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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

News

New college-operated dining services dishes out changes

In just three months, Ithaca College has started up its own dining program, transformed its dining halls and ushered in four local businesses after announcing its separation from an external provider.

“It’s possible we got really ambitious this summer,” said Dave Prunty, executive director of auxiliary services. “We could have theoretically changed nothing physically and just changed from no Sodexo. … The decision was if we’re going to make a difference, let’s do it differently.”

In March, Ithaca College announced it was ending its 20-year relationship with food service provider Sodexo. The switch from Sodexo came after repeated requests from the campus community. Last fall, parents circulated a petition calling on the college to review its dining practices after a student reported having been served a moldy hamburger bun. The dining halls have also been criticized for cross contamination that has caused allergic reactions among students. In addition to addressing these concerns, Bill Guerrero, vice president of the Division of Finance and Administration, said he wanted to ensure that the new dining program would be cheaper and more accessible to students.

Because the implementation of the dining program is in the preliminary stages, the exact cost is not yet known and will not be known until the end of the year, Guerrero said. He said most of the funding for these changes came from what the college would have been paying Sodexo. For the 2017–18 fiscal year, the college paid Sodexo $9,991,337, according to the college’s 990 form. According to the 2019–20 fiscal year budget, the college budgeted $1 million for the Department of Auxiliary Services for “small renovations, furniture replacements and equipment purchases to support new Dining initiatives.” The budget also states that the revenue of dining is calculated over the course of the fiscal year as students select their meal plans.

Prunty said that since the announcement at the end of Spring 2019 semester, the college has been building its new program, Ithaca College Dining Services, primarily focusing on establishing a staff and getting a main food provider. Prunty said that when building a dining program, basic requirements like uniforms, permits and safety standards — all things that were provided by Sodexo — need to be reestablished. One of the challenges was that the dining hall employees could not help with the transition until June 1 because they were still working under Sodexo. Prunty also said that when other colleges transition to self-operated dining, most do it in about a year or two, not three months.

Cultivating Partnerships

Such a huge change required some assistance. In July, the college announced it would be partnering with Cornell University, whose self-operated dining program is nationally recognized. Dustin Cutler, executive director of Cornell Dining, reached out to the college after the new dining program was announced to offer guidance and share Cornell Dining’s standards and menus to help make the transition smoother.

“I saw this as an opportunity to be a great neighbor and community partner,” Cutler said via email. “It turned out to be a great chance to learn from each other this summer.”

Karen Brown, senior director of campus life, marketing and communications at Cornell University, said via email that the benefit of an in-housing dining program is the ability to make decisions locally rather than through a corporate office. She also said that moving to a self-operated service provides the opportunity to incorporate seasonal and local produce rather than following a menu set by a larger corporation.

New Food and Facilities

Under Sodexo, the college’s main food provider was Sysco, a multinational food distribution company. Now, the college is using Maines Paper and Food Service. Guerrero said he hopes Maines will cost less than Sysco because it is a provider for Cornell, so it is already delivering to Ithaca. Prunty said Maines is giving the college a price break while dining services determines how much and what kind of food it needs to purchase, so the exact price is not known yet. 

One of the most notable changes is the absence of Towers Dining Hall; instead, the space is now Towers Marketplace, an area that mirrors the layout of IC Square in the Campus Center, including tables to eat and work at as well as a stage for programming and events. The marketplace will be open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day.

Prunty said that because Towers Dining Hall had the smallest capacity of the three dining halls and was often the least used — over half of dining hall swipes came from the Campus Center Dining Hall — it had the most potential to be changed. He said Terrace Dining Hall has such a large capacity — approximately 700 people — that he does not anticipate overcrowding now that there are only two dining halls.

On the first day of classes at around noon Aug. 28, the typical lunch time for students, Campus Center Dining Hall was filled to capacity. Spencer Harper, assistant manager of the dining hall, said the staff was not allowing students in until tables opened. About 30 students were waiting on line, spilling out into IC Square.

The marketplace features local providers Ithaca Coffee Company and Purity Ice Cream Company offerings, as well as South Hill Smash Grill, a burger station with options of beef, chicken and Impossible burgers. The marketplace also has Towers of Pizza, a pizza location run by Hicham Oulida, who owned Due Amici, a pizzeria formerly on The Commons. Prunty said the college bought its first pizza oven, which will allow members of both the campus community and the Ithaca community to order pies made on-site. A 16-inch cheese pie is $15, a cheese slice is $2, a 16-inch gourmet pie is $19 and a gourmet slice is $3.25. At Casablanca Pizzeria on The Commons, a 16-inch cheese pie is $12.99, a gourmet pie of the same size is $18.99, a regular cheese slice is approximately $2.50 and a slice with toppings starts at approximately $3.
The Campus Center Dining Hall now has a larger vegan section in the front of the dining hall, where the omelet and grill stations used to be; the grill has been relocated to the back area of the dining hall. Prunty said this change helps send a healthier message. In February, the Division of Finance and Administration sent a survey to campus community members asking their opinions of Dining Services and what improvements they would like to see. Guerrero said many respondents raised concerns about how healthy and clean the food was, as well as about accessibility to vegan and vegetarian options.

With these new facilities come new hours. Instead of having different hours on different days like last spring, the Campus Center Dining Hall will close for an hour between 3 and 4 p.m. every day and will close at 7:30 p.m. every day. However, Prunty said these hours are subject to change.

Terraces no longer has its late-night dining. Instead, Terraces will now close at 9 p.m. with an hour closure from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Prunty said the decision to eliminate Late Night came because it was expensive to run and there were mixed responses in terms of nutritional value. He said there will still be late-night dining options, such as in the Towers Marketplace. 

Terraces now has an allergen-free food area that requires ID-access to enter for students who sign up with Dining Services, similar to the My Zone area in the Campus Center. Additionally, Terraces has an outdoor area where students can eat their dining hall meals outside around a firepit. Prunty said part of the main mission was to transform unused spaces into places where students can spend their free time.

Bringing in Local Retailers 

When the Sodexo contract ended, its retail dining options, such as SubConnection, left with the company. While there has been a Gimme! Coffee at the Business School Cafe since 2017, there is now another location at the Park School Cafe and an Ithaca Coffee Company at the Library Cafe, both replacing the cafes that served Starbucks. Instead of Neapolitan in IC Square, the space is now an Ithaca Bakery. Freshens Cafe on the second floor of the Campus Center is now the Campus Center Cafe, a location that will serve Purity ice cream and Gimme! Coffee. The Campus Center Cafe was not open as of Aug. 28.

“It would be easier to go with a national chain, no question about it,” Prunty said. “They have those systems already in place to do licenses. That’s not who we want to be as a college. We want to partner with the local community.”

Chris Ganger, director of coffee at the Ithaca Coffee Company, said the company has worked with other colleges before, but he appreciates how streamlined and hands-on Ithaca College has been with the transition.

In the IC Square food court, there is now South Hill Grill, a grill station, and IC Fresh, a salad bar, both of which are similar offerings to the former facilities in the space. Additionally, Chick-n-Bap, a Korean-inspired street food restaurant with locations in Binghamton, New York, and New Paltz, New York, is in the food court; this is the only location that has staff from the company and not just employees from the college. 

Sung Kim, founder of Chick-N-Bap, said that he is looking forward to bringing affordable — portions are around $8 — and different options to campus and that the transition has been smooth.

“This location has been flawless in terms of partnership with Sodexo moving out,” Kim said. “I think these are probably the nicest people we’ve dealt with.”

Cost

IC Dining’s meal plans are cheaper than the college’s meal plans under Sodexo; the new unlimited plan is $348 cheaper than the old unlimited plan per semester, and the new five-meal plan is cheaper than all of the old options. The new meal plan is divided into two tiers: a mandatory unlimited plan for students living in the on-campus dorms that comes with 230 Bomber Bucks or an optional 5-meals-per-week plan with 600 Bomber Bucks for students living in on-campus apartments or off campus. This change replaces the four tiers of the old meal plan that ranged from seven, 10, 14 and unlimited meals per week.

In accordance with the wider variety of retail dining locations, the new meal plans have more Bomber Bucks than last year; the previous meal plan had bonus-dollar increments ranging from 100 for the unlimited meal plan to 270 for the 10-meals-per-week plan.

Sophomore Michal Lullo said she was planning on getting the 10-meal plan due to her dietary restrictions. She said that she felt that the dining halls did not always have adequate food for her to eat and that she has mixed feelings about being required to have the unlimited meal plan.

“It’s a transition period for me, and I’m figuring out what I can eat in the dining halls and who I have to talk to to get those things that I need in the dining halls,” Lullo said.

Still, the meal plans are expensive. Every month, the United States Department of Agriculture releases food plans that provide guidelines for the cost of a nutritious diet at four different levels — thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost and liberal. The average cost for one college-aged person with liberal food spending for two semesters is $2,896.20; the unlimited meal plan for two semesters is $6,800, which is over $3,000 more than the USDA’s liberal food plan.

Approximately 3,260 students are signed up for the unlimited meal plan, and approximately 756 students are signed up for the five-meals-per-week plan, Prunty said. Prunty said he anticipates these numbers will change over the coming weeks.

Junior Kat McSherry said she is living in the Circle Apartments and decided to not sign up for a meal plan.

“I think in the past, I didn’t like any of the options that were in the dining hall, so I wasn’t sure how this new transition was going to go,” McSherry said. “So I didn’t want to necessarily waste my time.”

Junior Mara Batt said she is living in Circles and has the five-meals-per-week plan.

“I thought it would make more sense,” Batt said. “It kind of seems like they’re leaving you on your own if you only have five swipes, but … [the] 600 Bomber bucks is actually a lot of money to spend however you want around campus.”

There is also a price difference with the new on-campus retail dining locations. Ganger said the prices will be similar to those at the Ithaca Coffee Company’s downtown location. A medium coffee (12 oz.) at the downtown Ithaca Coffee Company is $2.50; at the Ithaca Bakery location in the Campus Center, a medium coffee is set at $2.45. The prices at the cafes that served Starbucks in previous years had a medium coffee priced at $2.25. The local companies are small roasters compared to Starbucks, so their prices tend to be higher because they do not get big discounts from coffee farmers as larger companies do, Prunty said.

 

Campus Employees

When the college made the switch from Sodexo, it offered to keep Sodexo employees, approximately 120 individuals, as employees at the college. If these individuals chose to stay, they became employees of the college and received benefits from the college, many of which are comparable to the former Sodexo benefits, Prunty said. Food service worker Sue Whittier said that the process of rehiring the former Sodexo employees was smooth and that the college was in touch with the employees over the summer.

Prunty said less than 10 frontline staff and managers have left. 

“I thought we’d lose a lot more,” Prunty said. “It’s a big change. But people are, at least for now, staying.”

Jeff Scott, former director of Dining Services, is no longer at the college. Scott McWilliams, director of Dining Services and former operations manager, has been in the position since the college switched to in-house dining. McWilliams said three new managers have been hired, and other manager positions still need to be filled.

While some of the former Sodexo employees could not keep their same positions due to restructuring, Prunty said many were promoted. He also said he is not sure if the college will need to hire more employees as a result of these changes.

Senior cook Bernard Allen previously worked for Late Night and now works at IC Square. He said he has not noticed much of a difference because many of the cooks have remained the same, as has the food they are cooking. However, he said, they do have more flexibility with the recipes they use.

Students and dining employees will be working at the retail locations on campus, but the local vendors will provide some training in order to maintain a brand standard, Guerrero said.

Cook Stephen Swartz has worked at the college for about eight years, and he said that the transition has been smooth. He formerly worked in the dining halls but will now work at the Ithaca Bakery location in IC Square. 

“I think it’s going to be good overall, now that everything is merged,” Swartz said. “Now that we work for the school, we’re more a part of things.”

Dining Services is the largest student employer at the college with over 500 students, McWilliams said. In previous years, there were opportunities for students to sign up to work for Dining Services during orientation; this is not the case this year. Prunty said the new dining service wants to make sure that students are hired to fill a required need, not to simply hire bodies. He said having too many workers makes it difficult to supervise and train the employees, especially when students are only able to pick up a few shifts every week. Prunty also said he was not sure what the proportion of staff to students working in the dining halls would be.

Some students who worked in locations like SubConnection were unsure about their positions coming into the new semester. Prunty said that there are not currently any plans to fill the space that used to be SubConnection but that there will be similar menu options offered at the Ithaca Bakery and in Towers Marketplace further down the line. 

McWilliams said students who used to work at SubConnection will be reallocated to different locations on campus.

Senior Jenna Lovejoy, former student manager at SubConnection, said that in the past, she would be asked to work around move-in day, which was Aug. 25 for returning students, but she had not been contacted about the status of her job. Although she did not reach out to her supervisors, she said, she is frustrated with the lack of communication and would be open to taking a position at another retail dining location, but she is not sure if she would be able to enter at such a high position.

“The reality is, I don’t know what is happening with the Ithaca-affiliated food opportunities that are coming in,” Lovejoy said.

Prunty said the new dining program is a work in progress but has heard positive reactions from those who ate in the dining halls over the summer.

“It’s going to take some time to get things right,” Prunty said. “It’s not going to be perfect. Problems are going to happen. It’s the nature of the business. But I think we’ve got a chance to do something pretty cool.”

Madison Fernandez can be reached at mfernandez1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @madfernandez616