Privatization better than some think

By Steve Coyne

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees has railed against them. The administration heralds them. Last month it was announced after a competitive bidding process that Chartwells, a private American company, would take over Campus Food Services.

As the first privatization of a university food provider in Canada for decades, the announcement was closely watched by media across the country. Chartwells has expanded aggressively in recent years, and now controls more than half of the university food service market in Canada.

Concordia University switched from Sodexho to Chartwells in 2002 and have had a generally positive experience.

“Residence has had issues with the price of Chartwells’ plans,” said Brent Farrington, president of the Concordia Student Union. “But there has been a vast improvement over the last provider, Sodexho, which literally poisoned students. The only semi-issues that students have had have been with the serving of Starbucks coffee.”

Farrington added that after the switching of providers, Chartwells ended up offering every former employee of Sodexho a new position, with the exception of senior management.

Other universities echoed this satisfaction with service. Terry McDonald, Vice-President Internal of the Memorial University Students’ Union said that although there had been some problems with Chartwells over the years, he is happy with the company.

“You have to give them credit,” he said. “They listen to student complaints and have been improving steadily.”

Ed Borkowski, Director of Comunications for Chartwells, stressed that Chartwells has done well on student surveys.

“Chartwells is very proud of the high customer satisfaction scores that we receive at each and every one of the locations where we provide food service across the country,” Borkowski said.

One such survey, quoted in the Carleton Fulcrum, put Chartwells consistently at a three to four out of five level of service.

Chartwells has also promised additional variety, although it may come at some expense. While promoting variety in food and the potential addition of new franchises such as Tim Hortons, Chartwells will likely have some degree of exclusivity as a food services provider, especially with catering. This could be counterproductive to the interests of clubs, however. If a club wants to run a bake sale, for instance, they would have to get permission from Chartwells.

McGill University recently adopted Chartwells, but students at McGill were anxious to prevent Chartwells from obtaining a monopoly.

“The problem students have is not with Chartwells,” said Mark Sward, Vice-President of Communication & Events of the Students’ Society of McGill University. “The food is fine, and we’re satisfied with Chartwells. The prices are fine, but what we are worried about [is] a monopoly.”

Sward added that a group of students, staff and faculty had forced university administration to withdraw an offer for exclusivity.

A McGill student commitee wrote a report arguing against exclusivity for Chartwells on their campus. Borkowski explained that exclusivity clauses in contracts were negotiated by the institutions themselves.

“The institution sets the terms and conditions that will apply to the contract and total exclusivity has never been an option in any of our negotiations,” Borkowski wrote.

Carleton University switched recently from Chartwells to Aramark. Ed Kane, Assistant Vice-President of University Services at Carleton, explained that this was not necessarily due to dissatisfaction, commenting that was not the university’s concern.

The Vice President of Carleton University Students’ Association, Bryan Zimmerman spoke of his displeasure with the change.

Chartwells has promised a significant capital investment into the University of Calgary Food Services infrastructure. The Dining Centre will undergo its first renovation since 1995.

Chartwells is a subgroup of the largest food service corporation in the world, the Compass Group, which is based in the United Kingdom.

Representatives from Concordia University in Montreal noted that research by students there had connected the Compass Group to the Iraq War.

Borkowski, however, explained that the business of Chartwells is the provision of excellent food service in educational institutions across Canada.

Emily Wyatt, incoming president of the U of C Residence Students’ Association, sat on a student committee that recently consulted with Chartwells. She expressed optimism about the Chartwells contract and explained that Chartwells stated they would clear RSA events and consider offering a catering discount to clubs planning fundraising activities.

Wyatt also commented that Chartwells had been extremely receptive to the student committee’s concerns and ideas.

“We talked about healthy options, as well as making sure that it wouldn’t be excessively more expensive than fast food, using local products and industry,” she said.

Wyatt stressed that it would be largely up to students to hold Chartwells accountable and participate fully in the surveys and online responses that Chartwells planned.

Leave a comment