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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

September 23, 2005

Food service up for bid

by Anne Krapfl

A review this fall of food service on campus could lead to an outside company providing the service. The process also could result in ISU Dining keeping the job.

The university, through ISU purchasing, expects to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) by the end of September, with bids due Nov. 18. Following presentations by the bidding units and several weeks of evaluation, a food service contract would be awarded early in spring semester. If a change occurs, it most likely would begin next summer or fall, said Warren Madden, vice president for business and finance.

The bidding is open to the public, but there are primarily three companies that provide food service on large university campuses: ARAMARK, Chartwells and Sodexho. All have indicated they'll bid for the Iowa State food service, according to Nancy Brooks, associate director of ISU purchasing. ISU Dining would be the fourth bidder.

Associate vice president for student affairs Todd Holcomb will lead that effort. Holcomb will serve as interim director of ISU Dining following Jon Lewis' announcement that he will take a postion at Ball State University. The contract would include: residence dining centers, campus catering, retail cafes and convenience stores, vending, and the food court in the Memorial Union.

Another look

While continuous improvement proponents would argue that all campus services ought to be reviewed and scrutinized periodically, this latest review of campus food services originated in March. During their annual review of residence systems at the regent universities, members of the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, criticized the accumulating debt owed to the residence department by ISU Dining. At that time, the debt was about $1.4 million and rising. The board directed university officials to study the problem and fix it.

The university has experimented with several food service organizational structures in recent years, in part to try to address debt issues. ISU Dining was created in July 2000 by combining residence dining and Memorial Union food services into a unit within the residence department. (This followed an extensive study on whether to contract out the service or provide it in-house and initial plans to operate dining services as an auxiliary unit, not part of residence.)

Following the transfer of ownership of the Memorial Union to the university, ISU Dining was moved out of the residence department but remained in student affairs, where it is now. Market competition and the cost of bringing Memorial Union kitchens and employee salaries and benefits to university levels contributed to the rising debt.

A level playing field

The Duffy Wilkie Group, a San Francisco-area group specializing in campus food service consulting, is helping prepare the food service RFP. For several months, staffers have been gathering information on the food and financial operations of ISU Dining, to use in preparing the RFP.

"The consultants don't make the decision on whether to outsource our food service," Brooks said. "That's the purpose of the RFP: to objectively collect information and see what others could do."

She also noted that the RFP "levels the playing field" because all bidders need to address the same items -- including things like honoring the terms of the negotiated contract for Iowa State's merit employees and paying down the existing debt.

"This isn't an easy process, but it isn't frightening, either," Brooks said. "We don't lose control. We actually have better control by managing the standards in the contract."

Whether ISU Dining or an outside private company is the next provider of food service on campus, there will be a contract, Brooks said.

Madden and Brooks both emphasized that a budget that stays in the black isn't the only consideration in awarding a contract. Retail prices, quality, availability and service levels, student freedom to use lots of food venues from the same plan, and other factors also count, they said.

Madden and Brooks are part of an evaluation team (Brooks in an advisory capacity) that will review the bids and make a recommendation to President Gregory Geoffroy, who would share it with the regents.


"This isn't an easy process, but it isn't frightening, either. We don't lose control. We actually have better control by managing the standards in the contract."

Nancy Brooks, associate director, ISU purchasing