Students returning to campus this spring semester may have noticed new options in their dining halls. These changes, enacted in response to student satisfaction survey results, were rolled out on Jan. 6. The overall cost of campus dining has not changed, according to Brandeis Dining Services’ General Manager Andy Allen in a Feb. 20 interview with the Justice.

Changes to dining hall options

Sherman Dining Hall, which underwent the most changes this semester, has new stir fry and miso soup stations, as well as an expanded salad bar and a power greens station, Allen explained. The Sherman salad bar also now often serves grapes or blueberries. Usdan Dining Hall has seen more minor changes, Allen said, which include increased stir fry options and reworked menus. Other changes detailed in a Brandeis Dining press release include an all-day salad bar and more variety of breakfast food offerings. The redesigned Stein menu also launched this semester, with more vegetarian options and new offerings, although this was a longer-term project than many of the other changes.

The process of altering campus dining options varies by the scale and complexity of the changes, Director of University Services Jeff Hershberger explained in a Feb. 24 interview with the Justice. Major adjustments, such as to meal plan pricing, are made through addendums to the University’s dining contract, which are generally signed in July or August. The University will fund other large changes, such as those involving equipment or dining venues, but the dining contractor has “leeway” for smaller purchases.

The recent dining changes have not affected the overall cost of dining, Allen said in the same interview. To accomplish this, Sodexo uses a technique called “menu engineering,” Allen explained. Menu engineering “is an empirical way to evaluate restaurant menu pricing” that “involves categorizing all menu items … based on the profitability and popularity of each item,” according to a Feb. 20 Toast article. It is traditionally used to increase restaurant profits, but Brandeis Dining uses the methodology to adjust how they spend their existing budget on the food served in dining halls.

The idea is to design a menu that balances expensive food items with cheaper ones so that dining does not have to purchase large quantities of expensive options. Allen gave the example of serving salmon — an expensive dish — on the same day as mac and cheese — a popular, but inexpensive alternative — to keep overall costs low. “It’s really about creating options to influence your choices, and … the collective amount you’re spending,” Allen explained.

Hershberger confirmed that no new equipment was purchased by the University for these changes, that they did not involve an addendum and that the overall cost of dining to the University had not changed.

Sodexo did make small purchases to accommodate these changes. For instance, they purchased new pans to increase the variety of options available at the Sherman salad bar display. Allen confirmed in a Feb. 25 email to the Justice that this purchase was “self-funded.”

Dining employment

Dining employment has also not drastically changed as a result of these changes, Allen said. Although they hired a few new employees, for instance to operate the stir fry station, “overall, we have a great union team, and it’s about just spreading the work out,” he said. In the same email to the Justice, Allen wrote, “Any labor changes to operations are internal to our group.”

“I do know that a lot of the changes at Sherman had an impact on labor,” Hershberger confirmed, explaining that some people were moved around as stations were added.

Reorganizing how labor is shared between workers “is no small thing to people whose ability to support themselves and their families is contingent upon maintaining the salary and hours they fought for during last year’s contract negotiations,” Jenni Corwin ’22, a student activist and a member of campus organizations involved in campaigning for better dining, said in a Feb. 27 email to the Justice.

Brandeis Labor Coalition declined to comment on the impact of these changes.

Reacting to the student feedback

Since these changes have been made within the existing dining contract and have not adjusted overall cost, members of the Brandeis community may wonder why they are just being made now. These changes were made in response to, and guided by, the 2019 results of Sodexo’s annual dining satisfaction survey, Allen said.

The survey was administered between Oct. 21 and Nov. 2, 2019, and received 469 responses, according to the Sodexo press release. 

Student satisfaction with Sherman Non-Kosher ranked at only 54%, compared to 64% for Lower Usdan and 74% for Sherman Kosher, per the release. All other dining locations on campus earned above 75% student satisfaction. Allen pointed to the low score for Sherman non-Kosher to explain why that location had received the bulk of the changes.

Brandeis Dining Marketing Specialist Emily Baksa, who joined Allen for the Feb. 20 interview, explained that these annual surveys are a cumulative process. She joined the University three years ago and has conducted the three most recent surveys. “This was the year I felt like ‘Okay, I really feel like I understand what the themes [of student responses] are and what our opportunities are,’” she said.

Additionally, Baksa, Allen and Hershberger all stressed the importance of the Senate Dining Committee in guiding these changes and dining improvements in general. Allen cited the increased engagement with the committee as “the biggest difference this year” in getting student feedback. “Most colleges, if you can get two or three students to show up to a dining committee once a month, you consider yourself lucky. We meet weekly and we have a very vibrant group of students, and we also bring most of the management team.”

Senator-at-Large Nancy Zhai ’22, chair of the Dining Committee, sees her committee as “liaisons” for the student body. “We work together with Brandeis Dining to create changes, while also holding them accountable in ensuring that students’ major concerns are seriously considered, properly addressed and actively resolved,” she wrote in a Feb. 24 statement to the Justice. She highlighted the committee’s impact in the areas of vegan and vegetarian options, availability of cultural foods and accurate allergen information.

“As a chef, I’ve worked in restaurants and hotels, and college dining is by far the most difficult,” Allen said. People don’t go to restaurants more than a few times a week, but “we’re asking students to pay three months of restaurant food in advance, and then not get bored.” Brandeis is “the most challenging environment” Allen has worked in, with the combination of Kosher and non-Kosher dining and “folks who have some very strong feelings about what they’d like to eat,” he said.

Both Baksa and Allen see Sodexo as improving its relationship with the Brandeis community and building “momentum” in addressing community concerns. Baksa encouraged students to continue to give feedback, emphasizing the importance of hearing from the student body. Students are increasingly providing feedback, she said, which she sees as a sign that students are starting to “trust the system” and recognize that their feedback is heard. Students can provide feedback on Brandeis dining social media, as well as through text and online forms.

Hershberger agreed with Baksa and Allen’s assessment that there is a “stronger partnership” with Sodexo than in the past.

The context: a new contract looms

All of these changes occur within the context of the University’s search for its next dining contractor. The University and Sodexo “mutually agreed in September [2019] to end Sodexo’s current contract three years early,” per a Nov. 5, 2019 Justice article. Sodexo is currently competing to earn the next contract, which will begin on July 1.

The University laid out what it wants from the next dining contract in its Request for Proposals, which was crafted through community feedback in the fall and winter.

The University has narrowed the search down to four vendors — Sodexo, Bon Appetit, Harvest Table, and Chartwells. This week, on March 4 and 5, these vendors will visit campus and make their case for being the University’s next contractor.

Hershberger said the University is “keeping an eye on the ball” to make sure that the priorities in the RFP are addressed in the vendor presentations and in the new contract. He did caution, however, that it’s “too early to tell what we can afford and what we can’t afford.”

He also emphasized the importance of the personality of the contractor’s management team and the relationship they will form with the University community. RFP presentations are normally done by companies’ sales teams, he explained, but Brandeis has asked “for their proposed management team to have the bulk of the presentation time” instead. The goal of this is to see how these leadership teams interact with students and engage them for feedback.  

Remaining concerns

Hershberger, Baksa and Allen stated that the student response to these new changes has been positive. However, student concerns remain.

“A multinational corporation with a market capitalization of over $20 billion should not be asking for accolades because they ceded to a few requests made by our student body, who are forced to pay thousands a year for their meal plans in order to live on campus,” Corwin wrote in an email to the Justice. “Additionally, while I do appreciate the updates made to Sherman, stir fry does not absolve Sodexo of neglecting to acknowledge larger, more pressing student demands,” she added, calling for a guarantee of worker retention in the new dining contract and the University cutting ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Brandeis branch of Uprooted and Rising is a campaign calling for Brandeis to switch to in-house dining instead of signing a new contract with an outsourced dining company. The group raises concerns that the companies that are competing for the new contract “will always be connected to atrocities in the world, like the burning of the Amazon rainforest and the exploitation of immigrant labor,” as well as underpaying employees and providing over-priced and low-quality food, per a statement from the organization that was shared with the Justice. In the statement, the group argues that their feedback during the RFP process has been ignored.