Food plays a major role in our lives. Far more than just providing sustenance, the food we eat and the meals we share help establish a culture, frame our celebrations and serve as a common ground. Breaking bread shapes who we are.
Jim Booth, executive director of Ancillary Services, recognizes that, and he also is keenly aware that food services at the University of Lethbridge have been lacking.
"Food service is a gap right now in the student experience being offered by the University," says Booth. "It needs to go from mediocre to great – we need that wow factor."
To that end, for the first time in 30 years, the University has extended a Request for Proposal (RFP) to three food service providers as it looks to completely overhaul its delivery of catering and food services.
"We strive to be a destination university and the student experience on campus is paramount to achieving that goal," says Booth. "Food services touches everybody multiple times in a day. It can make your day or it can ruin your day."
Sodexo, and its previous incarnations, has been the sole food service provider to the University since 1982, and over the course of the last 30 years, its relationship with the U of L community has seen both ups and downs.
"That continual service I think has served us well," says Booth. "I think it's been a good partnership, but this past 24 months has been a real challenge and they've had great difficulty in getting the right people, the right leadership to achieve the consistency of service and quality we require, whether it was in retail or catering services."
Booth initiated an expression of interest to feel out the food services marketplace and found several providers eager to come to campus. After reviewing initial proposals, an invitation-only RFP was sent out to Aramark, Chartwells and the incumbent provider, Sodexo.
"It's time for us to revisit how we deliver food services to our campus community," says Booth. "Looking forward to the next 10 years and beyond, we need someone who can keep things fresh and edgy. What we are faced with today is a need to differentiate ourselves. It is all about the experience and we need a partner that can deliver that experience."
And while the RFP is a nuts and bolts logistical document, Booth intends to mesh that with community feedback gleaned from a series of surveys and World Cafés that will be initiated later this month.
"In the past, we've had surveys that asked the transactional questions and we've responded by changing menus and so forth, but we've never really thought beyond that," says Booth. "This is about defining our culture, about finding what is unique to the University of Lethbridge and how food services relates to our strategic goals and priorities. If we get the right partner, our food services will fully mesh with that thinking, which will make them very successful and will also help us create that student experience we desire."
A total of three World Cafés will be held, Sept. 25 (9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 4 p.m.) and Sept. 26 (9 a.m. to noon), in the Students' Union Ballroom A. Sessions will be open to anyone interested in attending, including students, staff and faculty. Another dedicated to residence students and those individuals who primarily use the catering services is also planned.
As well, surveys targeting the general University community, residence students and catering clients, will take place the weeks of Sept. 24 and Oct. 1.
"This is our opportunity to really sit down and discuss what food services can and should be at the University of Lethbridge," says Booth. "This will add the colour and flavor of our institution to these organizations and how they interpret the results and how they respond will be critical."
Following the close of the RFP on Oct. 25, a committee will review the submissions from the competing service providers throughout the month of November. A new contract will be signed on May 1, 2013, allowing for a summer transition and training period before a soft launch and then full launch of new services in the fall when students return to campus.
"It comes down to people and to leadership," says Booth of who will win the contract. "It also comes down to having individuals that are a part of our community and consider this a partnership – they have to be as committed to the student experience as we are."
GET THE FACTS
· Booth estimates the new food services contract to be worth $40 to $50 million over its 10-year course
· Part of the new contract will require the service provider to bring in capital dollars for renovations of food service areas
· Some of the challenges facing food service providers include responding to individual dietary needs such as food allergies and sensitivities, meeting the demands of an ever-growing international student segment, incorporating local brands and presenting healthier eating alternatives
· To take part in the World Café sessions, contact email@example.com
This story first appeared in the September 2012 issue of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.