After working for the past few months with local restaurants for a possible decrease in the surcharge for the University’s Flex dollars program, Yale Dining Services officials said late last week that the meal plan will remain unchanged for at least the rest of the current fiscal year.
Bulldog Burrito owner Jason Congdon said he declined to join the program because the 18 percent commission the University charges for all Flex transactions would render them unprofitable. Dining services officials met with Congdon in January to discuss adding his burrito shop to the Flex plan, which allows participating students to spend up to $100 per semester at local restaurants through the dining services network.
At that time, both parties said they were working to negotiate a new commission rate, but strict University budget constraints prevented any changes, Dining Services Executive Director Don McQuarrie said.
“This is a fiscal year where we need to be very concerned about our budget,” McQuarrie said. “It was a challenging budget and we’re trying to do everything we can to meet that. So we talked to Jason about the current rate, and understandably, that was not something he was interested in.”
Congdon said he had been led to believe dining services was in a position to offer a more flexible deal for restaurateurs and expand the meal plan’s selection, but he said the current agreement is an untenable business model.
“I don’t want to be the poster child for not taking the program, but if I take it the way it is, [it] would be the same as me saying it’s fine,” Congdon said. “It’s not fine. I think it’s the students who are getting squeezed, and I certainly would love to help students out, but I just can’t afford it.”
Other local restaurateurs have also cited the commission rate as the primary reason for choosing not to join the Flex program, which currently includes only two eateries — Naples Pizza and Restaurant on Wall Street and Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant on York Street. Since Au Bon Pain declined to renew its Flex contract in October 2003 for financial reasons, the program has included fewer restaurants than it had since its inception in 1995.
McQuarrie said the summer might offer an opportunity to lower the commission rate and expand the program, but Ernst Huff, the University’s associate vice president for student financial and administrative services, said the total dining services budget will not change when the new fiscal year begins in July.
The budget was roughly set last Thursday with no increase in non-salary expenses, Huff said, and after accounting for inflation, the operating budget has actually decreased in real terms.
“Dining Services, like other departments, has faced budget problems this year and will for the foreseeable future,” Huff said.
Congdon said his talks with Yale officials reflected a concern that wider student participation in the Flex program would hurt University revenues, and he said changes to the plan will only come with demonstrated student interest.
“I think students really need to show their frustration with the Flex program and if they want to see changes, how they want to see changes,” he said.
Huff acknowledged that revenue lost to Flex is a University concern, but he said the original purpose of the Flex plan was to offer students more late-night dining options.
Although the allocation of dining services’ budget has not been finalized, both McQuarrie and Huff said that additional funding for the Flex program is only one of many concerns, the first of which has always been the residential college dining system.
Still, officials will take Flex into consideration during the coming allocation process, Huff said.
“We’ll be looking, like we do every year, for ways to make it more attractive while recognizing the fiscal challenges that we have,” Huff said.–
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