Aramark and UMass Lowell build food enterprise, endure growing pains

By George DeLuca
April 21, 2017

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Starbucks at Crossroads Cafe, University Crossing

Not long ago, there were only about 14,400 students attending UMass Lowell. Today there are almost 18,000 students enrolled with a projected long-range cap of 21,000, a number that serves the ultimate goals of the university as a research and development institution.

“If we achieve that, it puts us in a league of institutions nationally that are respected, they have a certain amount of research revenue coming in, and that will attract companies and good students,” said Steve Tello, UMass Lowell’s senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development.

But increased enrollment has led to growing pains in areas of operations and management. With growth comes change and with change comes adjustment and adaptation. So, it should be no surprise that the food service leadership team is dealing with stresses manifesting from the continued expansion of the university.

“We have had over 100 percent growth in food service since 2007 and 2008,” said Dean Larry Siegel, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and university events. “We’re continuing to expand, expand, expand … and we’re asking Aramark to put themselves across eleven different locations with three distinctly separate dining halls. So, it’s tough to get a real efficiency when you’re spreading them out so quickly.”

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Crossroads Cafe at University Crossing

Despite the challenges, the partnership has realized some success. Aramark has helped UMass Lowell launch a hospitality division to bring in revenue from outside of the university in response to recent cuts in state aid. “This is outside revenue not revenue from students–netting $750,000 that goes back into the university operation to help offset and keep costs as low as possible,” Siegel said.

The ten-year relationship with Aramark has not been easy to develop, but to date, Siegel said he is satisfied with progress. “I think they’ve done a marvelous job, as I work directly with them. I know they care about our students,” he said.

New educational, dormitory and research facilities continue to meld into the landscape across campus. UMass Lowell is committed to providing the infrastructure necessary to accommodate increasing enrollment and the university is working feverishly to keep up with service demands. The transformation that has occurred at South Campus is a case-in-point.

The new dining hall at the McGauvran Student Center opened in January 2016, replacing the old Mill City Restaurant which was razed leaving an expansive area of green space for the enjoyment of students.

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UMass Lowell Dean Larry Siegel

Meanwhile, the new Riverview Suites dormitory added about 1,000 students resulting in a stream of interest in the South Campus meal-plan program. In turn, Aramark was directed to “just feed a thousand more people now!” said Siegel.

Since 2007, “we’ve renovated almost every single location across campus and Mill City is the last to undergo that transition” said Rachel DeGrigorio, the marketing manager for Aramark and a UMass Lowell alumni. She is on the front lines in the effort to keep up with food supply, processing and distribution on all campuses throughout the university.

Besides the dramatic increase in students with meal plans at South Campus, the need for infrastructure upgrades has led to a greater focus on sustainability. For example, the new kitchen, located in the basement area of the McGauvran facility required new equipment and utilities to replace the outdated 1970s food processing machinery of the old dining hall.

“Now the building is equipped with Energy Star equipment, which uses the least amount of energy possible. Water conservation is another huge advantage. We also have a new food-pulper,” DiGregorio said. The new machine transforms food waste into compost that can be used campus-wide in gardens and on landscaping projects.

The infrastructure improvements at McGauvran were supervised and managed by UMass Lowell, so basically, Aramark is responsible for food procurement, handling and service and they manage staff, operations and vendors at food venues across campus.

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Crossroads Cafe at University Crossing

However, there is a financial partnership whereas Aramark has made contributions to the university including $18 million to support projects like “the renovation of Fox Dining, oversight of retail brand operations like Starbucks and Subway and the creation of the Crossroads Café,” Siegel said. Aramark also assisted with renovations of the dining halls at the Inn and Conference Center (ICC) and McGauvran.

In response to the sudden deluge of hungry students, Aramark is developing a new auditing system to gather data about those who purchase meal plans. This system can differentiate between meal plan students, the commuter plan students and those who pay cash.

“There was a 30 percent increase (in meal plan purchases) at South and that number has remained constant through this academic year,” DiGregorio said. By contrast, 1,800 to 2,000 meals were served daily at Mill City Restaurant, whereas, the new McGauvran dining facility serves about 2,500 meals a day.

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McGauvran Student Center at South Campus

The newness and the comfort offered at McGauvran has enticed students to linger at the student center. In the old facility, “you came in, you ate, but why would you want to stay there?” DiGregorio said. “At McGauvran, you have beautiful windows that overlook the campus and soft seating so you can congregate and meet your friends.”

The Fox Hall dining facility at East Campus serves 5,000 meals a day and the ICC serves about 1,200 meals. Including McGauvran’s 2,500 meals, DiGrigorio estimates that Aramark serves between 8,000 and 8,700 meals a day, about 85 percent of which are served to students who have unlimited meal plans.

Aramark also manages the retail businesses and dining halls across campus and sometimes there is operational crossover for the sake of efficiency. For example, the Merrimack Market at McGauvran has a bakery that services the dining hall and the retail stations at Crossroads Café at University Crossing.

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McGauvran Student Center at South Campus

The McGauvran dining hall has required some additional service staff. However, the extra help on the floor is not necessarily proportionate to the increase in diners. “It might not be 30 percent because you gain efficiencies with multi-tasking. We probably added ten to twelve positions based on the transition including kitchen support downstairs,” DiGrigorio said, noting that qualified culinary hires are recruited at job fairs, but students are commonly used as seconds on the line and as assistants when needed.

Generally, DiGrigorio is confident that safeguards are in place to ensure that the food is being handled and processed properly. A city inspector makes the rounds periodically and there’s an independent company that performs monthly and quarterly audits. “There are certain challenges sometimes when you’re doing institutional cooking. We’re trying to create the freshest approach in mass quantity,” she said.

In terms of quality control, there are two executive chefs who “are the leaders from a culinary, kitchen and food standpoint,” DiGrigorio said. These rotating supervisors oversee the quality of the food served at the dining halls and can’t be missed in their tall white chef caps.

“We also have an operations director and a district manager who works on campus. They’re always out and about so they have that fresh perspective to go in and troubleshoot various issues that may arise,” DiGrigorio said.

DiGrigorio acknowledges that it can be difficult to keep tabs on everything since there have been so many recent changes. “Since 2009, we’ve had at least one major renovation every year if not more,” she said. “This is our first academic year when there have been no major changes.”

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Perkins Complex at East Campus

But expansion plans loom once again as the attention shifts back to North Campus and East Campus with the new Manning School of Business and the Perkins Complex dormitory about to open. Honors students moving into University Suites at East will be pleased to know that a dining program will be integrated with the Hawk’s Nest retail food center.

“We have grown the entire Honors Program to a point where it can fill a whole residence hall,” Siegel said. “Next year, University Suites will become home to the Honors Program, so we’ll have 470 students living there that I hope will consider the renovated area their exclusive dining hall.”

The Hawk’s Nest “will become a double-duty dining hall while retaining some retail at the location with a meal swipe component on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.,” DiGregorio said. “It will be like a mini dining hall with a salad bar, deli and grill with an entrée option and seating for about 120.”

The Hawk’s Nest conversion to a hybrid facility should help accommodate the dining needs of University Suites residents and the additional 800 students moving into the new Perkins Complex. Hopefully, this new dining option will take some of the load off the Fox Hall dining facility.

“The university is expecting a sizable boom of activity and population on that side of campus,” DiGregorio said, so plans are underway to build a new retail center at Cumnock Hall, coming online by Fall of 2018.

“We’re going to start design soon to renovate Cumnock Auditorium into a dining facility,” said Siegel. “The project will allow us to put bathrooms that never existed on that floor, provide a central living room for students commuting to North Campus, and add a retail center much like the second floor of McGauvran–but not quite as large.”

As UMass Lowell continues its pattern of growth, Aramark’s ability to meet the needs of students has become a challenge–one that may require a stronger focus on communication. Siegel says that if there’s a problem, students can help their own cause by coming forward.

“We have a pretty high standard, but most of the time we don’t know what the problems are. If a student has a bad dining experience and they don’t tell anybody, we can’t fix it,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t matter what you want … tell us what you want and we’ll bend over backwards to get it for you.”

Dean of Student Affairs & Enrichment James Kohl, who oversees residential dining at UMass Lowell, agrees with Dean Siegel. “Sometimes students don’t complain and they’re not as vocal as they should be. If we’re going to make it good we need those student’s voices,” he said.

For assistance, the first and best avenue for general questions and generic feedback is to email dining@uml.edu, or go to umasslowell.campusdish.com where you can connect to the UMass Lowell University Dining Twitter, Instagram or facebook feeds.

For location specific inquiries, DiGregorio suggests that students complete the online feedback form at the link identified by the “Your Voice Counts” icon. One can also contact a manager at a specific dining hall. There are business cards at the swipe stations for this purpose.

“The university commits itself and expects Aramark to provide dining services at the same standard as every other aspect of this university and that is at a level of excellence. And anything short of that is something that we will all roll up our sleeves and address,” Siegel said.

Kohl co-chairs a dining steering committee that includes co-chair Aaron Bennos (Aramark), DiGregorio, Executive Chefs Mike Petit and Frank Hurley, UMass Lowell Residence Life student representatives, residence hall RAs and a student athlete.

“A lot of the information we discuss is brought to the group by the campus dining teams made up of RAs who represent what the residents have told them. Students that live in the residence halls can reach out to the RA on their floor and give feedback that way,” Kohl said.

Kohl also encourages students to talk to Residence Life staff and facility managers about dining related issues and to contact Aramark directly when there are questions, comments or concerns.

“We’re trying to find ways for students to be part of tailoring what their eating. I think that’s had some success although I’m sure we need to continue to work on that and continue to get the feedback,” Kohl said.

Students should also feel free to contact the Student Government Association Campus Environment Committee and members of the Residence Hall Association with information to help keep these and associated groups informed while keeping them abreast of any progress made in resolving issues of concern.

But challenges arising from the growth of the university are apparent. “The campus is growing so fast so it’s hard to make sure everyone knows everything. We’ve tried a whole bunch of stuff and some of it works well and sometimes you just keep trying,” DiGregorio said.

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