Off the ‘MARK

In the decade since Yale hired ARAMARK to run its dining halls, the American love affair with corporate efficiency has turned sour. Enron and Martha Stewart have poisoned our infatuation with Sam’s Club and Big Macs as documentary after documentary has made us squirm in our Gap cotton. But luckily for its executives, corporate America has found the ticket to redemption. Now, for every celebrity “going green,” a massive corporation has announced its own sustainability initiative.

In 2005, General Electric launched its “Ecomagination” program promoting economically advantageous greenhouse gas reduction. In February, Wal-Mart unveiled its “Sustainability 360” project, which will prioritize sustainable products, renewable energy, and waste reduction. And on September 27th, Duke announced its new Corporate Sustainability Initiative, a research program co-operated by the University’s business and environmental schools.

Yale University, which employed 11,750 people and earned a 28 percent return on its $22.5 billion endowment in the last fiscal year, is keeping up with the (Dow) Joneses. In June, Yale decided to terminate its ten year relationship with ARAMARK Corporation, the world’s third-largest food service provider, in order to return to a self-operated Dining Services that will focus heavily on integrating the values of the Yale Sustainable Food Project into students’ dining experience. This decision is one of many leading Yale down the increasingly fashionable path of sustainability and ethical business leadership.

Student Financial and Administrative Services assumed joint control of Yale University Dining Services when the University hired ARAMARK in 1997, and Ernst Huff, associate vice president of SFAS, has closely collaboration with the corporation ever since. He says that Yale, hoping to reverse Dining Services’ tendency to run a negative budget, was originally attracted to ARAMARK’s “bottom-line” management style.

This methodology had its business benefits. In Huff’s unsmiling, professional opinion, ARAMARK’s two greatest accomplishments during its time at Yale were greater oversight of the cooking process, which was “not an exact science prior to ARAMARK” and improved inventory management in individual dining halls. All 17 of them.

Yale’s residential college system, which is pitched as a distinctive strength to prospective students, also makes it difficult for the University to feed its flocks once they enroll. In addition to Commons, five graduate school dining rooms, and four separate retail facilities, Yale must staff eleven residential college dining halls. (One is off-line each year as the colleges are renovated). This feat requires 350 full-time-equivalent employees, not to mention managers and administrators. Since Yale employees are unionized under Local 35, the University does not have the option of cutting labor costs.

“There are very few variables that you can manipulate within Dining Services,” Huff explains. “Employee salaries are set by the bargaining agreement. We have very little flexibility there…the only real flexibility there is with food and management labor.”

ARAMARK brought corporate efficiency to Yale’s food inventory system. With an empire managing food services at over four hundred colleges, universities, and preparatory schools, the company immediately instituted thorough and regular inventories of Yale’s dining halls. Ordering policies shifted in a way that many long-term Yale employees had never seen before, and managers were forced to plan ahead. Under the self-operated Dining Services, if a college ran out of lettuce or milk, it could often be delivered that day from a nearby Yale commissary at Long Wharf. ARAMARK eliminated this expensive warehouse, however, and required managers to order in advance.

“ARAMARK is proud of its successful partnership with Yale University,” wrote ARAMARK’s Director of Communications Karen Cutler in a statement about the Yale-ARAMARK partnership. “Since 1997, ARAMARK has developed, implemented and continuously enhanced Yale’s residential, retail and catering programs, resulting in increased customer satisfaction, revenue growth and operational improvements.”

Though dining administrators and workers both praised ARAMARK’s effect on Yale’s finances, long-term Yale managers and employees underwent a rocky transition to ARAMARK’s bottom-line policy, which resulted in frequent complaints of food shortages. “In some cases there were challenges,” Huff admits, referring to accusations of short-ordering. It took time for ARAMARK management to become familiar with Yale’s consumption patterns. Hired to reduce Yale’s food budget, they often took the “less is more” approach when ordering food.

And when the food arrived, not everyone was happy with its quality. The biannual customer satisfaction surveys that ARAMARK instituted on arrival garnered consistently low ratings during the corporation’s first four years at Yale.

“Before ARAMARK came, we had more variety,” remembers Andrea Rankins, a ten-year Saybrook employee. “We never ran out of food. And it wasn’t chicken all the time.”

Other dining hall workers equate the ARAMARK years with a string of indistinguishable managers. ARAMARK filled most managerial positions with its own staff, shifting them from college to college and tightening control over employees. O’Neal Galloway, a grill worker who has been a member of Calhoun College’s team for 16 years, remembers only a single manager in the college dining hall during his six years before ARAMARK arrived. Since then, he can count ten, maybe twelve.

Though Huff could not provide up-to-date numbers of original Yale managers versus managers hired by ARAMARK, last year he told the Yale Daily News that about half of Dining Services’ employees were ARAMARK. Since Local 35 fills all non-management positions, these non-union ARAMARK employees have a near-monopoly on Yale’s dining _management jobs.

At the Saybrook dining hall, Rankins and Linda Felder, who have worked for Dining Services since 1985, could together name only two Yale managers who’d been around before ARAMARK. “This dining hall hasn’t been run well since Marie,” Rankins confides, referring to the Yale manager ARAMARK moved to a different dining hall during its transition years.

Felder agrees. “The Yale managers were better,” she asserts. “Some of these, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Calhoun’s Galloway also harbors fondness for the original Yale managers. “The Yale management,” he reminisces, “They seem like they have more compassion, because they used to work like us.” When ARAMARK manager after ARAMARK manager strode through Calhoun’s doors, Galloway felt this familiarity disappear. “They just seem like robots,” he says. Lowering his voice and moving his arms like an automaton, he imitates his perception of the ARAMARK mentality: “Like, ‘We’re gonna turn this thing around.'” The new managers, charged to increase efficiency, assigned more work in the same number of hours, affecting employees in every dining hall.

Yolanda Barnes, a friendly fixture at the Calhoun desk since well before ARAMARK arrived, uses the same word to describe ARAMARK managers: “It seems like when ARAMARK came, they operated more like a machine, like a robot. That humanness was missing.”

Yale announced its decision to split from ARAMARK in June, but the company will not officially leave until February; Yale’s contract with ARAMARK prohibits the University from offering jobs to ARAMARK managers until three to six months after contract termination notice, and ARAMARK is helping to ease Yale through the initial transition period. ARAMARK managers will be given the option to stay at Yale or follow ARAMARK somewhere else, and, though many have not yet decided which path to pursue, both Galloway and Barnes have noticed a positive change in dining hall management this year. They say that original Yale managers, as well as some ARAMARK ones, have already begun to scale back employee duties.

Huff admits that managerial turnover was a problem during ARAMARK’s transition to Yale. Two years after the company arrived, Huff explains, many Yale managers who’d been needing “a nudge” left Yale and were replaced by ARAMARK employees. This turnover was echoed at the highest administrative level as Dining Services cycled through three executive directors in ten years.

Yale administrators, however, were not unhappy with ARAMARK. To increase efficiency and save money, employees must work harder. Products must be regulated more closely. These are golden rules in the bottom-line business, as Sam Walton and Richard Levin well know. Yale hired ARAMARK to cut costs, and it did. In 2005, ARAMARK earned a $20,000 incentive fee, written into its contract with Yale, for completing a fiscal year below budget.

Yale wasn’t the only institution turning to ARAMARK to cut costs in the past decade. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush hired the company to reduce the prison payroll during the 2001 privatization of the state prison system. Within a year, the state was levying ARAMARK with $110,000 in fines backed by accusations of food poisoning, sanitation violations, and drops in food quality and quantity.

ARAMARK, also a leader in uniforms, facilities management, hospitality services, and concessions, has achieved much of its success through international expansion. Like many other corporations-and Yale itself-it is now setting its sights on China and other developing countries. ARAMARK was recently chosen by a Chinese company to provide food services for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and this year, CEO Joseph Neubauer took the company private for the hefty sum of $8.3 million.

At Yale, ARAMARK’s cutthroat corporate success has been a constant, nagging reminder of the company’s raison d’etre: its own profit. Though few care to speak of it openly, several Yale sources referenced exclusive purchasing agreements with food purveyors that benefited ARAMARK rather than guaranteeing Yale the best products at the lowest prices. Huff says he has not heard of any such arrangements.

Trumbull Manager Edd Ley, who began working at Yale in 1970, oversaw Dining Services’ purchases at the Long Wharf Commissary before ARAMARK eliminated the storehouse and reassigned him to Trumbull. Ley, who loves dining and loves Yale, was happy to be back in the trenches. “Doing business under the realm of the contractor was different,” he says, “but it was still about serving.” When pressed to speak about the difference between a self-operated Dining Services and an ARAMARK-operated Dining Services, Ley raises his eyebrows and asks, “Do you want somebody else to raise your children?”

No matter how well ARAMARK and Yale worked together-and according to Ley, it was pretty well-ARAMARK was still a third party. With the new turnover in management, Ley hopes “it’ll be Yale taking care of Yale.” He remembers Yale’s previous self-operated Dining Services with pride. “When we operated as an independent, we always wanted the best product at the best price, and that was always reflected in the invoice.”

In the past four years, Yale has gradually reconsidered its definition of the “best product.” Before 2001, when the University founded the Yale Sustainable Food Project with the help of world-renowned chef Alice Waters, the best apple might have been from a large, Oregonian mass production farm in California. Now, the best apple is local and sustainable, grown on a family-run orchard 26 miles from Yale.

By the time YSFP inaugurated its local, seasonable, and sustainable menu at the Berkeley “test kitchen” in 2003, Dining Services had already begun to prioritize higher quality food, Huff says. “The existing objective was now coupled with an intriguing project.”

Since then, ARAMARK, Yale Dining Services, and the Sustainable Food Project have worked together to bring high quality, economical food to the Yale campus. Melina Shannon-DiPietro, YSFP co-director, is all smiles and as she talks about celebrity chef Jacques P�pin training Yale chefs in 2004 or about YSFP’s lofty goals of community and “incredibly good food.” But when asked about introducing these goals to an ARAMARK-run Dining Services, she speaks slowly, carefully.

“Anytime you shift a vision, it’s going to be challenging,” Shannon-DiPietro says. “And ARAMARK central was not reinforcing the values we were trying to institute at Yale.”

As Yale has been at the vanguard of sustainable institutional dining for the past six years, it is no surprise that ARAMARK took a while to catch up. For a corporation at the forefront of the outsourcing movement, the idea of prioritizing sustainable farming practices over bottom-line prices must have seemed a bit counterintuitive.

As YSFP’s influence spread beyond the Berkeley dining hall to every kitchen at Yale, both the University and ARAMARK staff were forced to adapt to new perspectives on purchasing and cooking food. YSFP traveled to Philadelphia for annual Dining Services staff training sessions at the ARAMARK headquarters. Shannon-DiPietro says ARAMARK and YSFP split up training duties according to their respective strengths, with ARAMARK taking a larger role in management training and YSFP in food preparation. YSFP gave instructions on how to prepare seasonable items and taught cooks to taste food while preparing it-“it’s actually really important to taste food before you serve it,” Shannon-DiPietro says with a laugh.

YSFP’s raw energy and momentum, which has remained in step with a national trend toward organic and sustainable restaurants, grocery stores, and farms, gave Yale’s Dining Services a much-needed jolt. Even before YSFP arrived, Huff says, Dining Services had realized that it needed to step up its focus on food quality, but its partnership with ARAMARK did not provide many opportunities for innovation.

“When YSFP came along,” Huff says, “I felt the support and creativity for that, and the energy behind that, was not ARAMARK.” Despite initial challenges, YSFP’s values quickly infiltrated Dining Services. Prior to the 2006-2007 school year, Dining Services rewrote its entire menu, including non-YSFP items. “We thought, ‘Why focus only on quality as defined by YSFP?'” Huff remembers.

Eventually, Dining Services felt that, due both to ARAMARK’s financial management and YSFP’s culinary leadership, it was time to return to a self-operated system. “Dining Services had gotten to a certain level,” Huff explains. “ARAMARK had contributed greatly to this level, but I wasn’t convinced they were going to take us much further than we already were.”

Huff is determined to maintain an independent, high-quality Dining Services that will work in conjunction with YSFP to bring aspects of the local and sustainable food movement to the Yale campus. YSFP has made impressive strides in the past years, introducing organic honey and yogurt and fair trade coffee, bananas, and chocolate, as well as one all-YSFP meal per week, in all of Yale’s residential colleges, and Huff sees this expansion as an ongoing Dining Services/YSFP effort.

Huff says he can see where the Food Project is going. “We’re going to agree on some percent of the menu items that will be YSFP recipes.” In September of this year, the number of these items was expanded to stock four meals per week, but transition-related budget concerns brought this trial to a temporary halt. In anticipation of a new, self-operated Dining Services, Huff told the Yale Daily News, he and his colleagues must be prudent in balancing cost and quality.

Yale’s reincarnated dining system is still waiting for its leader. Yale has hired OPUS International, a Philadelphia headhunting firm, to conduct a national search for a new executive director of Dining Services. Six candidates visited campus at the beginning of October, Huff reports, and the search committee hopes to make a final decision by Thanksgiving. Until this decision is made, it is hard to predict the precise direction a self-operated Dining Services will take.

“When I think of what Dining Services needs right now,” Shannon-DiPietro says, “I think of a really dynamic Dining Services leader.”

Both she and Huff stress the importance of an executive director who balances effective, efficient management with good food. Now that Yale University Dining Services, like thousands of national corporations, is shifting its priorities from cost-cutting to ethical and sustainable business practices, experience with sustainability and food preparation is invaluable in a leader. Huff wants someone who is not only a manager but also a food-lover. He and Shannon-DiPietro, both heavily involved in the search process, have been extremely pleased with the candidates so far. Once Yale appoints a new head of Dining Services and ARAMARK officially departs, Yale dining will have to decide just how financially sustainable sustainable food can be.

As Shannon-DiPietro and her co-director, Josh Viertel, are well aware, sustainability is increasingly trendy, and Yale, never an institution to be left in the dust, has taken note. In 2004, the University appointed its first sustainability director. One year later, it created the Office of Sustainability-recently moved to an environmentally-conscious space equipped with “daylight tubes,” motion-sensor lights, and reclaimed wood floors-to coordinate the University’s efforts in renewable energy, waste reduction, and environmentally responsible renovation and construction. In 2005, Yale’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee declared a goal of reducing Yale’s emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020-or roughly 43 percent below a business-as-usual, base-case scenario.

So far, the University has made progress toward this goal through greener renovations, motion-sensor lighting in college common spaces, and the appointment of a director of sustainable transportation systems. Students have shown support in well-established groups like the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Sustainably Thinking, a new student organization, will provide big-picture advice to the other groups on campus.

As more and more consumers demand to know where their food comes from, the voice of the Yale Sustainable Food Project is no longer a sage in the wilderness. Now, Yale University Dining Service’s rejection of the corporate machine for community-based management will be reflected in its kitchens, as cooks forgo sacks of dehydrated potato powder for fresh Yukon Golds, mashed by hand and flavored with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and whole peppercorns. In this sense, the new, self-operated Dining Services appears to be no more than an attempt to follow corporate America’s latest sustainability trend. But we started it.

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