Should a college or university operate its campus food services on its own, or turn the role over to a food service contractor? That’s a question with an ambiguous answer, according to Tom Mac Dermott, FCSI, president of the food service consultant firm Clarion Group.
It depends on a number of factors primarily, how important food services is considered to be to the institution’s core mission and how competently the service is being managed.
Some 90 percent of all colleges and universities (from community colleges through graduate schools) now outsource their food services to a contractor; the exceptions being the largest campuses of state universities and a small number of state and independent colleges.
The big state universities’ dining services with budgets of $20 million or more are larger than many regional food service companies and have the resources to employ professional staffs and operate successfully.
Among smaller institutions, the decision to remain self-managed is based on the value the college sees in its dining services and a desire to keep it as an integral part of the campus community. Over the past 30 or so years, colleges have increasingly outsourced food service operations almost invariably for economic reasons. The decision usually was made when the food service operation was losing money or a competent manager retired and the successor was not competent.
In recent years, colleges have converted to contractor management because the contractor offered a substantial financial investment to upgrade – or even build – the food service’s facilities. Some of these investments have been in the millions of dollars, even for relatively small institutions. Of course, the investments do not come without strings in the form of a long-term contract, sometimes for more than ten years.
Some medium-sized and smaller colleges have a long history of self-management and have been successful. Davidson College in North Carolina, Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, Bowden and Bates Colleges in Maine and Middlebury College in Vermont are examples. Many of these regularly appear on the Princeton Review’s annual "Best Campus Food" list, indicating the importance food service plays in their campus' lives.
At one time, colleges would outsource their food services because the contractor claimed its buying power would enable it to reduce the operation’s food costs, but that’s no longer the case (if it ever was true). Food service companies now retain all the advantages gained by their purchasing volume and promise no more than to match local market prices – the same prices a competent independent operator could get on his or her own.
"Competent" is the key word. The self-managed food service operation is only as good as its manager, and purchasing food economically is only a part of the picture. The manager’s skills in creating imaginative menus that reflect the tastes and preferences of the campus community; adaptability in meeting the needs of the college and students, and leading a well-motivated, well-trained staff are more important.
The college or university that is considering outsourcing its self-managed food services should be aware that, while it’s comparatively easy to convert to contractor management, its far more difficult to do the reverse, revert back to self-management. The infrastructure to support the operation has to be reassembled and a competent manager found and hired.
Only one Clarion client in 18 years, New York Institute of Technology, Westbury NY, made the switch and has been successfully self-managing its multi-unit campus food service operations for the past five years.
About Clarion Group
We are a consulting firm that advises companies, professional firms, colleges and universities, independent schools and institutions in the management, operation and improvement of their in-house employee/student food services, catering, conference, lodging and related hospitality services throughout the U.S. and Canada.
For information, contact:
Tom Mac Dermott, FCSI, President
PO Box 158, Kingston, NH 03848-0158
603/642-8011 or TWM@clariongp.com