ARAMARK BLOWS

In Features /

By Robyn Doolittle and Adam Huras

Clusters of students hunch over laptops in the corner of the Hub. A fortress of coffee cups and take-out bags surround the group. A few more are sprawled out studying in the nearby lounge, while dressed-down professors are meandering by. Even though it’s Reading Week, Ryerson is anything but deserted. The line at Tim Hortons is five people deep — not surprising considering it’s the only food service open at 2 p.m.

“It’s ridiculous! You need to go talk to John Corallo. He’s the head of Ancillary Services. They can’t do this,” vents a woman ordering hot chocolate. That woman, Kella Loschiavo, happens to be the chief steward at OPSEU Local 596, which recently filed a grievance against the university for cutting back full-time employee hours during study week. This, they say, violates the collective agreement. Corallo says it doesn’t and has proceeded to fight the grievance.

Loschiavo says Aramark managers recommended Hub hours be reduced, since the projected number of customers wouldn’t warrant opening. “Never mind the Continuing Education students, profs, staff, who are all still here here — and even so, this could have been the week that they do training,” Loschiavo says, her lip curling slightly. “I’m very angered at how this university handles its lowest paid employees.”

But a possible violation of the employment agreement isn’t the only disturbing thing about the limited hours. The Eyeopener has obtained a copy of Ryerson’s contract with Aramark Canada Ltd., through a freedom of information request. It shows that it’s impossible for Ryerson to lose money through its food services. University administration has long claimed the service hasn’t made real money in years and is more of a service than a moneymaker. But many of the school’s decisions surrounding its food services would suggest otherwise. And since Aramark refused six interview requests from the Eyeopener over the course of three weeks, we’re even less convinced.

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Regardless of the questions Ancillary Services director John Corallo becomes markedly fidgety when asked about Ryerson’s food service provider. When the notepad hits the table, he shifts restlessly. He drums his fingers, stutters between phrases and sighs deeply after each answer, waiting nervously for the zinger he knows will eventually come. It’s no wonder.

Ryerson’s partnership with Aramark is rarely portrayed positively by the student press. Articles detailing price gouging, conditional health passes and restrictive catering services are just some of those that have appeared in the Eyeopener since Ryerson renewed its 10-year Aramark contract on June 1, 2003. The thorniest issue is the confidentiality agreement the parties penned back in 1993, which limits the information that can be released about the company. How much profit does Aramark take on every purchase? Are we getting a good deal?

Three companies were initially interested in Ryerson’s food services account. Sodexho, Compass and Aramark representatives came to an information session prior to the bidding session, although only Compass and Aramark made proposals.

“Aramark came in with a better agreement. Their presentation was better and they had a better understanding of our campus. Being in the downtown core, the close proximity to Yonge Street; within five minutes of campus there are 150 fast food restaurants,” Corallo said, adding he’s been very happy with their partnership. He says there are no plans to not renew the agreement when it expires next year.

After re-inking the agreement four years ago, Ryerson pumped $1.2 million into renovating Jorgenson’s cafeteria. Aramark also holds exclusive rights to catering services, with the exception of the ILLC, Oakham House, the Student Campus Centre and the Ram in the Rye, which run independently.

But the contract reveals other problems. In Nov. 2003, the Eyeopener reported that some food prices on campus were 17 per cent higher than in the surrounding area. We now know the Aramark contract states that “food charges (shall be) equal to or lower than” market prices unless Ryerson decides to charge more. Today, prices are on par with outside vendors, and Pizza Pizza slices are cheaper on campus.

In the first year of Ryerson’s agreement, the university paid Aramark $70,000 and received only 60 per cent of the year’s proceeds. For the remaining four years, Aramark will take $135,000, in addition to its 40 per cent cut. This may seem like a raw deal, but the contract highlights an alluring silver lining. Aramark guarantees that its operation will be run on a cost recovery basis, meaning any “loss shall be incurred by Aramark.” And this is a valuable clause considering Ryerson’s food service financial record, Corallo says. “Probably for the past five years, food services has been cost recovery only — or worse. This was after a few years of small surpluses.”

Unfortunately, these numbers may never be known. The contract also states “all financial, statistical, operating, foodservice employee personnel data, including recipes, meal plans, menus… shall be considered to be confidential information.”

“You’re not going to get those numbers. Even if you did (a freedom of information request), you would probably lose,” Corallo said, adding company financial records are normally kept secret for competitive reasons.

Some clues do help fill out the picture: Corallo is featured in an Aramark ad that has been periodically running in Maclean’s magazine since November 2000. It boasts that since signing up with Aramark, food sales at Ryerson went up by 23 per cent. And “that’s no small potatoes,” he quips in the ad.

Food service revenue has remained at that level since. The only other hint to the company’s profitability at Rye is the fact that Ancillary Services has been steadily paying off the million-dollar Hub renovation with annual profits. But financial ambiguity is just one of many problems exposed in Aramark’s contract. For vegetarian Briar Neilson, price is a secondary issue.

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Living in residence, Neilson was forced to buy a meal plan she says does not cater to her needs. The first-year hospitality and tourism student says that apart from pitas — which “you don’t want every day” — and grilled vegetarian burgers, there are virtually no vegetarian options in Pitman Hall. She normally sticks to Oakham House and Maggie’s Kitchen in the ILLC for meals, but says even these don’t go far enough. “I get the five same things every week at Maggie’s,” she said. “And they say go to the salad bar, but you can’t even consider it a salad bar. It’s really just lettuce, and then oversized cucumbers.”

For the past four years, Aramark and Ryerson have been working together to improve nutritional information on campus. Canada’s food guide and nutritional pamphlets are prominently displayed in the Hub.

As well, an initiative by Ryerson students dubbed Ryerson Student Nutritional Action Committee (RSNAC), has been compiling nutritional information about meals served on campus. The number of calories, amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium and, protein and carbohydrates, is now available online — campusdish.com/en-US/CA/Ryerson/. But the initiative is a work in progress and much needs to be added.

Corallo says Ryerson is trying to create something similar to a program Compass Canada implemented in September 2005. By switching to trans fat free frying oil, offering whole-wheat pita and bread options and ensuring healthy options exist at every service station, Compass has revamped its approach to nutrition. For many, nutritional information is vital.

In late 2005, a Trent University student launched an “Aramark Doesn’t Care” poster campaign. A first-year at the time, chose Trent University after Aramark assured her they would accommodate her and her serious seafood allergy. A few months into the semester, she alleges she witnessed Aramark employees using the same tongs to dish out vegetables, meat and seafood.

She says Aramark apologized and vowed to solve the problem, but during exams, she had a serious food reaction that she believes came from Trent’s cafeteria. She was forced to wear a scarf for an entire month to hide nearly three inches of swelling. On her neck, she now has a permanent scar.

“The whole fiasco seems in the past, but I will not forget it, and neither will the people that care about me,” she said in a letter to the Arthur, Trent’s student paper. “This campaign was in no way directed at the Aramark staff. We love you guys – you bend over backwards to cater to our needs; it is the management of Aramark we have a problem with.”

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“Jesus, recounting this really makes me hate these fucks all over again,” said Matt Soprovich, President of the University of Manitoba Student Food Advisory and Recommendation Association (UMSPAR), a group he created last March to protest Aramark. “From my perspective, at the town hall Aramark simply put a bunch of their greasy business suits on display.”

At the University of Manitoba, discontent with Aramark food services led to a series of town hall meetings. One meeting ended when a student approached the microphone with a green banana and calmly asked the audience to identify the colour of the fruit. According to The Manitoban student newspaper, he then ran up on stage and tried to force Aramark Canada vice-president and general manager Michael Oschefski to eat it. When unsuccessful, he threw the banana at the executive.

Petitions began to circulate at the University of Alberta when students accused Aramark of neglecting their concerns. Lister Hall Students’ Association president Michael Janz submitted petitions within the last year voicing discontent over price, variety and nutritional value. With their Aramark contract renewed just last year, without the involvement of the student union, a change in service is unlikely.

During the 2004-05 school year, a Carleton student created a website entitled ‘Say No to Slop,’ which speaks out against Aramark.

The Ryerson community and the Eyeopener have had their own set of adventures with the food giant.

Earlier this year, the Eyeopener reported that Ryerson athletics had hoped to host pizza parties for fans through Aramark, but backtracked after a $300 quote. The story reported Ryerson’s catering services require a minimum billing equal to 20 people, regardless if you’re a group of 10, three or even one. However, that isn’t true according to Silvana Babikian, an Aramark employee in charge of catering at Ryerson and Jennifer Marriott, head of Food Services at Ryerson.

“A minimum order doesn’t necessarily exist,” said Marriott. “They are put in there as guidelines but if they can’t adhere to that dollar amount, they can speak to the catering manager and they can work something out.”

With the change of tune, the Eye staff decided to test it out. “So you’d say, bring a group of three or four people coffee and donuts?” we asked.

“Coffee and donuts for three? That very rarely happens.” replied Marriott.

“But you can do it.”

“Yes-?”

“Then we would like 2 coffees and a tea, and three donuts and a peanut butter cookie, delivered to the second floor of the Student Campus Centre.”

After the cost of food and the price for the labour to prepare and deliver our order, Babikian said we’d be charged $19.87 in total, and our food would arrive within 30 to 40 minutes. About 25 minutes later, java and goodies were hand delivered to our door — meaning we saved the walk through snow and subzero temperatures — for about the same price each as a Starbucks latte.

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