Sodexo and Norwich’s dining options: It’s complicated

Students get food in the dining hall run by Sodexo at the Wise Center.

Students get food in the dining hall run by Sodexo at the Wise Center.

Sodexo, the food service corporation that serves Norwich University, is committed to providing quality and the kind of food students want on campus.

That’s the message from Sodexo and the Norwich administration in response to an article published in The Guidon newspaper March 6, which focused on negative student reactions to Sodexo’s food quality and its food monopoly on campus.

“We didn’t get a chance to tell our side of the tale,” said Scott Rossen, the general manager of Sodexo Dining Services at NU.

Sodexo has served the NU campus for decades and hires both students and local employees from the Northfield area. The dining hall staff has a personal connection to the students and wants the food to be a positive experience.

“I don’t know that there is one person among the dining staff who does not want to please every single student,” said Rossen.

“We know that there is room for improvement in dining services,” said David Magida, Norwich’s chief administrative officer who works directly with Sodexo and its contract with NU. “There is room to improve in everything that is being done at the university and we want to improve. We want students to help us improve,” he said.

According to both Magida and Rossen, who sat down last week for a lengthy interview, Sodexo is constantly looking to improve. They said while comments and “polite” criticisms are encouraged, the negativity a portion of the comments cards received via the board in the dining hall and in The Guidon article bothered some of the staff.

“Having comments like that hurts the people in food services,” Magida said. “It is contrary to the attitude that we go in with that we want to get better and work collaboratively to make it better. The implication of (that) article is that the Sodexo staff at Norwich University are uncaring about student opinions, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

“They want a long-term relationship,” Magida said, not just to make money in the short term. “They are not going to do that if they are not satisfying the students.”

Sodexo, which last summer signed a 10-year contract with Norwich, faces some unique challenges in its work on the NU campus. “Norwich has some difficulties in comparison to other institutions in terms of service requirements the university sets on them. To have a student body that is very, very active compared to the normal student body – you guys eat a lot of food,” Magida said.

Magida said students’ complaints about Sodexo’s “monopoly” over all of the food services available on campus – including Dunkin’ Donuts, The Mill and the dining facility – reflected a misunderstanding about the food arrangement on campus.

“Sodexo does have a monopoly of food services on campus and there is a reason for it,” he said. Sodexo can listen to the Student Board of Directors for dining services and make changes, such as adding the Dunkin’ Donuts. He added that Sodexo is able to share employees and kitchen equipment by owning all three of the dining options on campus, therefore making it possible for the NU community to have the popular Dunkin’ Donuts.

“Yes, Sodexo owns the franchise (of Dunkin’ Donuts),” Magida said. “Dunkin’ Donuts owns very few of their own stores. They franchise them out. But, they have very strict requirements on the franchisee, which in this case is Sodexo.”

Sodexo sent three employees for a two week training session with Dunkin’ Donuts as one of the requirements and the NU franchise has been inspected by the larger company, Rossen said. The coffee shop uses some Dunkin’ equipment, shares regular prices, and all of recipes down to the grams of coffee are measured out each morning according to Dunkin’ Donuts rules.

The Mill is also tailored to match the local prices of food and snacks in order to provide students with other options. “We do what we call ‘zone pricing, ” Rossen said.

“It is (Sodexo’s) best interest to be competitive,” Magida said. “The vast majority of the students are on the meal plan here, (they) don’t have to buy anything.”

Sodexo opening The Mill and Dunkin’ Donuts allowed students to have more choices as opposed to just serving as money-making operations. “What (Sodexo is) trying to do is provide options for students who want something different. If they were out of line with the pricing – don’t buy it!”

Magida said that, when student satisfaction dips down in the biannual Sodexo survey, he works with the dining management and the Sodexo district office in order to better the dining experience. Although student satisfaction has dropped more recently, the results are still “significantly above what it was two years ago.”

Some Norwich students work in the dining hall for Sodexo and see both sides of the issue when it comes to the food served on campus. “As an employee, I get a chance to see the behind the scenes, inner workings of our chow hall, and honestly I don’t think its too bad,” said Jesse Fulger, 21, a junior accounting major from Halfmoon, N.Y.

“People complain all the time, but I just think they get bored of it. We don’t have a whole lot of options in Northfield so eventually the food will get old. Our management has a lot of issues to address because they not only do our chow hall, but they cater many events, run the Dunkin’ Donuts, The Mill, et cetera.
Fulger added, “What we ‘put up with’ is actually much better than many other schools. I won’t say it’s the best University dining hall I have ever eaten in but its far from the worst. Working there only helped me solidify that opinion.”

“Since I’ve been here I feel the dining hall’s service and quality has gradually improved,” Fulger said.

Magida’s request for different menus, foods, and resources to increase student satisfaction impacts Sodexo, but the company has been a willing partner. “That is expensive for Sodexo to be doing that. Never once have they refused that,” he said.

A larger issue beyond food quality and service, however, is what the students are getting for their money in light of tuition increases. With recent cuts to the university budget and a pending 5 percent tuition increase for the upcoming academic term, students and the NU community are questioning what they are paying for, according to a key student official.

When considering whether or not students “get their money’s worth” in the dining hall, Fulger said that he would like to see the budget. “That is one thing that is hard to tell because of the rumors that Sodexo refuses to release the budget. That’s something I would like to see,” he said.

“Right now we are trying to hit individual areas and subjects of the budget to where we could recommend reductions and there is one that came up with Sodexo,” said Student Government Association President George Bausch, a 21-year-old political science major from Brewster, Mass.

Bausch became involved after President Richard W. Schneider asked the SGA for input on ways that the university could save money and lessen the impact of rising tuition costs.

As a part of SGA’s budget cut suggestions to Schneider, it requested “specifics” of Sodexo’s cost to Norwich for its services. These specifics include the following: (1) how much does the meal plan cost per student separate from the room and board cost? (2) how much does it cost each student per day with the unlimited swipe plan? (3) and what would be the cost difference if the plans were limited to three swipes a day?

Bausch said he made the request acting as an advocate for the entire student body. “As SGA, as the president of SGA, I represent the views and advocate for the views of the students and right now the students are saying, if I can save money by having a meal plan that I can swipe three times a day compared to unlimited, (then) I would like that.”

Beyond saving students money, he said transparency is an important issue in the relationship with dining services. “We would like the meal plan to be published in the most transparent way possible,” Bausch said. “Our priority in this, obviously, is to lower the meal plan cost if possible.”

The ultimate goal, according to Bausch, would be to “renegotiate” the contract with Sodexo to save upper-class students money on a reduced meal plan. He also wants more flexibility and options in the dining plans.

Magida said he cannot release the details of NU’s contract with Sodexo, but he affirmed that the university is not looking to cut the dining services budget.

“We have not cut, in any way, the food service budget and do not plan on it,” Magida said. He also added that even limiting the number of swipes per day would not decrease the total cost per student, though he and Sodexo are considering different options and plans.

According to meetings Bausch had with Sodexo management, he sees some progress on issues important to NU students and expects to do more work on the issues.

For example, Sodexo will be offering more “open forums” during which students will be able to meet with individuals on the managerial staff and give “constructive criticism.”

Bausch and SGA Chief of Staff Kelvin Huntley met with two of Sodexo’s managers, Scott Rossen and Nora Heinsohn, Sodexo Operations Manager, and “we made some great strides in some areas,” Bausch said.

He cited some progress on “issues students raised,” including considering a biometric thumbprint entry system and Sodexo’s possible presence during orientation week.

Sodexo has a Student Board of Directors that meets biweekly to discuss student issues as they pertain to the dining service, which he praised.

“I think that is great on Sodexo’s part,” Bausch said.

However he has not lost sight of the major issue: “We feel it is beneficial to Sodexo, the students, and Norwich as a whole if Sodexo was more transparent about the meal plan and the specifics of the meal plan and that’s the key.”

Both Bausch and Huntley said Sodexo is reluctant to meet their request to see the specific cost of the meal plan per student. “The response we got back was that they are concerned that they are going to get outbid,” he said.

“The concern was that if they release what they are charging, what the cost is per day then an outside provider could come in and offer something better for a cheaper price,” Bausch said. “But, my response to that is, that is what the free market is. Norwich is a business, higher education is a business.”

However, Bausch said that any goal of renegotiating the contract is not to have Sodexo leave NU. “I don’t want to see Sodexo leave here and another party come in. I think we all love the individuals at Sodexo,” Bausch said. “But, we definitely are concerned that we can’t see the specifics of the meal plan.”

Considering NU as more than an $80 million business, he thinks the free market system should be allowed to work. “When the services the students are getting aren’t satisfying to the students and something could replace that, that could offer better services at a lower price, students will want that.”

In the end, Bausch said his “number one priority” and that of the SGA and students is that the food system needs to be “as transparent as possible” and to have published the meal plan and the day-by-day cost of operating it.

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