aramarkMembers of the Trent community can breathe a collective sigh of relief as earlier this week Nona Robinson, the university’s Associate Vice President Students, confirmed the Foodservices Review Committee would be releasing the long awaited foodservice Request for Proposals (RFP) before the school breaks for the Christmas holidays.

In a comprehensive interview with Arthur, Robinson explained  the RFP would be tendered within “a month or so,” and administration is looking to have a new contract ratified by early 2014, with the new foodservice arrangement operational by the beginning of the 2014/2015 academic year.

Both Robinson and TCSA Vice President and Review Committee student representative, Tessa Nasca, further confirmed that over the summer the university had contracted Mark Murdoch of Oakville, Food Systems Consulting Inc. in May of this year to prepare yet another third-party report on the structure and content of the foodservice RFP. This comes less than a year after the administration released a controversial $60,000 report on foodservice by Toronto Consulting Firm fsStrategy.

The fsStrategy report “was a very good summary of the current [foodservice] situation,” said Robinson. “But at Trent we realized we needed some expertise around actually putting together and request for propososals.”

She also acknowledged, as was reported last year by Arthur, that the fsStrategy report left administrators dissatisfied, saying it didn’t go far enough in reimagining how the university could better provide foodservices.

“[The report said] here is what we have, let’s just put out another bid and see if we can get more money. This is clearly not the direction we want to go in.”

The recommendations of the new report differ from those of fsStrategy in a number of important ways and seem to be more conscientious of the feedback generated within the student food forums held during second semester last year. One notable example of this can be found within the plan for college dining halls. Where the fsStrategy document argued strongly in favour of finding cost-savings through the complete closure of the Champlain College dining facility, a proposal that generated significant backlash as community members worried about its negative effects on Trent’s college system, Murdoch’s report recommends keeping all four dining halls open but renovating and re-purposing them in order to create two full service dining facilities (at Lady Eaton and Gzowski) and two “grab-and-go” markets (at Champlain and Otonabee). He explains that this plan would be built around “balancing services on the East and West bank,” and added, “no new footprint would be required.” However, such a reconfiguration would come with a significant price tag: “between $2.5 and $8 million” over the next two to three years.

Murdoch’s report also recommends a significant overhaul to the university’s governance of the foodservice portfolio. It points out there is currently a “significant gap in the holistic supervision of foodservices” at Trent, a problem the report proposes to remedy through the creation of new oversight positions within the university administration. In this regard it calls for the establishment of a permanent Foodservices Advisory Committee comprised of members from “all campus constituencies,” a new student ombudsman position, and a senior “Food Service Champion” who would “oversee and co-ordinate all facets of foodservice operations on campus with a ‘single point of contact’ mindset.”

Perhaps the most important element to the new report is that it provides a more nuanced and realistic analysis of Trent’s RFP options, giving an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of the common management models in place at other universities. Trent’s current contract with Aramark is called the “contract management profit and loss model” and is described as being a low risk and low control.

Conversely, the report explains that some universities have elected to pursue a “self-operated model” which provides maximum operational and strategic control but also the maximum risk. The report rules out this option for Trent, however, stating although it could be a worthwhile pursuit in the future, the university currently lacks both the necessary infrastructure and the time to assemble an adequate in-house management team. Finally, the report also details a third management model, known as the “contract management fee model” which is a middle-ground between the previous two.

Under such a structure, the school would still hire an operator to manage the delivery of its foodservice but would retain administrative control and the risk/reward position. The contract management fee model, while more complex, would enable the school to have a “very high level of control over the operations” and “a higher degree” of control over initiatives such as sustainable practices and local procurement. Murdoch’s report recommends the university require companies responding to the RFP to include scenarios involving both contract models.

In addition, the report recommends the university look for a contract five years in length, with the option of two extension periods. It also notes administration is looking to transition away from the current mix of board meals and declining balance (flex dollars) at Lady Eaton and Gzowski Colleges toward a student wide declining balance plan. It is also exploring the idea of incorporating a Universal Flex plan, meaning students could use their flex dollars at “all facilities on campus and selected service providers off campus.” According to the report, operators would be required to pay a specified commission fee to have access to the Universal Flex program.

Moving forward, Nasca says the Foodservice Review Committee is now preparing the RFP based on the elements contained within Murdoch’s report. She also notes the university expects to have five bidders for its foodservice contract, including multinational foodservice giants Aramark, Sodexo, and Chartwells, one smaller regional provider, and a company Nasca says is “primarily indigenous owned.” Currently, the committee has yet to devise a scoring criteria for the RFP and Nasca did not specify whether such factors as locality and corporate social history would influence their ultimate decision.

With files from Sara Ostrowska and Elisha Rubacha.