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In Focus: Food fight: Students, workers frustrated after nuCuisine slashes dining hours

Ally Mutnick, Development Editor

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Ariel Malloy went down to the Norris University Center food court just before 3 p.m. at the beginning of Fall Quarter, only to find most stations closing.

“I walked up at 2:58 to get something,” the Weinberg and Communication junior said. “Everything was shut down and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Varsity Grill and the alternating Wildcat Wok and Pasta Bowl station in Willie’s Food Court are no longer open for dinner, closing at 3 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. most days.

(nuCuisine reduces hours for food court, Frontera Fresco)

Malloy is a vegan, so her eating choices are already limited. The loss of dinner hours in some food court stations, and the closing of three restaurants replaced by Frontera Fresco in November 2012, has restricted her eating at Norris.

“This quarter is by far the greatest frequency that I have eaten off campus,” she said. “I don’t have options.”

But students are not alone in disliking nuCuisine’s recent overhaul of hours and offerings, which University officials say is meant to improve campus dining while minimizing labor costs. Workers at multiple campus dining locations complain of hour cuts and little warning about schedule changes. Some have been left scrambling for extra shifts to get enough hours each week.

“They really don’t consult with us when it comes down to the business,” said Andre Banks, a union representative for Unite Here Local 1, the union for NU’s employees from Sodexo, the company that runs nuCuisine. “Within our contract, we don’t really have a say so on hours or how they run their business.”

Changes in cuisine

Since the start of Fall Quarter, campus dining has undergone major shifts.

The Great Room is closed. Subway replaced the Norris sandwich and salad stations. Fran’s Cafe, Frontera Fresco and half of the Norris food court slashed their hours. Allison dining hall added weekend hours, while 1835 Hinman dining hall is now shuttered Saturdays and Sundays. Foster-Walker Complex debuted a late-night take-out program.

Opening at 11 a.m., the grill and the stir fry and pasta stations now close at 3 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. Subway, which debuted in early October, opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 9 p.m. An Indian food station joined the food court for lunch.

Citing budgetary concerns, University officials also altered Frontera’s hours. The Mexican grill cut its breakfast options and now opens at 11 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. Frontera rescinded its late-night options during the week. The restaurant shuts down completely at 7 p.m. instead of offering a limited menu until 10 p.m.

The Great Room, a former late-night location on Haven Street, is now open by reservation only after it was repurposed as a space for student events.

(Great Room closing, Allison opening on weekends among nuCuisine changes)

The Norris schedule changes were made over the summer in a joint decision by nuCuisine, Norris staff and Student Affairs following an analysis of Norris data. University officials say they stemmed from low traffic and low sales.

“We want to minimize the labor that’s around the evening hours,” said Steve Mangan, district manager for nuCuisine. “We can’t have everything open all the time when there’s very small amounts of traffic.”

Timeline: Changing Norris options

Timeline JS by Cat Zakrzewski/The Daily Northwestern

‘These are people’s lives’

Students are not the only ones affected by the hour cuts.

Workers at multiple dining locations across campus, including the Norris food court, Fran’s, Frontera and Hinman, have reported losing hours this quarter.

The nuCuisine contract guarantees only 37.5 hours a week, said Banks, the union representative, but that was not heavily enforced until this year. Workers had typically been given more hours, he said.

Some employees report not getting their guaranteed hours each week, specifically those whose dining locations faced hour cuts.

Banks, who works at Sargent dining hall, said all nuCuisine workers recently received raises, but the loss of hours negated the increased wages.

One Norris worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, reported dropping from about 37 or 38 hours a week to 24 or 25 hours after the food court closures. The worker has been taking weekend shifts and spots at other University functions to compensate for lost hours.

“I’ve been working my off days. I’ve been working later,” the Norris worker said. “If I want to work at the C-store, I can get more hours, but I have to wait until someone doesn’t want it. I’m going here and going there just to be able to make up that money.”

The worker said during Family Weekend she noticed parents were also concerned about what their students eat on the weekends, something University President Morton Schapiro said came up during an event he attended Family Weekend.

Mangan denies any retail changes have cut workers’ hours. The addition of Frontera and Subway added jobs, Mangan said, noting his employee count has risen by more than 30 in the last two years.

If some station lost hours, workers moved to other locations that needed more labor, he said.

“I hear some questions about the workers being displaced, and that’s just false,” Mangan said. “There’s no basis to that.”

As the union steward for Norris and Plex, Banks said other stewards have received complaints from nuCuisine employees. Union representatives have a meeting scheduled for Monday to discuss next steps.

Peoples Lives

“We’re trying to fight for more hours,” he said. “Campus-wide, all the union stewards have been hearing the same thing about the hours being cut.”

The late notice about campus dining hour changes resulted from inefficient communication between Sodexo and the University, Banks said. Sodexo employees told him they were waiting on the University to provide the hour changes, which were relayed at “the last minute.”

Contractually, workers do not have a say in hours or overall management of the place they work, Banks said.

With significant hour cuts at Frontera, one employee reported dropping from 60 hours per week to 35 hours, losing overtime opportunities and regular hours. The worker says she has seen many frustrated nuCuisine employees.

“People are angry. People can’t really do day-to-day living,” the employee said. “All these bouncing around — these are people’s lives and well-beings at stake.”

A lack of transparency, student input

This summer, one Norris worker called her superior with a question about payment. When the worker asked about Fall Quarter schedules, she was told Subway was replacing the salad and sandwich station and food court hours had shifted.

The worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said supervisors did not provide workers with adequate notice about schedule changes.

“If I didn’t ask what’s going on, (my superior) wouldn’t have said anything,” the worker said. “I wouldn’t have known until the opening meeting.”

Multiple workers confirmed the first time they heard about the hour changes was at their opening staff meeting before fall classes started.

Malloy and other students recall learning of the hour changes only when they went to eat in Norris at the beginning of the year. Associated Student Government also had no prior warning or involvement with the decision, said Alex Van Atta, ASG executive vice president.

In surveys and interactions, many students suggested Subway as an option and complained about the greasy pizza at Sbarro, which Frontera replaced last year, officials say. Kelly Schaefer, Norris’ executive director, said the decision was difficult because she did not want to upset any students, but overall she believes the reaction has been positive.

Despite poor communication, Van Atta said he thinks officials intended to improve dining.

He said Schaefer apologized for not letting ASG know about the hour changes in Norris.

“If I had it to do over again I would have announced the changes ahead of time and asked students to react that way,” Schaefer said.

Cutting costs

NuCuisine is funded by student meal plans and campus dining purchases. When the cost of food goes up or business goes down, Mangan said he doesn’t turn to the University for more money.

norrisinfocus

Schaefer analyzes Norris data frequently, tracking the sales and traffic counts to see what students buy and at what time. Operating at last year’s hours, Norris dining was struggling, she said.

“In the student center, break even is OK,” Schaefer said. “But we weren’t there, though. We weren’t at a break even.”

Frontera especially had unsustainable hours last year, Schaefer and Mangan said. In addition to closing breakfast and late-night hours, the Mexican grill also cut back weekend shifts, closing completely on Sundays after previously being open from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday hours changed from noon to 7 p.m. to 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mangan said.

Some students see the trend as an overall reduction of dining choices in Norris, especially for dinner.

Communication junior Jacob Trauberman said he found the loss of food court stations for dinner disappointing. Dinner is a choice between Subway and Frontera, he said, and after 7 p.m. the only choice is Subway.

“As juniors we’ve seen Norris undergo a lot of changes,” he said. “When I was here as a freshman, it was awesome to have so many options.”

Frontera finances

Opening in late-November 2012, Frontera replaced Sbarro, Crepe Bistro, Jamba Juice and the made-to-order nuSushi station, which relocated to the food court.

Jamba Juice didn’t get a lot of business in the winter, and despite its popular Happy Hour special, Crepe Bistro didn’t generate enough sales either, said Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, assistant vice president for student auxiliary services, who also oversees Norris. Sbarro was replaced by North Shore Pizza Company, and nuSushi is now available pre-packaged in the C-Store.

NU is the first campus site for Frontera, created by celebrity chef Rick Bayless. Administrators laud its organic and locally sourced ingredients and wide appeal.

“It’s an important partnership,” Schaefer said. “It’s a very high-profile piece for the Northwestern food program.”

However, Norris officials recognize the high prices made the establishment expensive for students. Frontera went from operating 84 hours a week last academic year to 44 hours this year — an about 48 percent reduction, according to numbers confirmed by nuCuisine.

“If we don’t have a critical mass of customers, I’ve got five or six people standing there with high labor cost,” Mangan said. “So we need to make those hard decisions.”

After student complaints about Frontera’s expensive prices, nuCuisine increased equivalency meal values this year so students could purchase more with each meal, Payne-Kirchmeier said. Introducing Subway was meant to be a low-cost alternative, Schaefer said, and is performing better than she had expected.

Although officials tout high traffic at Subway, students point out that after 7 p.m. it is essentially the only made-to-order dining option in Norris. Some students are also still concerned about Frontera’s prices and a la carte pricing.

Communication junior Khari Shelton said even with the increased meal equivalency value, he still finds Frontera too expensive.

“I still don’t think you can get a full meal at Frontera without having to use a meal plus,” he said. “You can’t get chips or a drink. Your meal is like a sandwich. It’s just really frustrating.”

Frontera initially seemed successful, but after a certain amount of time restaurants lose their novelty, Van Atta said. Students’ chief complaint is cost, he added.

Rumors among students, workers and administrators indicate a Dunkin’ Donuts will replace the south end of Frontera, which serves soft-serve ice cream and coffee.

Schaefer said NU had “challenged” Frontera to reinvent the south end, adding officials are still tweaking the area. Multiple Frontera workers said that section of the restaurant does not receive much traffic.

Mangan, Schaefer and Payne-Kirchmeier declined to comment on a potential Dunkin’ Donuts, but Schapiro alluded to the possibility in an interview with The Daily earlier this month.

“I do these firesides all the time, and I was at some sorority — we were talking about it, and I think I mentioned Double D,” Schapiro said. “I said, ‘Well, Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts are there,’ and they said, ‘Dunkin’ Donuts?’”

A lack of late night

Before being replaced by Frontera, Crepe Bistro was open until 11 p.m. on weeknights and 9 p.m. on weekends. Jamba Juice was open until 7 p.m. every day except Saturday, and Sbarro was open until 9 p.m. seven days a week, according to Web archives of nuCuisine’s old hours.

INFOCUS2_LORIJANJIGIAN

Frontera now closes at 7 p.m. on weeknights, but administrators point to Subway and North Shore Pizza Company as Norris’ new late-night dining. Subway closes at 9 p.m. every day, and North Shore is open until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Still, some students lament the lack of late-night food across campus. Most of NU’s dining halls close by 7 or 7:15 p.m. during the week, and many have reduced hours on weekends.

Citing a lack of business, this year nuCuisine closed the Great Room, which was previously open until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, according to the online archives. Students and nuCuisine workers also say Fran’s, Willard’s late-night option, is no longer open on Fridays.

Mangan said Fran’s was not open Friday nights at least in the past two years, but a June 2012 version of the nuCuisine website indicates Fran’s previously had Friday hours from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Students and workers also say Fran’s was open Fridays last academic year.

Weinberg sophomore Kevin Hardiman, a Willard resident, said Fran’s was a nice place to get food on Friday nights after parties. The cafe was always closed Saturdays, so it was a blow to lose Friday as well, he said.

He noted North Campus has a weekend late-night option, Lisa’s Cafe, a retail location in Slivka Residential College that is open until 2 a.m. seven days a week. 

“If you’re going out off-campus and you’re coming back here, Willard is convenient,” he said. “Lisa’s isn’t.”

To help remedy the issue, nuCuisine and ASG introduced a carry-out option in Plex this quarter to accommodate students with commitments during dinner hours. Students can order from a special menu from 8:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

But multiple students expressed concern that with all the changes, NU is not leaving enough options open to meet all students’ needs.

“I don’t think nuCuisine is serving the students,” Trauberman said. “I don’t think they realize that the schedule of Northwestern students — you can’t map them.”

Getting feedback

Some changes this year were specifically student-driven. Based on feedback, ASG helped move Hinman’s weekend hours to Allison.

Mangan and Schaefer said garnering and incorporating student feedback is a goal for nuCuisine and Norris this year.

NuCuisine has worked to develop channels of student input and form more consistent focus groups, said Rachel Tilghman, marketing manager for Sodexo.

The food service provider also checks comment cards submitted online and in the dining halls, and Tilghman is helping coordinate focus groups with community assistants to assess resident dining. From these groups, she said she has heard positive feedback about Allison’s weekend hours, opening Subway and using the Great Room for student catering.

Tilghman is working to form a campus dining student advisory board comprised of students, members of ASG’s dining services committee and student staff who work for nuCuisine.

Weinberg senior Aaron Zelikovich, a representative on Sodexo’s National Student Board of Directors, and McCormick junior Jenn Huang, ASG’s first director of dining services, have helped coordinate the board, which begins meeting regularly in the winter, Tilghman said.

Still, the Norris worker who was cut to 25 hours a week worries nuCuisine is not creating beneficial policies for workers or students.

“They are not focusing on the students’ needs, and that is solely our main purpose in being here,” she said. “It’s not working for faculty and staff, it’s not working for us as the staff, it’s not working for the students.”

Email: allymutnick@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @allymutnick

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