Transition Continues After Sodexo Contract Termination

Pomona College took further steps last week to transition its dining hall management to self-operation, following the college’s announcement that its contract with Sodexo will be terminated in January.

Two applicants were reviewed last week for the position of General Manager of the dining halls, which was vacated by Sodexo’s David Janosky in the spring. Since Janosky’s departure, Pomona has been operating without a General Manager.

One of the applicants was most recently the Production Manager/Chef at San Gabriel Valley Hospital, working under Aramark Healthcare Services, and previously worked as the General Manager of dining services at California Institute of Technology. The other applicant was an Executive Chef at Occidental College from 1993-2001 and is currently employed as the Food Service Director at a foster care and adoption center.

The applicants had several meetings with dining services staff, including Assistant Vice President and Director of Facilities and Campus Services Bob Robinson and Assistant Director of Campus Services Margie McKenna.

They also met with the General Manager Search Committee, which consists of Vice President for Human Resources Brenda Rushforth, Manager for Conference and Event Planning Janice O’Neill, Oldenborg Director Rita Bashaw, and Oldenborg Food Service Coordinator David Escamilla. One staff worker from the dining halls sat on the committee, along with three student representatives—ASPC President Stephanie Almeida PO ’11, North Campus Representative Amal Karim PO ’11, and South Campus Representative Ian Gallogly PO ’13.

Robinson said he hopes to have the General Manager hired within the next few weeks, at which point the college will begin interviewing candidates for Executive Chef.

The entire hiring process will hopefully be completed by the end of the semester, and the new management team should be assembled in time for the official transition to self-operation in January, Robinson said.

By ending their contract with Sodexo, Pomona will also become less dependent on Sysco, a massive food supplier and one of Sodexo’s major partners. According to Robinson and McKenna, Dining Services has already begun searching for other food vendors.

“We’re using a group to help us identify other sources,” Robinson told the ASPC Food Committee on Wednesday. McKenna told the same committee that the college had “already been approached by some local farmers.”

While the contract with Sodexo doesn’t actually expire until next spring, the college took advantage of a clause within the contract that allows it to terminate the relationship at any time with at least 60 days notice, Robinson said.

“It may sound strange, but it was the easiest time operationally to do it,” he said.

Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson agreed.

“We chose this time of year because…it will give us some time over winter break to test our systems and make sure we haven’t forgotten something,” she said. “Hopefully, when all of the [students] come back from winter break, the food will be at least as good, maybe better.”

President David Oxtoby said there was no reason to delay the transition.

“Once you’ve made a decision to do something, you should just do it,” he said. “To be candid, we feel the performance of Sodexo has really declined in the past few months.”

College administrators said costs are not expected to soar after the transition, but they acknowledged that cost savings weren’t the motivation for the change.

“We’re not making this change to make money,” Oxtoby said. “We’re really thinking about two things: the quality of the food—the whole food experience for students—and secondly, the whole management aspect, that we want to run this in a way we’re proud of. When you have another layer of management sitting in the middle, it’s hard to do that.”

According to Sisson, the college brought in representatives from an outside food management company, Food Solutions, Inc., to do an assessment and audit of the college’s dining operations. One of the candidates for General Manager is currently employed by Food Solutions.

“Some of the Food Solutions ideas suggest that we might save money going forward,” Sisson said. “However, I’m not counting on that, because I think there are going to be expenses involved in the transition itself.” Sisson pointed to the replacement of computers and software systems to track purchases and food costs, services that were previously provided by Sodexo, as additional costs for the college.

“In the interim I don’t expect to see costs savings,” she said.

To prepare for the transition, administrators and dining services staff researched other schools that successfully self-operate their dining halls. By ending the contract with Sodexo, Pomona will become the only 5C college that doesn’t outsource management of its dining halls. However, Oxtoby said other colleges under dining hall self-operation, like Bryan Mawr College in Pennsylvania and Grinnell College in Iowa, have successful dining services operations that are able to do more unique things with their food.

Oxtoby said he’d like to see more dining hall products from local farms, a trend that Sodexo had begun but which he says was always and only in response to requests from the school and students.

“We’ve pushed them in that direction and they’ve responded, but it’s always been a push,” he said. “We want management to be creative, to think all the time about how we can do better.”

When asked if the Workers for Justice movement influenced the college’s decision, administrators said it played a minor role but was not the main factor.

“It wasn’t a driver, but it was a benefit,” Sisson said. “We’ll have one workforce here, with one management, and hopefully that will, at a minimum, reduce, and at a maximum, eliminate, any confusion in what the values are, [and] how we want our workforce to be treated.”

Sisson said Sodexo employees could be retained as employees of the college, if they choose to apply for a position.

“This is not necessarily about the people at Sodexo, [so] they will have the opportunity to apply,” she said. “It’s just that we have a non-compete clause in our Sodexo contract, so Sodexo has to officially release them in order for us to accept their application.”

Both Sisson and Robinson said they don’t expect to see major changes in the dining halls once Sodexo has left, at least at first.

“In the sense of what happens when you come in the door, it really shouldn’t feel any different,” Sisson said.

Robinson agreed.

“I don’t think, initially, students will notice a whole lot of changes,” he said.

In the long run, however, Oxtoby said he hopes to see changes in how food is bought and prepared.

“I’d like to see us go to more purchasing of raw food items and creating food items on site, as opposed to just ordering pre-made things,” he said. “If we could order some basic, fresh ingredients, and do more cooking on site, it’s more sustainable, it’s probably less expensive, and it’s healthier.”

He also hopes to expand the role of the dining halls as academic institutions.

“I’d also like to see part of this involved with education of students,” he said. “Part of education is learning about nutrition and food and so forth. I’d like that to be a more visible part of the dining halls.”

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