Commons Food Service: The Economic Option

Andover students craving a home-cooked meal may feel alone in the world when they walk into Commons for another evening of baked scrod. But hundreds of students at prep schools across New England endure the same feeling. All large boarding schools have to deal with the demands of mass food production. Each has tackled the challenge differently- some schools have created menus that draw the envy of their peer institutions, while others struggle to content even their own student body. Unlike Exeter, St. Paul’s, and Deerfield, which manage their own food services, Andover contracts Commons service to Aramark, an independent corporation that caters to schools, hospitals, and prisons throughout the country. Director of Food Services Bob Noyes, an employee of Aramark, says that Andover’s decision to use the company was a matter of “quality, price, and efficiency.” “Financially, there are all kinds of benefits. Aramark has a much larger buying power than any individual school could ever have. We estimate that costs would be 20 percent higher if you run it by yourself,” he explained. But those at self-op schools, who manage food services without contracting a catering company, point out that companies like Aramark come with disadvantages. “You usually find that self-op schools have better quality food, because contracted food service is all about the bottom line for the corporation – the primary issue is money, not food quality,” said St. Paul’s Director of Food Services Kurt Ellison. Mr. Ellison meets with dining service directors at other self-op boarding schools several times a year to discuss new ideas, talk about menu options, and taste different recipes. He hopes that this informal union will provide self-op schools with the resources of a larger company without compromising the individuality of the schools. Deerfield Academy’s Director of Food Services Florrie Paige, among those that meet with Mr. Ellison, also argued for the benefits of self-op dining services. “Being the food service director for Deerfield, I report to the business manager at the school. If I worked for Aramark, my first loyalty would have to be to the company,” she said. As an employee of the school, Ms. Paige feels that she is able to become involved in the life of the school, coaching squash and serving as Deerfield’s licensed dietitian. Ms. Paige also said that contracted services such as those offered by Aramark compromise the ability of the dining hall to cater to the specific needs and wants of their students. Mr. Noyes, however, said that Aramark, by running each account independently and customizing its service to the wants of each school, maintains a high degree of flexibility in terms of menu options. “[At Andover] we aren’t allowed to serve desserts at lunch. But Choate, also an Aramark account, does. We don’t have soda, but Choate does. At the same time, we have many things that other Aramark accounts don’t have,” he said. Andover’s decision to employ the services of Aramark largely rooted from financial incentives. Because of its size, Aramark can buy food and supplies in bulk, an economic advantage that small, independently-operated dining halls cannot rival. “When we switched to Aramark, we did, in fact, save money,” said Chief Financial Officer Steve Carter. “We have put out requests for proposals from other services, but Aramark has always come out as the best deal for what it offers.” But not all Andover students are satisfied by Aramark’s offerings. “I try to stay away from the stuff that’s heated… The fruits are a little aged, and the vegetables are awful,” offered Chloe Hurley ’05. “I’ve haven’t ever tried it, but I’ve heard that Exeter’s food is quite impressive.” But even Exeter’s self-op dining facility can grow old to hungry students and athletes. “It’s cafeteria food, so it never tastes like gourmet,” said Richard Morgan, a Senior at Phillips Exeter Academy. “Personally, I think that Exeter food is better [than that of peer schools]. Usually you can get a pretty balanced meal, and it’s always fresh.” Mr. Noyes admitted that Andover’s food may not be optimally fresh, but he faults the out-of-date facilities, not the service company. The present Commons facilities lack sufficient electricity supply, and according to Mr. Noyes, food variety and freshness will greatly improve once the renovation has been completed. “It will change 100 percent. Right now, we have a kitchen in the basement, and everything has to be hauled up in dumbwaiters and then reheated. After the renovation, the food will be cooked right on the serving lines instead,” he explained. The renovation will also convert Ryley Room, another Aramak-operated facility, into a larger, more-welcoming student center. Although planning is still underway, Mr. Noyes expects that the popular gathering place will double in size, remain open for longer hours, and offer a greater selection of snack foods.