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The Refectory: an irreplaceable experience

After strong sales and a constant stream of customers, the Refectory’s Divinity School location will close. The decision came after a breakdown in negotiations between Refectory owner Laura Hall and Duke administrators. Problems arose when Hall was unwilling to accept paying a larger commission to the University.

Dining administrators wanted the commission paid by the Refectory to rise from 10 to 15 percent of gross revenue, a jump that would have forced the vendor to pay an additional $65,000 to the University on top of the $130,000 paid for this operating year, provided future revenue held steady with this year’s figures. However, due to the popularity of the Divinity School location and its consistent revenue growth, the actual amount Hall expected to pay Duke was likely much higher. The hike would have forced a number of changes to offset the loss of gross revenue and would have likely included an increase in prices.

Administrators place the decision to close the Refectory in the interest of students. Rick Johnson, assistant vice president of housing and dining, said the Refectory did not appeal to many Divinity School students, who wanted a broader menu and lower prices. It also leads to a fundamental question about what Duke wants from its vendors: an adherence to commission rates or student affordability? If the Refectory was already too expensive, why should administrators be satisfied with extending its contract at a higher commission and letting prices increase even further?

If affordability stood above all other concerns, then renewing the Refectory’s contract should not have been a possibility in the first place.

The argument that students did not support the Refectory is also quite invalid, especially if one asks undergraduates. Upon reading the news that the Refectory may close, students took to Facebook, starting a “Keep the Refectory” page with more than 1,000 likes. Duke Student Government sponsored a poll of undergraduates, to which 80 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay a dining fee to keep it. Divinity School students may not support the Refectory at the same level, but, in light of their school’s prime West Campus location and proximity to other vendors, the notion that their opinions matter more holds little water.

It makes sense that Duke would not agree to extend a lower commission for the Refectory. The 15 percent commission rate was already being paid by some, if not all, other vendors on campus, making it unfair for the Refectory to pay a lower commission and enjoy higher revenue. But this view discounts the other positive effects the Refectory has on campus.

As the University’s first green cafe, the Refectory brought local, sustainable dining to students and employees. The sense of community within the Refectory was unparalleled in other campus restaurants, something Duke Dining cannot expect a new vendor to duplicate, at least not in the short run.

Looking from a financial standpoint, a 10 percent cut from a highly successful eatery may also be better for Duke Dining’s bottom line than 15 percent from a mediocre one.

Nonetheless, the Divinity School Refectory provided an irreplaceable experience for the Duke community. It will be missed.

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