done a pretty phenomenal job of providing quality food for a picky bunch of eaters at an institutional scale; the quality of Bennington’s dining experience is not neglected in the College’s admissions materials.

Early on, Bill was able to leverage the combined buying power of his restaurants and the College to negotiate, in his words, “the best food buying contract I’ve ever seen” with Performance Food Group, a food distributor headquartered in Virginia. PFG was looking to break into the southern Vermont market, and while Pangaea or the College would have been too small on their own to justify the cost of trucking from PFG’s distribution center in Springfield, Massachusetts, Bill was able to double the College’s buying power by leveraging both and realize a “20 plus percent” savings in raw food product; the savings enabled the College to use those funds to noticeably improve the quality of its food, make minor renovations in the salad bar area, kickstart the Grab n’ Go program, improve catering operations and extend the meal plan into the Snack Bar.

Trucking food—the cost of moving it from place to place—is a critical variable in the math that defines whether a food system will work, economically. Transportation is a fixed cost; it’s 86 miles from Springfield to Bennington every day of the year, and an 18-wheeler only covers 8 miles per gallon. Food is a no-margin business outside of the high-end restaurant world, and billing for wholesale purchasing works on margin markup over laid-in costs; when Bennington College buys 1000 tomatoes, PFG bills the College for a contractually defined margin over the costs of sales, housing, electricity, transportation and a battery of other expenses they incur. When the cost of transportation can be spread out over multiple clients located in a small radius, the marginal savings add up.

“The restaurants that I have and the College were actually enough business, and all within a very small area, to drive a truck here,” Bill says, “so they [PFG] could build all these other accounts and do so without having one or two mom and pops that cost a fortune to actually get the truck into this area. So we really were the cornerstone of PFG opening their market here.” Coincidentally, the College now finds itself in a somewhat similar situation with Aramark, which lost its food service contract with the Vermont State College system to Sodexo just last year; the difference this time is that without Bill Scully, the College had no additional purchasing power to leverage in its contract negotiations. This, along with the fact that Bennington is now Aramark’s only institutional customer in Vermont—a foothold of sorts for them—will have important implications for how Aramark can source our food (see page 6, Sustainable Food), as well as the conclusions which can most confidently be drawn regarding the nature of the College’s contract with Aramark—a document which shockingly few people in the most senior levels of the administration claim to have seen, and which students remain barred from viewing.

So what brings Aramark to Bennington, and what does it have to do with the Commons project?

Enter Aramark

In 2012, Aramark realized $13.5 billion in revenue (for scale, the State of Vermont will realize total revenues of $5.1 billion in the coming year) and currently employs 250,000 people around the globe in its food, uniform and facilities management services; the company’s world headquarters, Aramark Tower, is one of the tallest buildings in Philadelphia. The Governor of the State of Vermont couldn’t leverage the resources Aramark’s CEO has at his disposal, and while Bill Scully is nothing if not ambitious, the economies of scale at play here are overwhelming.

In the six to 18 months (who knows, really) that Commons will be under construction, Aramark will be able to bring its massive resources to bear on the campus with a fleet of mobile kitchens, refrigerated trailers and, potentially, semi-permanent, climate controlled dining facilities. The details of how the operation will work are unclear at this point—they may involve using the Student Center as a dining space—but what is clear is that rather than Bennington absorb the dining operation in another campus building, Aramark will absorb the majority of the operation with its own mobile facilities. Bill Scully can’t do that; he also likely couldn’t have provided the $3 million, interest-free loan Aramark included in their bid to help finance the Commons project. The financing component of the contract is not unusual, and less nefarious than is easy to assume; that said, it remains both true and noteworthy that the College will go into debt with Aramark upon receipt of the loan.

Any of the three companies which bid for the College’s dining services contract—Sodexo  and Bon Apetit’s proposals were rejected—could have maneuvered similar resources to solve the College’s unstoppable force/immovable object dilemma. College CFO Laura Krause is on the record saying that Aramark will not be reducing operating costs for the College’s dining operations (whether the College will actually spend more on its dining operations through Aramark is unclear), but the $3 million financing package, clear way out for the dining-sans-commons dilemma and additional security against rising global food prices Aramark is offering make for a compelling proposal. This all sounds very nice, and in certain regards it is; it is also, again, a Faustian bargain, and given the College’s drastically reduced buying power relative to when the current PFG contract was signed, one that was likely not negotiated as favorably for the College.

The Fine Print Is Not A Detail

Google Aramark, and the name of any institution with which they have ever been affiliated: Yale, the University of Florida or the Kentucky Department of Corrections, for instance. Scroll down the page—if you have to scroll at all—until you find a headline, likely from a student or local newspaper, lambasting the company for questionable labor practices, tired commitments to greenwashed sustainability, or the generally poor quality of their services. There are patterns in the disparate and fuzzy data one can glean on Aramark’s business practices, and while they are generally discouraging, they are not altogether surprising: Aramark is a profit-seeking, multinational corporation, and excepting some notable instances of outright fraud, they are beholden to the terms of the contracts they sign. This is why getting hard answers on the terms of the College’s contract are so important, and why it is discomforting that hard answers are so hard to come by.

It is important not to mistake the College’s ambitions for promises, nor to assume those ambitions presently have any grounding whatsoever in the contract the College has entered into with Aramark. While Bill Scully was an employee of the College, and thereby held liable for the quality of College’s dining operations under the threat of replacement—as an employee of any organization is—Aramark’s continuing work with us is based on a contract. The length of this contract is unknown—10 years is a common period with Aramark’s other customers—and so long as Aramark does not defy the contract’s terms, the relationship cannot be cancelled. To illustrate the point, Aramark may be obliged to provide 3000 calories per student, per day, but without additional binding stipulations defining quality, those 3000 calories could be delivered as gruel. On a 10 year contract, the only incentive to strive for any kind of excellence is a decade away, and not a single student on campus right now will have a voice in whether the contract is renewed or put out for bid— the quality of the campus’ dining experience for the next six years (assuming a 10 year contract) will be of only tertiary importance in that decision.

The College has implied commitments to sourcing food locally and sustainably through Aramark, to retaining its non-union management staff (also through Aramark) and to keeping Aramark accountable for its performance in meaningful ways. The College has also implied a commitment to the Bennington Sustainable Food Project’s Co-op—both in its freedom to operate, and its freedom to thrive. Some of these implications are not commitments at all, but ambitions which might be realized later; others are simply misleading. To date the administrators leading the Aramark project have not lied even once, but important dimensions of the truth have been omitted.

The Contract: What There Is Good Reason To Believe

Aramark is coming to Bennington College on what is likely a 10 year contract, with food price negotiations every three years. Given the College’s lean finances, this outcome or a similar one was likely inevitable in the context of the Commons renovation being an unstoppable force. Laura Krause and David Rees have been on the record multiple times saying that Aramark is providing some financing for the Commons project, and while the $3 million figure cannot be confirmed officially, it has also not been denied officially, and the Free Press has been assured by well-placed sources—who can not be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter— that this figure is close to accurate.

Outgoing College Snack Bar Manager Nick DiSorda. Aramark has refused to comment on whether they will seek a replacement.

The College is retaining its union staff (this was non-negotiable in a very literal sense, as the Dining Services and Facilities workers’ contract is good through 2015), but Dining Service’s management staff—the director, manager, catering manager, executive chef and snack bar manager— are not unionized, and contract negotiations resulted in the elimination of the catering manager position. Jon Tompkins from Aramark will replace Bill Scully as director, and likely oversee catering (currently managed by Helene Bertazzo) as well. While Aramark was contractually obligated to offer the remaining management staff employment packages comparable to their Bennington College ones, they were not obligated to keep those positions if the employment offers were rejected. Snack Bar Manager Nick DiSorda is leaving the College for unrelated reasons at the end of this term, and has heard nothing about potential replacements. Jon Tompkins and Aramark District Manager Don McQuarrie would not comment on whether the Snack Bar Manager position was being phased out.

In regards to sourcing food locally and sustainably, there is no reason to believe Aramark has any contractual obligation to source any percentage of the College’s food locally or sustainably. Both the College and Aramark have refused comment on direct questions to that point. This was never promised to begin with, however, but is an interesting topic regardless and will be expanded later.

Whether the contract contains a monopoly clause which would prevent organizations like the BSFP Co-op from selling food on campus has been somewhat ambiguous, but it now seems more likely than not that a monopoly clause or something functionally resembling it does exist in the contract. Monopoly stipulations are common in food service contracts, and serve to enforce the right of a controlling entity (Aramark, in this case) to be the sole provider of retail and meal plan foodstuffs on a campus. In the second Aramark forum, the BFP cited a case wherein Aramark had shut down a student run coffee shop at the University of Florida, and asked if the Bennington contract contained a similar “no-compete” clause; calling it a no-compete was incorrect and technically meant something completely different. “I don’t think so, no” was Rees’ response at the time, and the question was diverted after Bryan Markhart ‘13 asked if there was a way to make sure of the matter. Tompkins and McQuarrie remained silent at the time. At a later meeting Rees held with the BSFP, Rees said “there’s no no-competition clause [...] I looked in the contract, we’re fine.” This was again, however, a discussion about the incorrect legal terminology. In an attempt to put the matter to rest, the BFP sent the following question to Tomkins and McQuarrie in a battery of others:

If I want to independently sell Snickers bars in Commons next year, and assuming I’ve taken care of my tax status, and further assuming that the College has no issue with the endeavor, is there any contractual means by which Aramark could shut me down?
To be clear: is there a monopoly clause, or anything functionally resembling a monopoly clause, in Bennington’s agreement with Aramark?

The question was neglected in their response, but resurfaced in a response regarding whether Aramark had exclusive catering rights on campus, as below:

“ARAMARK will have non-exclusive catering rights on campus.  This means students will be able to use other catering companies for events, and will not restrict the sale of products for student fundraisers (like the Snickers example you provided.)”

While not conclusive, the implication is that Aramark does have a monopoly on campus retail food sales—though not catering—and excepts student fundraisers from the monopoly stipulation.

In regards to the subjective and aesthetic qualities of the dining experience, Executive Chef Joe Greco is expected to remain with the College as an Aramark employee. While it is reasonable to assume his expertise will make the transition with him it is less clear what contractual standards have been established to ensure the quality of the ingredients he is given to work with remain high. It is difficult to glean conclusions about this dimension of the contract without actually seeing the document— there are many ways to cut the information that the BFP has, but presently no way to know which is correct.

Oversight & Direction

The Aramark announcement rattled something in Bennington’s consciousness which hadn’t been broadly considered outside of BSFP meetings beforehand: where does our food come from? Performance Food Group isn’t the hulking giant Aramark is, but they’re not granola-eaters either. Had the College’s dining operations contract gone to Sodexo or Bon Apetit, the same concerns that rattle us now would likely have been no different (give or take quibbling on whose labor relations record is worse). That the food at Bennington College will be of a certain quality, or that the Dining Services staff will be treated with real dignity rather than as cogs in a machine are both taken for granted—it isn’t until things change that we even consider what supports those conditions to begin with, and this consideration pushes to the forefront what is, for the Bennington community, truly non-negotiable. The union staff is safe for now, but dining service’s management staff is not (and an attentive observer could make a compelling case that the union staff may be worse off by degrees for losing some of their managers). As for our food, more is up in the air. Its aesthetic quality has already been negotiated, and we, as Bennington students, don’t yet know whether the result will leave us worse off; our commitment to sustainability has been negotiated as well, and in that regard we certainly won’t be better off—not until the contract opens for negotiation again. That is where opportunity to realize real change lies.

While the administration’s subterranean approach in this particular decision-making process merits no ovation, the conspiratorial perspective lacks utility insofar as defining a way forward is concerned. David Rees has always been quite clear about one thing: that Aramark’s performance and operations at Bennington will require attentive and rigorous oversight in ways Bill Scully’s operation never did. Discussing the College’s scouting for a new vendor, Rees said that “what we learned, most importantly, is that if you outsource—in any version­—you’ve got to be on top of it in a way that we don’t with Bill running it. So that’s a commitment we’ll be making, that this is an institution that is really going to be paying attention, and it can’t just be Laura and me and Bill when he comes for lunch. It’s got to be the students and faculty and staff, and we’ve got to create a real process.” A “process” has yet to be formally delineated, but there is no shortage of willingness in the student body to generate them. More likely than not, a student group will beat the administration to the punch—the BSFP has an Aramark oversight committee on its roadmap.

Oversight does little good without direction, however— the College needs a north star from which deviations can be tracked. Developing or adopting standards for quality and sustainability, and tracking them, will be of the utmost importance. Seeing meaningful change actually implemented is not a likely possibility for students on campus today if the contract is good for 10 years, and long-term thinking regarding how to manage and maintain a 10 year oversight project should be thoughtfully considered. Change will be dramatic next year, but by the Fall of 2017 there won’t be a student on campus who remembers what once was.

While the details remain fuzzy, the big picture indicates that the College is mortgaging the quality of Bennington’s dining operation to help finance the Commons renovation; both a $3 million loan and mobile dining facilities could have been acquired on the open market, but likely at an unpalatable up-front cost. This is unfortunate insofar as one values good food today over a great Commons tomorrow (and the 10 years of lower quality dining that may entail). Commons is possibly the greater good; the willingness of the Bennington community to tolerate a dip in the quality of dining services will depend upon their faith in the College as an institution. If the student body is vigilant and aggressive about the changes taking place at Bennington, it may be a learning experience on a campus-wide scale.