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New owner takes over Refectory

The Divinity School Refectory, now operated under Core Catering, hopes to maintain the popularity of the former restaurant.
The Divinity School Refectory, now operated under Core Catering, hopes to maintain the popularity of the former restaurant.

The Divinity School Refectory, which re-opened in July, will operate under new management and retain the original name, prompting the former operator to cry foul.

The restaurant is now run by former Refectory employees Pat Eder, co-owner of Core Catering Company of Durham. The Refectory Cafe at Duke Law School is still operated by former Refectory owner Laura Hall through her company Bon Vivant Catering.

Hall will open an off-campus Refectory Cafe on Durham Chapel Hill Boulevard on Sept. 5, as well as operate a Refectory food truck that will be available by request around Durham, but not on campus.

For the past seven years, the Divinity Refectory was a popular dining location among students and faculty for its food, as well as its local, sustainable practices. Bon Vivant Catering closed operations at the Divinity Refectory following a contract dispute in which Hall refused to raise the commission paid to Duke Dining from 10 percent to 15 percent.

A trademark debate

Hall said she has trademarked the Refectory name.

“We’ve been in business with [the name] for seven years and have built a great following,” she said. “The trademarked name is on our truck, our café on [Durham Chapel Hill] Boulevard, and on the Law School.”

The term “refectory” is defined as a communal area used for dining in an educational or religious institution.

Rick Johnson, vice president of housing and dining, was not at Duke when the Divinity Refectory opened in 2005, but he said the University owns the name.

“There’s no trademark, because the last vendor didn’t create the name,” Johnson said. “It was named before the last vendor was even in the building. The name Refectory was created by the Divinity School. And with the law school, the last vendor took that name and brought it over there.”

Eder, who made a bid to operate the venue in 2005 as well as this past summer, said she had her own alternative name prepared but was told both times the name for the restaurant would be the Refectory.

Competing on campus

The familiar green walls of the Refectory Café have now given way to colors inspired by apples and oranges chosen. Eder has also displayed artwork by Duke students and local Durham artists.

Johnson said he has heard positive feedback on the food and the service during the three weeks in which Core Catering has operated the Refectory, and business appears to be as good as before.

“This transition is super,” he said. “It seems like it’s the same amount of business right now. What will be a better comparison is sometime in the Fall, once they’re fully open and students have returned.”

Hall said her Law School location has experienced a “big bump” in business, as regulars moved their business from the Divinity School to the Law School. She said she anticipates a further spike at the Law School location as students return for the academic year.

As an additional incentive, coupons given out during the last week Bon Vivant operated at the Divinity location will provide a 10 percent discount in September at the law school and off-campus Refectory locations, Hall added.

Johnson and Eder said the Divinity Refectory now charges less for some items than the Refectory Café under Bon Vivant Catering did, although they did not cite specific pricing differences.

“The prices are very similar,” Johnson said. “They’ve tried to actually hold the prices down or lower them on some items to make the Refectory more affordable for [Divinity] graduate students, and I think that’s going to be very successful.”

During contract negotiations last Spring, Hall said she could not keep her sustainable practices—which include a year-round living wage with benefits for employees, as well as purchasing from local farmers—and pay a 50 percent higher commission rate to Duke Dining.

Eder said she cannot guarantee at this time that her employees will be able to keep their jobs year-round, but she hopes the new restaurant does well enough that they will be employed year-round.

Unanimous selection

A committee made of representatives from the Divinity School, student body, and Dining Services selected Eder unanimously over the summer in a competitive bidding process, which included samples of food from all applicants.

All the applicants in the bidding process said they could maintain the same local and sustainable program as Hall had and pay the higher commission, Johnson said.

Eder placed a bid in 2005, but lost to Bon Vivant Catering. Eder then worked for Bon Vivant Catering at the Refectory for four years before resigning in 2010 to pursue other opportunities. She started Core Catering two years ago.

“I had originally bid to open the Divinity Refectory when Bon Vivant bid,” she said. “And they made the right choice at the time to give the contract to Bon Vivant, and I was completely supportive of that choice they made.”

The experience with Refectory operations helped Core Catering seal the winning bid, although the decision was a close call with a second vendor, Johnson said.

“There was a great comfort level, because Core knew the students, knew the operations, the expectations, and the food was great,” he said. “And that’s what carried the day.”

In total, Core Catering has hired six new employees since being granted the contract to operate at the Divinity School, with plans to hire more as business grows, Eder said.

New items

While some aspects will remain the same under new management, Johnson said students will also find new food items devised by Core Catering.

Eder said the Refectory serves great food, and she has worked to make new twists on old favorites that students might still expect in the new cafe.

For example, with Core Catering, the Divinity Refectory’s classic tomato soup will be a tomato basil soup, with fresh basil from a Pittsboro farmer, Eder noted.

“For our grilled cheese, we have local bread, and we’ve changed the cheeses that we’re using,” she added. “But it’s still a great tomato soup and grilled cheese.”

Instead of dal, an Indian lentil dish, the new Divinity Refectory will serve a vegan vegetable curry and add more vegan and gluten-free deserts.

“We’re increasing our vegan options because we just feel that it is a way that the younger audience is headed,” Eder said. “We’d like to exceed their expectations.”

Eder noted that Core Catering obtains ingredients from the South Durham Farmer’s Market and East Carolina Organics, which is the same consortium of local growers used by Bon Vivant Catering. Eder’s company also has a large walk-in cooler and freezer in its catering kitchen that will allow the company to make bulk purchases from local farmers to keep prices down.


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