College to take proposals for new food providers

On January 27, the Colby community received an Official Notice that the College will be re-evaluating its dining service management contract with Sodexo, which is set to expire this year. The email came jointly from Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune and Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer Doug Terp, who wrote, “as stewards of the College, we have decided that it is appropriate to evaluate our dining services management arrangement in a competitive environment.” The evaluation could result in the replacement of Sodexo by another food service provider in the future.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) process outlined in the Official Notice involves coordination between community members, outside consultants, and different food service management companies vying for the Colby account. In the coming months, representatives from potential providers will continue to spend time on campus to gather information and engage with community members. webdanaSometime towards the end of March, the providers will submit their proposals to Colby. Sodexo will also submit a proposal. A special advisory board will review the proposals, and a final decision is expected by May.

Several members of the faculty, staff, and student body join Terhune and Terp on the advisory board. Student voices include Senior Class Co-Presidents Tim Gallagher ’16 and Mara Badali ’16, as well as United for Better Dining Services (UBDS) leader Ana Solis Canales ’18.

In an interview with the Echo, Terp noted that the College has traditionally evaluated dining programming and solicited input in anticipation of its contract renewals with Sodexo. However, this year’s RFP marks a notable shift to a more formal and competitive procedure. “I don’t remember us doing this level of RFP in my time,” Terp said.

Some have questioned whether the Administration’s decision is a reaction to the increased discourse surrounding dining services in the past year. From student protests of Sodexo to the campus activism of UBDS, conversations regarding dining management have been frequent and, at some points, heated. However, while Terp did not discount the role UBDS and other groups have played in sparking a dialogue and raising important questions. He also said that there were a number of factors behind the decision take a more comprehensive approach this time around.

Above all, the Administration saw the contract expiration as an opportunity to ensure that the College provides its students with the best dining experience possible, whether that means a continued partnership with Sodexo or the transition to a new provider. “We have a good relationship with Sodexo,” Terhune and Terp wrote in their email. The relationship is also one of Colby’s longest with any outside company, spanning back to the 1960’s. As Terp noted, however, “The college food service industry has changed dramatically over 20 years,” so it makes sense to explore other opportunities. “This is a chance to see what others bring to the table, so to speak,” Terp said.

President Greene’s tenure is still in its early stages, but it is clear that the College is entering a time of change under his leadership. Terp placed the RFP process in the context of Greene’s broader aim to look at Colby’s key areas and make sure that the College is doing the very best it can in all of them. “The dining program is part of an overall healthy and quality student life experience. This is one piece of a bigger puzzle,” Terp said. “That’s how I’m thinking of it.”

Although May is months away, students are already curious about the implications of moving to a new provider. In separate conversations with the Echo, three students raised the issue of personnel. “If dining hall workers are going to lose their jobs at the end of this, that’s something we should know,” said one sophomore, who wished to remain anonymous. There are no definitive answers at this stage. However, Terp said that typically in these situations, “the incoming firm tends to want to try to retain as many of the [hourly] staff as they can.” Since the employees are already familiar with the labor market, the facilities, and especially the students, preservation tends to benefit everyone involved. Those in management or chef roles might be in a different position, however. In food service organizations, it’s not uncommon for management staff to have non-compete agreements that would bar them from working for a competitor.

At this time, the College is still very much in the information-gathering phase. Terp has already met with three potential firms, and said that it has already been an educational and productive experience. “At the end of the day, we want to have a dining program that supports the educational program, supports the catering needs of campus, and that students feel fit their needs,” he said. “Both now, and looking forward.”