Aramark: past, present and future

Concerns about dining quality open conversation

Published by Cassie Chiappetta, Date: March 7, 2024
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A student receives food in Boozel Dining Hall.

Aramark, the company that owns Rock Dining, is known for being the top food service provider to prisons. They have a growing presence in universities and claim to be the second-largest food service provider overall. 

Despite their presence in 22 countries, they have a running list of violations, having paid just over $19 million in penalties. These violations include offenses relating to employment, government contracting, safety and more. 

This reputation has students questioning why Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) schools chose Aramark and how they ensure credibility and safety.

Christopher Cole, vice president of the Auxiliary Operations and Student Services Department at SRU, discussed how Aramark’s channels of communication keep the food service accountable by providing students with the opportunity to be heard and understood.

Channels of communication

Cole shared that when the time came in 2020 to select a new food vendor, the goal was to find a provider that would be able to serve all western PASSHE campuses for the best price. 

The successful bidder was Aramark, and they gained a contract with SRU as well as surrounding universities, including Indiana University (Pa.), Edinboro and Clarion.

Cole is involved with the selection committee, but his main priority remains in ensuring student satisfaction. 

“I go through the dining areas routinely and share comments and feedback on things…and ask Aramark to address [them].” 

A third-party consultant also does temperature checks, tastes the food and makes sure prices and pictures match expectations. “They evaluate every component,” Cole said. 

Along with maintaining the quality of food, Cole ensures an open line of communication between Aramark and students. 

“[Aramark does] the annual student survey, they do the voice of consumer ongoing surveys…and then they also do feedback programming,” he said. 

Last semester, the annual student survey encouraged students to make SRU dining number one in the state. This survey asked a variety of questions from “Where do you eat most frequently on campus?” to suggestions for future changes. 

The Voice of Consumer survey is ongoing and located at each of the dining check-out locations. A QR code leads participants to a form that they can fill out. These are for more immediate requests.

Finally, feedback programming refers to events like Dine with the Directors, which provides an open floor for Aramark, students and university directors to come together and discuss dining. This can also refer to open forums like the SRU Student Government Association (SRSGA) meetings that provide students the opportunity to give feedback. 

“The concerns or the feedback that students give is generally acted upon immediately if it’s possible,” Cole said. 

Issues that are expected to be acted upon immediately include things like health concerns or availability of options for people with dietary restrictions. Other suggestions, like swapping out the Quaker Steak and Lube location for a Chick-fil-A, generally require 18 months to two years to enact change.

An Aramark manager, Lisa Rogers, commented on standards for communication as well, reaffirming Cole’s input.

“Aramark is always looking for ways to get student feedback. Management is always willing to attend any student group and listen to concerns they may have.”

On the topic of food safety, Rogers noted that “we offer two different stations across campus where food is available that does not include the top nine food allergens…additionally, all our team members are trained yearly and are given a test about allergens and how to handle food safely when allergens are concerned.”

SGA meeting discusses dining

At the Feb. 19 SGA meeting, Cole shared information regarding the future of the dining services and students shared their concern about the increase in dining fees.

Aramark does all the staffing, cooking and cleaning, and the last time there was a dining fee increase was when the company was contracted. Since then, a 5.5% cost increase was applied, but they did not ask the students for additional funding at that time. 

Because they expect another cost increase in the coming year, they found it the right time to increase student costs. Cole mentions that if approved, the meal plans will increase by 5.4%. For example, as highlighted in the meeting, the 14 weekly meal plan would increase from $1,696 to $1,769. 

Students spoke up at the meeting to question the price increase, citing poor food quality, a lack of options and SRU’s reputation as an affordable university as reasons why the increase is unfair. 

One, who claimed to be a tour guide for the university, expressed the unfairness of the meal plan increase. 

“We have to deal with some of the shortcomings of the market…I think it’s not fair to ask all students to pay for it, let alone, an increase of that much when the others are so little,” they said.

Some of the shortcomings, when asked, included “portions of size that were given for the cost of our meal plan, and then also in particular the meal swipes are very locked in on options.”

To continue their point, another person asked if the fee increases would increase the food’s quality.

“It seems like for the past couple years since we’ve brought Aramark to campus, the quality has been severely lackluster compared to AVI, their predecessor,” they said. 

Cole responded by citing their most recent survey and reminding students of the communication channels Aramark provides.

“69% of students rated [Aramark] excellent in quality…how we get to improve quality is by talking with Aramark, sharing feedback, participating in open forums, where they are able to take the feedback and put it directly into the program.”

Student perspective

Students got to share their experience with the dining services, either as student workers or someone who uses the meal plan. 

A Starbucks worker from the Smith Student Center recently reported a loss of hours due to “budget cuts.” They have had to pick up shifts in order to get the expected part-time hours that they were hired for.

The Starbucks worker called attention to the lack of support from management when stating, “The trainers are doing everything they physically can.”

Matt Lewis, a student worker at Boozel Dining Hall, expressed the convenience of working on campus. He mentioned how the managers are willing to work around class schedules whereas a retail restaurant may not have the time to cater to a student’s hours.

“I think overall it’s a good place for students to make some extra pocket money,” he said.

Meadow Weimer, a sophomore political science major, expressed concerns from a consumer perspective. 

She cited multiple food quality issues, such as “browning, limp lettuce”, and “clumpy” ranch dressing. “You can tell when they are at the end of their supply,” she said. 

She also noted how if students go to the dining halls in between meals, “you can tell [the food] has been sitting there,” mentioning hard pancakes and unpredictable meat, sometimes overcooked or undercooked.

Weimer also noted that she remembered opening the survey, but due to its length, did not complete it.

She said she would have been more inclined to complete it if she had known it was one of Aramark’s main forms of determining customer satisfaction.

“I also think it’s advertised in a poor manner…I know when I got the survey I was in the middle of getting my food and had no motivation to do it because I was already doing something else,” Weimer said. 

Rogers also added information on how survey results are reviewed by managers to understand student perspectives, specifically about the most recent annual survey that took place last semester.

“[Following the survey] a few changes that were made were to the meal exchanges, offering more ‘Gluten Friendly’ items on campus…food variety was another score we looked at. We reviewed the Spring 2024 menu for Boozel Dining Hall and added more items students asked for along with adding more ‘Limited Time Offers’ in retail locations.”

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