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Duke Dining: Best in the nation because of outside, local vendors?

Duke Dining: Best in the nation because of outside, local vendors?

When senior Kate Scandura was searching for the right college to attend, the school’s quality of dining was an important factor.

“It was definitely a plus to hear that Duke has one of the best student dining [programs] in the country,” she said. 

Now, the California-native and self-described foodie loves visiting the on-campus sushi counter Gyotaku, with its fresh, made-to-order rolls. And Gyotaku’s location—at the newly-renovated Brodhead Center for Campus Life—is another plus of attending Duke. 

“The Brodhead Center really is state-of-the-art,” she said. “Not only is it beautiful, but there are so many great options, and you can really taste the difference in quality between the food here and some of the cafeteria food at other schools I have visited.”

After a $95 million renovation, the Brodhead Center—previously called West Union—reopened in August 2016, with 13 new eateries operated by nine vendors. The building is an architectural marvel, with a spotless glass facade and restored wood beams across the ceiling. 

The food is similarly top of the line. At Ginger + Soy, students can order dumplings and Asian buns from a custom-made steamer—the only one on a United States college campus, said Rick Johnson, former associate vice president of student affairs for Housing, Dining and Residence Life, when the dining hall opened.

Dishes at JB’s Roast & Chops—including paella, London broils and steaks—are prepared over an open wood fire, inspired by a Las Vegas tapas restaurant. 

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Restaurant review website The Daily Meal clearly agreed that Duke Dining is elite, ranking it number one in the nation in 2016. 

The operators for the Brodhead Center include restaurateurs who run popular Durham eateries such as Sitar Indian Cuisine, Enzo’s Pizza, Sushinara and Geer Street Garden.  Scandura said she appreciates the variety that Duke has brought to campus through these partnerships.

“I also love that our food is from local vendors rather than chains like at a lot of other schools,” she said. 

But what are these partnerships actually like and what challenges arise from working with independent restaurateurs instead of Duke employees? 

And more importantly, at a time when universities are steadily increasing tuition and the public is calling for colleges to spend more on financial aid, how much value should schools really place on their dining?

The history of the relationship  

Duke Dining currently has contracts with 55 vendors to either operate on campus, visit Duke or deliver to students, said Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services.

But this wasn’t always the case. 

Coffey explained that Duke started working with local eateries about 20 years ago to bring more variety to Duke.

Jack Chao, the current owner of Quenchers in Wilson Gym, was the first outside vendor in 1997, bringing in both Quenchers and an Asian eatery. At the time, Duke was running the entire dining operation in-house, Coffey said. Even chain restaurants on campus, like a Burger King, were franchised and staffed by Duke employees. 

“They were looking for more variety of foods on campus to serve students so they started with Asian cuisine,” Chao explained. 

Chao proposed his menu to Duke officials and soon began serving Asian food seven days a week in the Great Hall—the name for the Brodhead Center before it was renovated. He soon opened Grace’s Cafe, now closed, in Trent Hall along with Quenchers at Wilson Gym. 

When it came time for renovations, outside vendors played a crucial role in supporting students’ dining needs.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, explained that closing the Great Hall in 2013 for a three-year renovation posed a challenge Duke. The University would have to find a way to feed the more than 4,000 diners previously served each day by the Great Hall. 

Duke first sought to improve the variety of other vendors on campus, for example, by bringing Au Bon Pain to a space in the Bryan Center. 

“We looked across on-campus providers and said, ‘Where can we add or strengthen or grow so they can absorb more market?’” Moneta said. 

Penn Pavilion was constructed as a temporary dining facility, which absorbed about half the people that previously visited the Great Hall. Duke established a relationship with the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club’s dining room, allowing students to use their food points there.

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But outside vendors—through the merchants-on-points program and food trucks that came to campus—played an important role in filling the void.

Although they now have more limited hours, food trucks used to park near the West Campus bus stop every week day during dinner hours, with at least two trucks each night. Lines could often be seen stretching across the quad. 

Students could also order food from up to 17 merchants-on-points options that would deliver to campus during whatever hours the eateries were open. 

“It was a multi-pronged approach, deploying trucks and merchants-on-points and creating Penn Pavilion,” Moneta said. “We had great partnerships with merchants-on-points.”

Choosing vendors 

One of the most exciting aspects of renovations to the Great Hall was the opportunity to choose new vendors for the space—and establish relationships with new Durham restaurateurs. 

Brian Taylor, Trinity ‘16, a current master’s student in the Nicholas School of the Environment, and former chair of the Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee, explained that Duke works heavily with outside vendors because Durham is such a vibrant food community. 

When DUSDAC began helping Duke Dining decide in 2010 what to serve at the soon-to-be-renovated Great Hall, Taylor said they realized the Great Hall had tried to provide too many different types of cuisine. 

DUSDAC worked with Duke Student Government and held focus groups to learn what students actually wanted out of their campus dining experience. From there, Dining got the word out to local restaurants that they were looking for vendors to come to campus. 

For instance, Taylor said they knew they wanted an Italian eatery, so they reached out to brick-and-mortar places who could fill this niche. Different restaurants gave presentations—including taste tests—to Dining representatives, who made the final decisions. 

In the end, Dining decided on 13 eateries for the Brodhead Center operated by nine Durham vendors—Three Seasons Catering, Sushinara, Saladelia, Au Bon Pain, Campus Coffee of Durham, Enzo’s Pizza, Sitar Indian Palace, Geer Street Garden and The Boot.

But campus dining is ever-changing, just as is Duke’s student body year-to-year. 

Taylor explained that DUSDAC often hears about local places they could partner with through students who have either visited an excellent brick-and-mortar establishment or a food truck. As word got out about Duke partnering with so many local businesses, more and more eateries began approaching them, wanting to join the college food scene.  

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“There are usually far more food trucks that want to come to campus than we have spots for,” Taylor said. 

Senior Julia Medine, current DUSDAC co-chair, said that her organization works closely with Dining to choose new vendors and improve existing ones based on student feedback. She feels Dining is very receptive to DUSDAC’s opinions, with representatives from Dining present at every meeting. 

DUSDAC allows students to have a voice in the vendors that come to campus, said senior Quinn Steven, DUSDAC co-chair. 

For instance, she saw the Cuban food truck Qspresso out in Durham and thought students might appreciate it, so she asked them to present to Dining. The truck later visited the annual food truck rodeo on campus, which is another way Dining picks out new vendors. 

If students especially enjoy a particular truck, Duke might invite them to join the food truck line-up, as Qspresso eventually did.

Moneta explained that most vendors have two-year contracts with “30-day out clauses,” in case something goes wrong. He said that he never wants a vendor to feel like they are being held hostage by Duke. 

“The best contracts are the ones you sign and never look at again,” he said. “If you have to go back and look at contracts regularly, you don't have a good relationship with your provider.” 

When contracts reach their end date, Dining officials and DUSDAC review how the vendor is doing, Taylor said. This is especially true for food trucks and merchants-on-points, which sometimes have yearly contracts 

The benefits and challenges of working with local vendors 

Working with outside vendors definitely brings some variety to the food offerings on campus—but at what cost? 

Several Dining representatives and DUSDAC members noted the difficulties that come with outsourcing campus food options. Communication issues stood out.

Coffey explained that it’s difficult to keep all 55 vendors updated on Dining’s latest decisions. They are working to combat this struggle by releasing a monthly newsletter to vendors, informing them of any recent changes instead of contacting individual owners.

Changing menu items at the vendors can be challenging, since the employees and owners are the ones in charge, not Duke Dining.  

“If you want something added, it’s not as simple as go tell Duke,” Taylor said. “You have to convince the vendor. They have a lot more ownership over their individual place.” 

Medine explained that sudden changes in a vendor’s menu—for various reasons—can lead to student complaints. DUSDAC sometimes hears about employees making strange comments to students or vendors being out of a certain menu item, which she called “very run-of-the-mill issues.”

While some vendors are more than willing to make adjustments, it’s more of a struggle to work with others, she noted.

“Red Mango been accommodating whereas other vendors have been strict in what they offer,” Medine said.  

However, at least currently, the pros outweigh the cons for Duke Dining. 

Coffey said that bringing in local vendors allows Duke to capitalize on experts specializing in their culinary craft. Having different local vendors also helps Duke provide a wider range of cuisine—Duke Dining can’t master every type of food by themselves. 

This is the case with Tandoor, run by local restaurant Sitar Indian Palace. 

“Their chef that they had for 17 years is here on campus cooking fresh everyday,” Coffey said. “Usually you are going to get a very authentic product.”

Linda Davis, who owns and manages Tandoor in the Brodhead Center, said that her vendor adds diversity to campus food options. She’s been with Duke since 1998—first in the Great Hall, then Penn Pavilion and finally in the Brodhead Center. Through the years, Tandoor has expanded to include dishes from various places in India and has increased its vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. 

“Duke is unique because of its diversity,” Davis said. “There are lots of Indian students and faculty and a lot of even Caucasian people who love Indian food.”

And the vendors are working hard. Taylor explained that while Duke doesn't have any reason to want people to spend money at one eatery over another, the actual vendors are in fact each vying for students’ love. 

“They are competing for your business,” he said. “That gives them an incentive to offer the best products possible.”

Food trucks 

Still, coordinating any massive dining operation is going to come with its fair share of controversy. This is readily apparent in Dining’s relationship with food trucks in the past two years. 

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After the Brodhead Center’s opening in August 2016, food truck owners were informed that they would no longer be able to park on Chapel Drive, instead receiving new assignments in Kilgo parking lot and Swift Avenue. Several owners told The Chronicle at the time that the they were misinformed about the demand in their new assignments and that the new locations dramatically hurt their profits. 

Several owners said that they did not receive a final schedule until about a week before food truck service started. They said they requested a joint meeting with dining administrators, which was denied. Instead, each truck was given an individual meeting.

At the time, Jody Argote, Parlez-Vous Crêpe’s owner, said she felt like the situation was “a set-up that we are doomed to fail.” 

“I would much prefer to just be told, ‘you know we've got this West Union, we put a lot of money into it, we don’t want competition from the food trucks, sorry' instead of having us sign these contracts, giving up nights where we could be making sales elsewhere,'’’ she said at the time. 

That food truck eventually left Duke for good.

Taylor told The Chronicle in 2016 that food trucks received new locations because of parking availability. He also noted that giving the trucks a new spot away from West Union would enable them to capture their own market.

This year, food trucks have served students from the Kilgo lot and Swift Avenue, but several owners say they have received fewer customers. Taylor acknowledged that the Chapel Drive location was more ideal, but that Duke Parking would not allow Dining to have them there anymore. 

“Location is the biggest [issue] because that’s not really in our control,” he said. “Every place where it makes sense to have them is a fire lane.”

Some food trucks—like Gussy’s, which serves Greek cuisine—have lots of customers because they’ve cultivated a following, Taylor explained. For others, that’s not the case. 

“New ones have to build up a reputation,” he said. “It’s hard to ask any food truck to do this because you won’t make as much money in the first months on campus as you build up that reputation.”

Medine acknowledged that there are less food trucks on campus now than there were during renovations to the Brodhead Center, which she said is a shame. While she said this was not a purposeful shift, she noted that Duke had to make sure its vendors in the Brodhead Center could succeed. 

“Duke Dining sort of had an obligation to its vendors in that building to make sure that they could be successful,” she said. “I’m not saying if they didn’t have that obligation, we would have a million food trucks everywhere, but it is part of that calculus.”

Some food trucks have been able to create a following in their new locations. Gael Chatelain, owner of Napoli food truck, serves wood-fired pizza about once a week. Chatelain said that she much prefers the Swift location because the hours there are from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.—prime dinner hours. When the truck is parked at Kilgo, she has to want until 8 p.m. to open, in order to not compete with the Brodhead Center. 

“The [Kilgo] location is a bit more remote, and it’s also later on,” she said. “Most students have had dinner at that point.”

For other trucks, the new spots have damaged their business so much that they were forced to leave Duke entirely. This was the case with Chirba Chirba, which served Chinese-style dumplings. 

Owner Nate Adams first started bringing the truck to Duke in 2012, parking alongside Chapel Drive and growing a customer base. When he was forced to move to Kilgo and Swift, his regular customers didn’t transfer. 

“I gave it about a semester to see if those services in the new locations could keep up, and unfortunately we were losing money there,” he said.

Adams noted that he was only given about a month’s notice regarding the location change. 

“It made us feel honestly a little expendable, like it wasnt so much a partnership as one-sided,” he said. “It made us feel like we weren’t really listened to.”

When he backed out of his contract, Duke Dining was getting frustrated because several food trucks had recently done the same thing. Instead of breaking their contracts entirely, some food trucks have started showing up for their shifts less often, since business is slow.

But this just leads to confusion among students and even fewer customers, Medine noted. 

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“The ones making not a lot of money are complaining but also the same ones not showing up for shifts,” she said. “It’s easy to say Duke is aggressive or cruel to local vendors, but I think there is more to the story than that.”  

Steven said she thinks there needs to be a better avenue of communication between food trucks and students so that students know when to expect them. She’s planning to include information about the food trucks’ schedule in DUSDAC’s newsletter, which will help hold trucks accountable.

More communication struggles

A lack of communication was another theme in controversy concerning Duke Dining’s recent decision to replace Quenchers—the popular Wilson Gym smoothie bar—with Red Mango.

After then-senior Adam Kershner posted on Fix My Campus that he learned from Quenchers staff that they were closing, students soon launched a petition on, which garnered more than 1,700 signatures by February 2018.

In the comments on Kershner’s Facebook post, many people expressed dissatisfaction with Duke Dining keeping students out of the loop.

“It seemed like there was a lot more going on than people just getting mad about Quencher’s,” Kershner told The Chronicle. “I’m curious to understand how much Duke actually takes our voices into consideration.” 

Probably the biggest complaints regarding communication come from Jack Chao, the owner of Quencher’s for the past 20 years. 

Last Fall, he said he got a notice from Duke Dining that other vendors were interested in the space and that if he wanted to stay, he needed to make a proposal to Dining. After doing this and undergoing a taste test, he was waiting to hear back. 

Then in February, some people came into Quenchers taking photos and said they were doing a survey for Red Mango. 

“That’s when I started making phone calls to Robert Coffey,” Chao said. “His reply was, it’s not official yet, they should’ve never done that.” 

Now, Chao—the first outside vendor on campus—has to cease doing business April 29 and then has two weeks to move out. 

Chao’s other business, Grace’s Café, closed in 2016 because of expensive renovations required on the kitchen ventilation system and the opening of the Brodhead Center. Chao no longer has an eatery on campus and will have to leave behind many of the students that he has gotten to know and the friends he has made. 

“Over the years, I made some money, and I donated money back to the school,” he said. “Duke gave me so much, so I gave back. I thought I had a great relationship.”

Moneta said that these bonds students form with the chefs and restaurant owners are strengths “that can often work against us.” 

“That personal relationship is awkward when it comes time to change a venue,” he said. 

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However, he said that different needs from the Wilson Gym community necessitated a different venue from what Quencher’s was currently offering. 

“These changes are always unfortunate,” Moneta said. “We’re trying to meet multiple needs including that of the host facility. We’re trying to be as supportive as we can.” 

Local universities 

Duke may pride itself on its partnerships with local vendors, but how truly unique is that in the world of higher education?

North Carolina State University runs its entire dining operation using university employees, with no outside vendors at all. 

Randy Lait, senior director for hospitality services at N.C. State, explained that while they have some chain restaurants on campus—like Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and Jason’s Deli—these places are franchised by N.C. State and run by dining workers. 

He explained that he’s worked in dining at N.C. State since the late 1970s. At the time, they had bad experiences with outside vendors and decided to just make everything in-house. 

“Let’s do this ourselves and do it well and have control over it, instead of arguing over how well an outside company is doing,” he said. “I grew up here with that as a core principle for us.”

Lait said this allows N.C. State to have more control of its dining options, instead of having policies dictated to them by an outside company. It’s also easier for them to be more transparent about the ingredients in the menu items, for example.

The one exception is the food trucks they started bringing to campus about six or seven years ago. The trucks serve lunch on parts of campus that lack many food options. 

N.C. State isn’t making any profits off the trucks, Lait said. 

“That was one where there wasn’t a whole lot of money involved, they’re just out there Monday through Friday for lunch,” he said. 

Wake Forest University, on the other hand, hires a dining operator to run their campus dining programs, while also partnering with some local businesses to bring their food to campus, explained John Wise, associate vice president for hospitality and auxiliary services. 

They have two main residential dining halls along with retail-type vendors like Subway and Einstein Bros. Bagels, which are franchised by the dining operator. Wake Forest has also partnered with some local pizza venues that can deliver to campus and are on students’ meal plans. 

On Fridays, some food trucks visit campus, which Wise said serves as a “monotony breaker.” 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill combines in-house food with local vendors. 

Scott Weir, general manager for Carolina Dining Services, explained that the school’s dining hall operations are handled by UNC employees, from sourcing the food to hiring workers to preparing the meals. 

They’ve franchised with companies like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, which are run by UNC workers, and also make agreements with local restaurants to rent space from them. These businesses bring in their food and provide the labor, getting to keep the sales minus the cost of rent, Weir noted. 

“We do that mainly to ensure there is a highly authentic ethnic offering,” he said. “That model has worked pretty well. We makes sure the subcontractors or partner restaurants understand our food safety standards.”

These partnerships are also good from a “town and gown” perspective, he noted. 

“It’s not like we’re trying to take business from Franklin Street,” he said. “It’s about giving the students options here on campus that they want.” 

Food vs. academics 

With so much focus on dining satisfaction, colleges like Duke are funneling money into their food programs, resulting in more choices than ever for students. It’s no longer just a cafeteria serving slices of pizza. Instead, it’s multi-million dollar facilities offering custom-made options with organic ingredients. 

No student wants to suffer through four years of bad food—but are these upgrades coming at the expense of academics and financial aid? 

Moneta said that he views dining as an essential part of university life because it can foster connections among diverse students and faculty. 

“We want our dining to be a frequent and serious contributor to a sense of community,” he said. 

Lait from Wake Forest agreed, noting that the top-tier schools want to have top-tier food. He views dining as more than just providing sustenance for students—it’s part of the university experience.  

“There is so much that you learn as a student in the classroom, but there is also so much that you learn by being at an institution,” he said. “Our campus dining facilities create a place where people can go and be comfortable and be around other people and get a sense of being part of the university.”

Still, he acknowledged the importance of making sure the dining operations are affordable for the university and not taking away from other resources.  For Taylor from DUSDAC, Duke brings in so much money that he thinks it can afford to spend as much as it does on dining. He noted that the Brodhead Center isn’t just about the food, but creating a central campus hub.

He said seems like universities in general are investing more in student services like housing and dining, which he views as a positive trend. 

Although every college wants its students to be comfortable, Coffey emphasized that academics are the priority of Duke and should be. But the environment you live in while studying is also crucial. 

To that end, Duke Dining is continuously working to give students the best food it can. 

“If you are going to a great university, hopefully everything about that university is great,” he said. “We’re trying to provide that service across the board.”