$2M Dining deficit spurs reevaluation

University officials are looking for ways to deal with a $2 million deficit in Dining Services by cutting expenses and raising revenue.

Auxiliary Services and Dining Services will brainstorm this summer for ways to lessen or eliminate the burden of subsidizing the deficit at a time when officials are looking to cut $125 million from Duke's operating budget, administrators said.

The deficit, which has been a problem for Dining Services for two years, stems primarily from a switch in vendors in 2006 from ARAMARK Corp. to Compass Group, which oversees Great Hall and Marketplace caterer Bon Appetit, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said. Compass brought an increase of $1 million a year to Dining Services' expense budget.

"[The deficit] is basically the result of deciding three years ago we wanted better food," he said. "When we switched vendors the price went up about $2 million. We decided not to pass it on to students but to try to pay for it out of central funds. The problem we have now is we don't have anymore central funds."

Officials hope to announce a new plan by early 2010 which would be implemented in Fall of that year, Trask said. He did not specify proposals that might be considered and said he does not believe there will be a "huge change" in the short-run.

He acknowledged, however, that Dining Services' variety of offerings-there are more than 30 on-campus eateries-contributes to the problem. He noted that some cuts will probably be made in that area.

Dining Services' revenue budget is $26 million for Duke-run operations, including the Great Hall, the Marketplace, Subway, Chick-fil-A and The Loop, Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst said.

Wulforst and Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins presented a proposal last Tuesday to Duke Student Government and Campus Council leaders as well as the Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee that would have mandated that students spend a certain amount of food points at Bon Appetit locations starting next semester. Incoming DSG President Awa Nur, a junior, described the plan as a "fiasco" because she said it was presented as a top-down decision. Attendees said almost all students at the meeting voiced strong opposition to the plan.

"It seemed as though students were being asked to take the burden 100 percent of a school-wide problem," Nur said. "The imposition of a board plan on Duke students for the upcoming school year-there's no way we can get around the fact that would have fundamentally changed students' lives."

The proposed board plan would have required students living on West Campus to spend between 700 and 750 food points out of their dining plan, which totals 1,710 food points, at the six Bon Appetit vendors on campus: the Great Hall, the Marketplace, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Trinity Cafe and the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. Central Campus residents would have been required to spend between 300 and 500 food points at those locations. West residents would ultimately have to spend $46 per week and Central residents would have to spend $33 per week at Bon Appetit diners.

Student leaders criticized the administration's plan to implement the change for next year, arguing that students had already chosen their residences for next year, thereby locking them into dining plans. They added that students living on Central Campus would be most negatively affected.

"I think the students properly pointed out that a number of people had made choices about where to live next year not knowing this was coming, and therefore it was somewhat unfair to do at the last minute," Trask said.

He added that the plan is now off the table for future discussions and said there will be no changes to dining for this Fall.

An external review of Dining Services conducted by consulting firm Envision Strategies concluded that Duke dining offers "without a doubt" the greatest variety of dining options given the size of the student population compared to peer institutions, Envision Strategies President Rob White said. He noted that having a greater number of options does not make the dining program necessarily more costly.

Several administrators and students said although maintaining high standards is a priority, Duke's dining flexibility is part of the problem. Steve Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, said he and other administrators had made it clear to student leaders that some sacrifices would have to be made.

"Duke has been able to gradually adjust, but adjust we must," Nowicki told The Chronicle. "Will at the end of the day students be happy with changes? Maybe not. Part of that is because Duke students have been used to a very high level of luxury in dining, and we've been able to afford that in the great years, but now we're in the lean years."

Dawkins said officials had foreseen the possibility of running a deficit when they made the decision to switch vendors, but a number of other factors also contributed to the shortfall, including establishing longer dining hours, adding meals and emphasizing local, organic and made-to-order food.

The expansion of Dining Services from running 18 operations to 35 locations without passing off expenses to students has been part of the issue, Wulforst said.

"That kind of diversity and that kind of program spread out all over campus takes money to run," he said. "I think we got to a point where we are too big, whether it's too big on on-campus venues or too big on Merchants on Points."

The plan proposed last week likely would have taken a toll on smaller vendors as revenue would be diverted to Bon Appetit locations, Wulforst said. Student leaders at the meeting voiced concern over this point, saying the diners that students value would not have been protected.

Other alternatives students proposed included cutting down on the Merchants on Points program and raising prices, but the main concern was minimizing impact on students while maintaining flexibility, said DUSDAC Co-chair Sarah Ramig, a senior.

"We have to run the numbers and look at the many different options we have," said outgoing DSG President Jordan Giordano, a senior. "We want to keep basic structure of dining the same."

Several student leaders met with administrators including Trask and Nowicki last Wednesday to lobby against the board plan and ensure student input would be integrated into further discussions.

"We need to take a fresh approach that engages students in reviewing options," said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, who has been brought into the discussions. "I think all paths will lead to some way to right-size the dining program so it doesn't require a subsidy. We want to maintain as much flexibility and choice but recognize this is one of the most complex and broad dining programs I have seen."


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