The Refectory in the Divinity School may be absent from West Campus next year.
After several meetings with Refectory owner Laura Hall, Duke Dining has not yet renewed its contract with the eatery’s original Divinity School location. Dining administrators have asked Hall to pay a higher commission to the University starting next year and to make changes to her business model in order to afford the higher commission, she said.
The Refectory opened in the Divinity School in 2005 as the University’s first green café, offering sustainable, healthy food options from local farms and living wages for its workers.
“I’m the David and [administrators] are the Goliath,” Hall said. “If [they] are trying to make me more like a cookie-cutter fast food place, then [their] priority is not what my priority is. I would think [they] would be trying to make the other places more like the Refectory.”
Paying a higher commission would require Hall to make sacrifices that she is not willing to make, Hall said. These would include raising prices, demoting full-time workers to part time, buying fewer fresh ingredients and not keeping up the Refectory’s sanitation score. The County Health Department awarded both Refectory locations a score of 102 last year, the highest of any Durham restaurant.
Dining will make its final decision in the next week or two in advance of the contract running out on June 30, Hall said.
Rick Johnson, assistant vice president of housing and dining, said he and other administrators will meet with Hall Friday to further discuss these issues. He noted the University’s support for local food options.
“We recently replaced a national organization in Devil’s Bistro with a local company, Food Factory,” Johnson wrote in an email Monday. “We also hired a local company Pitchfork Provisions for the dining in McClendon, so that is two changes in the same year and both are local.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Larry Moneta referred all questions to Johnson. Johnson declined to comment specifically about the Refectory before the meeting Friday. Director of Duke Dining Robert Coffey did not respond to questions in time for publication.
The Refectory’s second outlet, which opened at the School of Law in 2008, still has two years left in its contract with the University and is not part of the current contract negotiations.
The restaurants make a profit for the University, Hall said, helped by subsidies from her business, Bon Vivant Catering. Without any advertising besides social media and word of mouth, about 600 to 800 people eat lunch in the Divinity School location every day, Hall said. The Refectory has won five gold plates in Duke’s Performance Assessment for Culinary Excellence evaluation, four more than any other eatery on campus.
Hall said administrators approached her a year ago concerning contract changes.
“What is happening is that there is a deficit and they need to raise funds,” she said.
Hall was not aware of details of any other vendor contracts or whether national chains such as McDonald’s pay the same commission as more local options.
Greek Devil owner Gus Megaloudis said his commission to the University rose 50 percent for the 2011-12 school year from 10 percent to 15 percent, which meant prices rose to make up the difference.
“This year was a very difficult year for us because of that 50 percent jump,” he said. “That’s a lot of money. The bad thing is it will be passed on to the students.”
If administrators decline to renew the Refectory’s contract, Hall said she is looking into off-campus locations and a food truck that could be in Durham if not at Duke.
A few admitted students on campus for Blue Devil Days told Hall that they will attend Duke because the presence of the Refectory indicates that the University shares the students’ ideals for a more local, sustainable food system.
“I meet so many new students coming in because their parents asked, ‘Where’s the best food on campus?’ and they get sent to us,” Hall said.
Sophomore Sarah Berman eats breakfast and lunch at the Refectory every day because, she said, the workers are friendlier and the food is better than at other campus eateries.
“It has a focus on giving students food that’s good for them and that tastes good, so it’s not your typical get-food-and-head-to-the-library type of place,” she said. “The line is always out the door at lunchtime.... I’ll be sad to see it go.”