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ARAMARK put to the 'test'

After a major renovation of the Great Hall this summer, the eatery's management is facing high expectations from the University--what Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst called an "acid test."

ARAMARK Corp. is in the third year of its contract to manage the Great Hall and several other on-campus eateries. Wulforst said the company was hired to train employees and upgrade service, and while he said there is "no immediate question mark" about the company being retained, he added that the recent renovation put an onus for improvement on ARAMARK.

 "I've done everything I can for you guys," Wulforst said of the company. "You can't just say [the Great Hall is] old and broken-down."

 ARAMARK Regional Manager David Randolph said he was conscious of the additional pressure to live up to the high standards of a renovated Great Hall.

 "There's certainly more pressure from employees [and] customers to live up," Randolph said. "We've raised the bar and it needed to be raised. Now the Great Hall has the look and feel of Duke."

 In terms of sales, the eatery is off to a blazing start. Students have praised the greater variety of food choices and more navigable servery, and Randolph estimated a 20 percent sales jump from last year with only a 2.5 percent to 3 percent price increase and constant enrollment.

 "That's phenomenal," Randolph said, adding that last Thursday the Great Hall made about $15,000 in sales--which he said was the most he had ever seen in a single day. Both Wulforst and Randolph said they thought the improvement was both sustainable and was not detracting from other on-campus eateries.

 More pressing for ARAMARK, however, is employee training, which Wulforst said had been traditionally lacking among food service workers. The company was brought on in part to reduce the number of employees for whom it was all about "just dishing out food," Wulforst said, and the Local 77 union supported ARAMARK's arrival at the University.

 While admitting that ARAMARK has a long way to go in its training efforts, Randolph said several steps have already been taken to improve employee training, and more are in the works. For example, beginning this summer, ARAMARK has required a brief culinary training course for all cooks to go over such safety basics as knife-handling procedure. Also, at one point this fall, the Great Hall opened earlier than usual so employees could go over each station in the new servery.

 As far as the student experience goes, reviews for the Great Hall employees have been mixed. Some students, such as sophomore Jay McKenna, said employees seemed "nicer" this year. Others, like sophomore Erin Walker, said they noticed longer lines.

 For Wulforst, a tour of U.S. Air Force bases abroad last year has inspired him to undertake a hard-nosed look at each on-campus eatery, beginning this week. His goal, he said, is to identify the best vendors and reward them with financial incentives, and remove those eateries with a combination of marginal customer service ratings and negative profit margins.

 "I will not keep vendors on campus that do not take my expectations seriously," he said. A formal review from his evaluations will be available in the fall and the spring.

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