The University is in the beginning stages of developing its Request for Proposals for a new food services vendor and is seeking community feedback about its dining program.

The RFP steering committee and the TMC Group, a consulting group retained by the University for the duration of the RFP process, co-hosted two open forums on Oct. 28 and 29 with the goal of eliciting feedback about the University’s dining program. Using community input and discussions with various key stakeholders and administrators, consultants from the TMC Group will write the RFP within the next few weeks. 

After the RFP is released in mid-November, five or six food service companies will be invited to submit proposals, including the “Big Three” food service companies — Compass, Aramark and Sodexo — along with two or three smaller vendors, TMC Group consultant Ted Mayer said during the Oct. 29 forum. Although a number of outside vendors will be invited to present plans, Sodexo will also be participating in the RFP process and could end up with the new contract, Director of Dining Services Jeff Hershberger told the Justice in an Oct. 2 interview.

The University and Sodexo mutually agreed in September to end Sodexo’s current contract three years early to facilitate the University’s planned reexamination of its dining program and negotiation of a new dining contract, Hershberger said during the Oct. 2 interview. The contract, a 10-year deal which was supposed to last through June 2023, is now slated to expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2020. 

Going into the negotiations, both parties were resolved to bring the contract to an end in a mutually beneficial way, and there were no tensions or disputes throughout the negotiation process, Hershberger said. 

“It was clear to both parties that in order to make the necessary changes to enhance student satisfaction, address the mandatory meal plan challenges for students with apartments, and reinvent what food on campus will look like through the lens of President Liebowitz’s Framework for our Future, all parties must start anew,” General Manager of Brandeis Dining Services Andy Allen wrote in an email to the Justice on Friday. 

“A fair process to determine the cost of the new dining program should include opportunities for other dining vendors to compete to provide … the best program for the community. I can speak for my entire team by saying that we are excited to see what the community comes up with for priorities for dining so we have the opportunity to enhance the experience for the campus,” Allen wrote.

There will be a mandatory bidders meeting in December to go through the RFP and to gauge interest, Mayer said. Bidders will then be invited one at a time to visit campus so they can meet with students and better understand the University’s culture. Proposals will be due in February, and the steering committee will whittle down the number of eligible vendors to two or three contenders. Negotiations will take place in March and the final contract will be awarded in April. The transition period will commence in June and the new contract will come into effect on July 1, per Mayer’s presentation at the Oct. 29 forum.

Throughout the RFP process, the University will consider both financial and operational aspects of the individual proposals, Mayer said. Because some accounts held by these companies operate more effectively than others, the University will need to evaluate any disparities between accounts and determine whether the problems are the fault of the companies or the universities.

Part of the companies’ proposals will involve how they will handle the transition period between Sodexo and the new vendor. For new vendors, this process can come with the challenge of how quickly to implement change in the dining halls and make lasting progress so students notice an improvement in quality. If Sodexo is awarded a new contract, however, its challenge will be reinventing itself, Mayer said.

“If the selection process is done thoughtfully, then [the] transition should go smoothly with a marked improvement in food and service,” Mayer wrote in an email to the Justice on Monday.

One point of discussion was whether the University should subcontract with a corporate vendor or establish its own in-house dining program. The University used to have in-house dining services, but discontinued the program and switched to using outside contractor companies after contracting with Aramark in 2000, per a Sept. 23, 2003 Justice article.

Returning to an in-house dining program from an outsourced contract would be very difficult because the infrastructure to undertake it would need to be put in place over a long period of time, Mayer said. Food service companies purchase food, handle labor disputes and provide security and a guarantee of a continuation of service if a problem arises with the management team. 

Based on Brandeis’ future plans and present needs, switching back to an in-house dining program “would not be a prudent undertaking at this point,” Mayer said during the Oct. 29 forum.

Brandeis Labor Coalition President Alina Sipp-Alpers ’21 said in an interview with the Justice on Sunday that she believes that reverting to an in-house dining program would benefit workers, students and the Waltham community.

“That looks like doing some cooking on campus but also partnering with local farms and restaurants in Waltham to have higher-quality food at lower cost, to be more connected to our community, to be more connected to our roots in Waltham, to help mitigate some of the gentrification that Brandeis causes in the Waltham community and to stop feeding into these big corporate companies,” Sipp-Alpers said.

Although Sipp-Alpers said she sees in-house dining as beneficial to the community, she said the BLC’s main focus is on worker retention. During the transition period to a new dining program, the workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 26, would have to negotiate a new contract with the vendor — less than a year after the union signed its latest agreement with Sodexo. UNITE HERE Local 26 representative Lior Appel-Kraut did not respond to a request for comment.

“Although historically there’s no reason for us to think that they’re going to lose their jobs, the University has made it very clear that that’s not a priority of theirs, so the workers and BLC recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done in the advocacy for worker retention,” Sipp-Alpers said.

Food service companies tend to adopt the terms of old union agreements, and many employees have been with Brandeis Dining Services from the in-house era through Aramark and now with Sodexo, Mayer said. “I have never known a situation where the food service provider did not pick up the current employees,” he said. Additionally, part of the RFP will ask how companies will retain and train current employees.

—Noah Zeitlin contributed reporting.