"The burger that says, 'Bite me,'" risks getting bitten by the University.
Last Saturday, Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst sent a letter to executives at Orion Food Systems-the parent company of Mean Gene's Burgers-demanding "real improvement" on a number of fronts in the next 45 days; otherwise the University will end its contract with the burger chain at the end of June.
Officials at Orion said they were surprised to receive the letter and were disappointed by its content.
"We bailed Duke out when they needed someone. They pleaded with us to come, and we bent over backwards to accommodate them," said Steven Liepsner, executive vice president of Orion Foods. "We knew that it was a one-year contract, but we were under the impression that the first year was just a formality. All we want to do is whatever is best for students. We feel we just need a fair chance."
In the letter, Wulforst said Orion has not cooperated in implementing many of the University's recommendations, causing sales to stagnate.
"To date [our] suggestions have met with slow response time, poor planning and poor and expensive product specifications or no specifications at all," wrote Wulforst. "Without real improvement, Mean Gene's cannot expect to remain in operation beyond the June 30, 1999 contract expiration."
But Orion argues that Dining Services has been the uncooperative partner, and said they plan to challenge many of Dining Services complaints in a formal response next week.
"Most of the issues [Wulforst] said in the letter are incorrect. We just don't understand these complaints," Liepsner said. "They have not accepted us with the spirit of cooperation. Jim Wulforst hasn't worked with us to promote changes to our menu on campus."
Among other disputes between the University and Orion is interpretation of sales figures for the franchise. University officials said that Mean Gene's recent fall in sales warrant alarm.
"Initially when [Mean Gene's] appeared they were doing better than Burger King did in that spot, but business has fallen off," said Wulforst. "No one expected [business] to drop off as far as it has."
During the past few months, Wulforst said, weekly sales at Mean Gene's are between 20 and 30 percent lower than Burger King's were in corresponding weeks in previous years.
But executives at Mean Gene's argue that such a decline is understandable, citing Mean Gene's change from a six- to a five-day schedule as the reason for lower sales.
"If you look at our sales for the first 15 weeks, we outsold Burger King," said Liepsner.
Wulforst also said that dissatisfaction with the food outlet-particularly among female students-prompted demands for change.
While Mean Gene's was being considered last summer, Wulforst said, he spoke with Orion about the restaurant's target group: 18 to 34-year-old men. He said Orion offered to alter its menu to appeal more to women.
Eatery staff acknowledge this has been a problem, but are quick to point out that changes are underway to solve this problem.
"We're trying to diversify the menu and attract more female customers. We're trying baked potatoes, salads and smaller hamburgers," said Jim Zechini, general manager of Mean Gene's. "What we're trying to do is reach a broader base, not just your standard quarter-pounder eater."
Liepsner, too, said that they have made a sincere effort to increase the number of patrons.
"We've expanded our menu beyond what we originally intended. We've gone out of our way to meet the needs of students," he said. "We did additional product research specifically for [Duke]."
Liepsner also said that he is confident students support Mean Gene's, and that Orion is dedicated to working with them to preserve a healthy relationship.
But many student are eager to see Mean Gene's go.
"As health conscious as Duke students are, I don't think [bringing Mean Gene's to campus] was a good idea,"said Trinity junior Jache Williams. "It was nice of them to come up if [Dining Services] couldn't get anyone else, but I hope they're not here [next year]."