DSG to examine Oak Room changes

Just when its latest table has been set, The Oak Room Grille may undergo yet another change.

The Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee will present a resolution calling for a change of management at the restaurant, when Duke Student Government's general body meets tonight. Currently, the restaurant is operated by ARAMARK Corp., which assumed management of the establishment in July 2001.

Isaac Dolgovskij and Barry Locker, co-chairs of DUSDAC, said students were satisfied with the menu but disappointed with inconsistent food quality and presentation.

"ARAMARK, as a corporation, has to manage many establishments [at Duke]," said Dolgovskij, a junior. "[Outsourcing] allows focus on one area as opposed to balancing everything else on your plate."

The proposed resolution states that ARAMARK has "failed to be responsive to all of DUSDAC's suggestions despite having ample time to implement changes." David Randolph, resident district manager for ARAMARK, could not be reached for comment.

Jim Wulforst, director of Duke Dining Services, said the plans are still premature, depending on the official support of DSG and the Local 77 labor union.

"We have a lot of respect for the union and their concerns about further privatization, and we want to be true partners with them in this process, to make sure that we don't do anything without everyone being on the same page," Wulforst said.

Wulforst, with Joe Pietrantoni, associate vice president for auxiliary services, and Martha Davidson, dining business manager, plan to meet with the executive board of Local 77 today to follow-up a November meeting at which Local 77's executive board and dining service administrators discussed the financial stability of the establishment.

Two years ago, when DSG legislators passed a similar resolution calling for the privatization of The Oak Room, the union did not support the idea. Without that support, Wulforst said, Dining Services was unable to privatize the restaurant.

Locker, a senior, said he hopes the outsourcing will be possible this year because the union has expressed support. "The union is fully on board. No one is going to lose their jobs at all," he said.

Despite ARAMARK's efforts to renovate the restaurant's ambiance and reputation-from prices and menu to lighting and paint-and to change the management, Wulforst said, the establishment has still not been able to increase profits.

"The sales of the last two years have really either flatlined or declined despite the renovations and changes that we've made," he said. "I think the general sense from our students is that we need to have a trendy restaurant operate."

Dining Services has looked at Taverna Nikos, Papa's Grill, Outback Steakhouse and Chili's, among other establishments, as possible operators in the past, Wulforst said, though the lack of parking has deterred some prospective owners, among other reasons. Rick Lynch, owner of Rick's Diner, and Fares Hanna, who operates the Blue Express at the Levine Science Research Center, have also expressed interest in managing The Oak Room Grille.

DUSDAC's proposal specifically recommends Hanna, who has managed hotel restaurants, George's Garage and Cafe Parizade, to manage The Oak Room Grille and Faculty Commons, which share a kitchen.

"[Hanna] has done this a lot, and he's done it very well," Locker said. "He would not have worked at George's for more than a day if he wasn't putting out a quality product consistently."

Hanna's ideas for the restaurant include family-style dining, similar to that at Maggiano's restaurant, a piano player and an upscale Sunday buffet. Locker said Hanna's proposed prices would also be lower than current prices, and mentioned shrimp and grits, scallop potato chowder and pan-seared salmon served over couscous as possible menu additions.

If privatized, The Oak Room Grille would open next semester under new management with an interim contract through May.


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