With grass-fed beef and roasted shallot vinaigrette suddenly making regular appearances at the dinner table, student opinion of University dining services seems to have taken a sharp turn for the better. But the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s expansion is only the latest chapter in the recent history of Yale Dining Services, which has undergone a major transformation as a result of fiscal pressures and overly optimistic expectations.

YSFP’s current role in dining is more the result of behind-the-scenes changes in Yale Dining Services than of student efforts to support sustainable farming. Interviews with officials and staff, as well as previously unpublished aspects of Yale’s relationship with Aramark, its dining services provider, depict an administration that quietly retreated from its initial enthusiasm with Aramark and chose to embrace the homegrown food initiative that is YSFP. Budgets were cut along the way, and policy decisions reduced food variety in favor of better quality. Aramark managers gradually filled positions previously held by Yale employees, changing the culture of dining staff in ways that some fear has handicapped leadership. And as managers now struggle to implement the expanding YSFP program while keeping costs to a minimum, some fear that the legacy of past years is dragging dining services down in a critical phase.

Under the terms of Yale’s contract with Aramark ­— a copy of which was obtained by the News — large incentives to control costs were built into the partnership from its early stages, foreshadowing current concerns among staff and union officials that fiscal pressures are compromising quality of service. But the relationship failed to live up to expectations, administration officials acknowledged this week, ultimately necessitating a radical policy shift and an economic opportunity for sustainable food to become a part of life at Yale.

A matter of cost?

Aramark’s increasing presence in the dining halls has created an atmosphere in which controlling costs is a priority. This philosophy has contributed to food shortages that have become a regular feature of late dinners, some staff, union officials and students said. In Yale’s Aramark contract, signed in 2000, bonus incentives built into the partnership make budget control a focus of the relationship. While some aspects of the contract have since changed, Associate Vice President for Student Financial and Administrative Services Ernst Huff said the bonuses survive to this day.

In addition to the regular service fee, Yale agreed to pay an incentive fee “equivalent to Ten Percent (10%) of the amount by which the actual operating results were less than the projected budget, up to a maximum incentive fee of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000) per Contract Year.”

The contract also provides a $20,000 incentive fee if Aramark improves customer satisfaction, as measured by dining surveys. But union leaders said the potentially larger budget incentive explains their own observations about Aramark’s sharp focus on cost control.

“I would believe that’s what’s running the whole place and causing the problems that they have,” Local 35 Chief Steward Meg Riccio said. “That’s why they’re not ordering the food — because their incentive is to cut.”

Aramark earned the budgetary incentive for the first time last year, Huff said. But there are safeguards in place to ensure that Aramark could not manipulate budgeting, he said, as Yale has the final word on how its money is spent. For example, Yale rejected a proposal to close Commons for dinner during the budget cuts of the 2004-’05 fiscal year.

“Dining Services’ budget is not determined by Aramark, and in fact there have been instances where Aramark has recommended some components of the budget that the University did not agree with,” Huff said.

Officials also said there has been no directive encouraging dining hall managers to order less food in order to meet budget. But some managers acknowledged that a general pressure to control costs has combined with other factors to exacerbate the problem of short-ordering. The main challenge is that the dining menus are rife with new YSFP recipes, and managers are struggling to predict each dish’s popularity among students, they said. Given that uncertainty, cost concerns sometimes lead them to err on the side of ordering too little rather than too much, they said.

“Reducing cost does have an impact, but I don’t think it’s the main reason we’re running out of food right now,” one manager said. “Because of the trial and error, it’s probably going to take the first semester to get it right.”

Some orders have fallen 50 percent short of student demand, the manager said, and a number of dining halls have resorted to an ad hoc bartering system in which they swap ingredients to keep supplies steady.

A mark on management

While food on the serving lines has changed noticeably, the structure of Dining Services itself has also transformed behind the scenes. Yale retained most of its dining hall leadership staff when Aramark signed on in 1998, but as University-hired managers left their posts, they were replaced by Aramark personnel. Aramark employees now hold about half of all dining hall management positions, Huff said.

A heavy workload, limited resources, and few reasons to stay led many to quit their jobs, forcing those who remain to constantly reshuffle, dining managers said.

“We have quite a large turnover of managers,” one dining hall manager said. “We do get shifted around a lot, depending on where we’re needed.”

The Timothy Dwight College dining hall, for example, has had nine managers in the last five years, Riccio said.

Dining Services officials said turnover peaked about three years ago, and since then the situation has steadily improved. Part of the reason dining managers sometimes rotate is that new opportunities give them more reason to stay, said Dining Services Executive Director Don McQuarrie, who is himself employed by Aramark.

“We want it to be relatively stable, but we need to recognize as well that people look for advancement, that younger people tend be aggressive and hungry and looking for opportunities,” he said.

But Riccio said major advancement opportunities are still lacking, leading both Yale and Aramark managers to look elsewhere. Yale has had four dining services directors since Aramark took over, she noted, and all of them were recruited from outside the University.

“There’s no more upward movement for a dining hall manager,” Riccio said. “If you aspire to a higher job, you’re not going to get it because some corporation member from Aramark is going to get it.”

Some dining hall managers acknowledged that the revolving door in their ranks has posed a problem.

One effect of the change, staff and union members say, is greater inconsistency in the way dining halls are run. Experienced Yale employees are replaced by younger imports from Aramark who run a tight ship but do not typically stay in the position long before they quit or are shuttled to different dining halls, which forces constant readjustments, staff said.

“Dining halls are fixed places with fixed crews, so they act as a team,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said. “When the leader of your team keeps changing, that has an undermining effect on the efficiency of the dining hall team.”

The dream that was Aramark

Yale’s relationship with Aramark began in 1998, amid complaints of poor service quality and concerns that an administration built around academics was unsuited to managing dining efficiently. The company already served 400 colleges and universities nationwide, as well as hospitals, businesses and prisons. In its proposal to Yale — a copy of which was obtained by the Yale Daily News — Aramark presented its vision for management alongside a cartoon of a bulldog in a chef’s hat.

“With your tri-centennial fast approaching, ARAMARK would be honored to become Yale’s Dining Services partner and accompany you into the 21st century,” the proposal reads. “Over the years we’ve acquired a reputation for providing customized services to satisfy each school’s unique needs. No two programs are alike!”

Dining Services’ budget deficit spiked by 50 percent in the year after Aramark took over, but the partners’ mutual optimism apparently continued. In their 2000 contract, Yale’s annual service fee to Aramark was scheduled to increase from $475,000 to $625,000 between July 2000 and June 2003.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon did not last. Students, dining staff, and Yale’s former food suppliers complained that the University was providing worse meals at a higher cost.

Administrators continued to show the public a confident face — in 2001, Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration Kemel Dawkins said concerns about mismanagement were “far overblown.” But this week, administrators acknowledged that by 2001 they had already amended the Aramark contract, slashing service fees significantly. Huff declined to specify the change, but said that even today Yale’s payments to Aramark do not approach the levels that were scheduled through 2003.

The problem was more of a miscalculation by both sides than a failure on Aramark’s part, Huff said. The University’s “unique needs” — 12 residential colleges, each with its own dining hall — presented too many inefficiencies for Aramark to tackle at once.

“Yale was probably somewhat naive in the original engagement,” Huff said. “Aramark might have expected that the environment wasn’t as complex as it is, and Yale might have expected that Aramark would have a greater impact than it did.”

A painful decision

The contract amendment freed some money in Dining Services’ budget, but financial challenges multiplied over the next few years. A University-wide 5 percent budget reduction in the 2004-’05 fiscal year forced administrators to cut costs, and labor contracts prohibited them from reducing staff salaries. As a result, officials said, the ultimate casualty — aside from the elimination of some management positions — was food variety: Red meat and fish were pulled from menus, replaced by the chicken and starch with which students have become so familiar.

That single cut, in retrospect, may have permanently transformed dining menus and fueled a perennial debate over quality versus variety of food. An analysis of dining surveys at the time showed that when overall satisfaction was low, students clamored for greater variety. But in situations where food quality was unusually high, as it was with the fledgling Sustainable Food Project in Berkeley College, students perceived a greater variety even when in reality offerings were fewer. The conclusion, dining officials said this week, was that while many students said they wanted more variety, they actually wanted better quality in their food.

The administration abruptly spun its procurement policy 180 degrees, a decision that until now has been largely unknown to University community but has been felt by many at the serving lines.

“The easiest way it was thought to meet customer demand was to grow the quantity or the variety,” Huff said. “It wasn’t until the food project that we said, wait a minute, this isn’t getting us anything.”

Pressured by budget reductions and faced with the reality that Aramark could not address all of Dining Services’ problems at once, officials chose to sacrifice food variety and focus their resources on quality instead. They found a logical vehicle in the Sustainable Food Project, a pilot program that had been launched in 2003 to bring fresh, locally-grown produce to the dining halls.

The Project has become highly popular, but some students and staff complain that the accompanying reduction in food variety is too high a price.

“The students in the past got everything that they asked for,” said Cielo Lizasuain, who worked as a University chef until this year. “Today what they call diversity is maybe putting ketchup on the table.”

Administrators pushed ahead with YSFP despite such reservations, abolishing Berkeley’s special “test kitchen” status this year and committing 40 percent of the University-wide menu to sustainable food.

Despite complaints about management rotation and cost-cutting, Dining Services appears to have made progress in increasing customer satisfaction over the last few years. Aramark started meeting its service quality incentive two years ago, probably with help from YSFP’s expanding presence in the dining halls, Huff said. Student ratings of their overall dining experience improved by 13.4 percent between fall 2003 and fall 2005, though the ratings actually peaked in fall 2004. And in a step perhaps indicative of sustainable food’s place in Yale’s future, Dining Services is abandoning Aramark’s annual satisfaction survey for a new homegrown survey that is more customized toward Yale and YSFP.

YSFP Co-Director Josh Viertel said the information officials collect this year, as well as the efficiency with which they can implement the program, will prove vital in cementing sustainable food’s role at Yale

“We’ll learn a lot this year, and some of that will help us to do it smarter and for less money, but fundamentally sustainable food costs more than unsustainable food,” Viertel said. “It’s a good challenge, we’d like to do more of it, and this year is going to teach where and how to respond to that.”