The end of an Aramark: University opens contract for food service providers
The University of Houston will terminate its contract with Aramark, who has been at the University since 2005, and sign a new food services agreement this summer.
Aramark is currently responsible for overseeing dining for the entire UH System. At UH, this includes the two dining halls, convenience stores and most of the campus’ restaurants. By Fall 2017, students can expect increased variety and quality of food, in addition to extended dining hours, according to an SGA news release.
A Request For Proposal wasposted by UH’s Division of Administration and Finance Friday at 1:20 p.m., following dining service evaluations and recommendations from Porter Khouw Consulting, contracted by the University in the fall.
While it is possible that UH could rehire Aramark with revised conditions, bidding will be open to all food service providers, said Shane Smith, the Student Government Association president.
“We’re going to be able to have a chance to reset, and that ability to reset means there will be completely new stations in the dining halls, completely new types of foods,” said Smith, who campaigned on the promise of better food in the spring. “I think the biggest things that students will be excited about are that added variety and those new offerings.”
UH mainstays like Panda Express and Chick-fil-a will likely remain, Smith said, even though Aramark staffs those locations.
Terminating the contract with Aramark and putting out an RFP, Smith said, gives the University a chance to revise some of the current terms in the agreement. According to the RFP, UH is requiring all applicants to submit a plan detailing how they will meet various University dining goals.
Providers interested in signing a contract with the University will have until 3 p.m. April 11 to submit their bids.
Better dining options
These stipulations include improved options for students with dietary restrictions, a wider variety of foods offered throughout the day and a better customer service platform.
With the new contract, the University dining halls will shift to “Anytime Dining,” which will give students unlimited access to the dining halls (or the Student Engagement Commons, as the RFP refers to them).
According to the RFP, the University wants to make dining an extension of student life by establishing a social atmosphere and offering lounge-like amenities.
Smith said the Fresh Food Company, located in Moody Towers, will potentially shift to a 24-hour operating schedule, and Cougar Woods’s hours will be extended.
The RFP states that at UH’s discretion, the new program will be expected to provide free printing and scanning, high speed Wi-Fi, comfortable lounge seating, USB power outlets and more within the dining halls.
Additionally, the RFP includes a list of specific foods a dining vendor at the University will be required to regularly incorporate into their menus.
Made-to-order breakfast sandwiches, smoothies, crepes, waffles with alternating fruit toppings, burritos and rotational late-night bars featuring mac & cheese, wings, baked potatoes and tacos made the cut.
The new —or reformed — provider will also be responsible for providing food services during University breaks and over the summer throughout the duration of their contract. As per the agreement, the convenience store in Cougar Village 1 is to remain open over winter break.
Students in need
As part of the new agreement, UH is requiring all interested food service providers to detail how they will comply with the University’s plan to accommodate students in need.
“This University has made a commitment to be accessible to working students and students with financial need,” Smith said. “That commitment should extend to enabling students to be financially able to live on campus if they wish.”
Students choosing to live on campus are required to enroll in a meal plan. According to UH Dining Services, the least-expensive option costs $1,650 per semester and is only available to juniors and above.
Smith justified the University’s obligation to low-income students by saying that, at nearly $3,500, the cost of a required residential meal plan represents 60 percent of the maximum Federal Pell Grant awarded to students displaying financial need.
According to the RFP, the vendor chosen by the University will be required to provide working positions to students in need in exchange for meal plans. In addition, the provider will be responsible for organizing the collection of optional student donations toward low-income peers and the ability for those students to earn $10 meal vouchers for completing tasks such as satisfaction surveys.
“We need to offer students with financial need a less expensive meal plan,” Smith said. “This can be done without impacting pricing of other meal plans. Doing this would fit our UH values and benefit our students.”
Amid the exciting changes, Smith said, the most important part of the renegotiation is ensuring that the new dining provider will be held to high student satisfaction standards throughout the contract.
“To have a successful dining program that students are happy with, there will need to be detailed protections for student interests,” Smith said. “These are the most important pieces to ensure that students are still happy with the dining program in five years.”
These protections, Smith said, will ensure that the quality of UH’s dining program doesn’t decline. Smith said continual student satisfaction with the provider is crucial to the success of dining services and should be monitored throughout the contract.
Smith and the Division of Administration and Finance are discussing how the University’s next provider will be held accountable to the students. Those protections, he said, will likely come as a written agreement between SGA and Administration and Finance and as a stipulation within the final dining contract.
“How well students are protected will determine if SGA ultimately supports the changes,” Smith said. “This is an exciting opportunity that we’ve prioritized throughout our administration, but it needs to be done right.”
It is possible that improvements to dining could come at an increased cost, according to a news release from SGA. However, the release states that Smith is working to limit those increases and guarantees that if present, they will be accompanied by improved quality.
Smith said he and SGA Chief of Staff Robert Comer will be heavily involved in the selection process, despite their executive term ending April 1.
“I want to finish it right. I don’t want to make these changes and call them a win if they’re not a win. I want to have those protections in place,” Smith said. “We’re going to find something that works for both the University and the students.”