Food facilities in line for $7-million upgrade

A sports bar-and-grill, a Ben & Jerry’s retail outlet and snack carts are just some of the innovations that may be developed on campus following the award of the dining services contract to vending and food-services company Aramark.

With the new dining-services contract, effective Aug. 16, including a guarantee of $7-million capital investment, students are likely to see significant changes in Tampa campus dining facilities during the next five years. With Aramark anxious to recoup its outlay, many of the enhancements are planned to complete in the next 18 months.

A monitoring group of students, faculty and auxiliary services staff will be formed to consider which elements of Aramark’s proposal will be developed. Among the proposals that will be considered are a sports bar-and-grill located in the Marshall Center, the conversion of the Andros and Argos dining facilities from cafeteria to “up-front-cooking” restaurants and mobile snack carts. The monitoring group will also consider the addition of brand-name retail outlets, such as Einstein Bros. Bagels, Ben & Jerry’s, Subway, Fresh Food Company, Burger King and Java City.

The new contract will also see a simplification of meal plan options including a “bonus bucks” system giving students the option to eat at the brand-name retail outlets on campus. Jeff Mack, director for auxiliary services, said the cost of meal plans would increase this fall.

“I think we’re going to see a slight increase. Based on the proposals, about a 3-percent increase. We have normally had at least a 3-percent increase in the past years; it’s even been more than that some years. I think it’s reasonable, certainly when we see the potential of what we’re going to get on our campus from (the proposal).”

The number of meal-plan options offered in the fall will be reduced. Though the details are still being finalized, Mack said he expected there to be a choice of unlimited, 15- or 10-meal-per-week plans and a block-meal plan of 150 meals per semester. Additional voluntary meal plans will also be offered.

“This past year we had 13 or 15 meal plans. That will be reduced this year down to about 8 or so that we’re looking at,” said Mack.

The proposed renovations to the residential dining areas in the Argos and Andros complexes would see a switch from cafeteria to “up-front-cooking” facilities.

“Instead of having the food prepared in the back, that you put in a cafeteria line, you have different food stations throughout the facility,” said Mack. “The chef is preparing the food right there so you see what you’re getting. It’s hot, and you can choose the final product and how it’s being prepared.”

Students would be able to choose from different “up-front-cooking” counters offering choices such as pasta, home cooking, grill, salads and world cuisine. Mack said he is optimistic that these changes, if recommended by the monitoring group, could be implemented by the fall of 2003.

“The advantage to the university is that we can get the changes quickly; the advantage to our partner, the food-service company, is they can realize sales in those facilities much quicker,” said Mack.

Mack said there was not enough time to complete any renovations prior to the return of students in the fall, but some changes, such as an extension of the opening hours of food facilities in the popular Andros complex, where weekend opening is also being contemplated, could be implemented in the near future.

Internet surveys and student involvement in the evaluation process to determine the new food-provider, said Mack, had highlighted students’ desires for more brand-name facilities.

“One of the things that was asked for is some branded concepts and that’s why you see Subway, Pizza Hut and Burger King as some of the brands that we’re looking at.”

One of the major enticements of the Aramark proposal is the proposed sports bar-and-grill. To be sited in the Marshall Center, the cost for the bar is estimated at $350,000 and, if agreed by the university, could be open as early as January 2003 with the proviso that any renovations would have to fit in with the on-going Marshall Center redevelopment. The on-campus food provider does have a liquor license and would be able to serve alcohol. The facility would be open from 11:00 a.m. to midnight.

A contract based on Aramark’s proposal is currently being drawn up and will be signed prior to Aug. 15 when the contract with existing food-service provider Sodexho expires.

Auxiliary services director, Jeff Mack, said one of the aims for dining services was to expand into new areas of the campus. One method being considered is the use of mobile snack carts.

“Snack carts could be used throughout the campus in areas where there is a deficiency of food outlets,” said Mack.

Mack said that although the dining-services contract was awarded to a single food-provider, with the existence of on- and off-campus brand-name retail outlets, it was far from being a monopoly.

“Anyone can get in their car and go off campus,” said Mack. “We want (Aramark) to have to earn their business.”

The hope for the new contract, said Mack, is to improve facilities, while at the same time increasing the range of food offered to students without compromising value.

“We’re excited about the prospect of expanding and having these opportunities to provide students with more variety,” said Mack. “Aramark is the one that provided the best proposal for us to do that.”