Search for efficiencies could lead to new food provider


Collegian photo by KAITLYN LORANG Leah Irlbeck taps her phone to pay for her meal recently at The Market in the University Student Union. Friends Keelie Van Hee and Andrea Eisenschenk wait for their turn.

Kaitlyn Lorang, Reporter (She/her)

The vendor that provides dining services to South Dakota State University could be changing.

The South Dakota Board of Regents issued a request for proposal (RFP) Sept. 13 that allows food service providers to submit a plan on how they would provide dining services at the six regental institutions in the state – SDSU, the University of South Dakota, Black Hills State, Dakota State, Northern State and the School of Mines and Technology.

In this proposal, each school has its own section specifically outlining the needs of each campus and what each institution’s facilities include.

All six institutions, including SDSU, issued a single RFP and because of that, one food service provider could end up serving all six campuses. But each campus could have its own specific contract with that vendor, said Michaela Willis, vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at SDSU.

Willis said the purpose of the evaluation of the dining services contract is to determine if there are, “any efficiencies that could be gained from the review.”

The possible changes to food service were triggered by the Senate Bill 55 Task Force. SB 55 was passed by the Legislature in 2020 and requires the Board of Regents to study operations and functions of higher education to maximize efficiency and cut costs.

The SB 55 Task Force is looking into the idea of combining administration at all levels of operation within an institution, operations and function across multiple institutions and the administration of programs across multiple institutions, to name a few.

Aramark has been SDSU’s food-service provider since 1996.

“I would anticipate we will receive a proposal from Aramark,” Willis said.

According to the RFP, Aramark operates 23 locations on SDSU’s campus. It employs over 250 people in Brookings this fall, Heidi Haro, Aramark general manager for SDSU, told the Collegian earlier this semester. That number is down from the usual 400 as employers in all sectors of the economy struggle to hire workers amid pandemic-related issues.

At SDSU, 3,780 students had meal plans in fall 2020 and many other students, faculty and staff without meal plans use the food service at various times during the semester.

Aramark also is the provider for USD, Northern State University and the South Dakota School of Mines. Dakota State uses Sodexo for its food services and Black Hills State uses A‘Viands.

On Oct. 5, representatives from various food service providers will be on the SDSU campus to tour the dining facilities, said Doug Wermedal, associate vice president for Student Affairs. Only about six companies nationwide are big enough to handle SDSU food services, he added.

So far, four vendors have registered for the October visit. They are Aramark, Sodexo, Chartwells and Aladdin, Wermedal said. There are currently 35 registered representatives from these companies that will be part of the tour. More companies could still register for the visit and tour.

Each company will bring representatives, some as few as two, others as large as 10, Wermedal said. The food service providers’ teams will all join one large tour and they get a look into dining sites on campus.

The tour will start in the Student Union at noon and will be led by Wermedal. The event is scheduled to last about two hours. Opportunities for questions will be available while on tour, and any questions asked must be published so all providers have the answers and the process is fair, Wermedal said.

Because of the number of representatives visiting on this day, students and student leaders will not be on the tour, Wermedal said.

After the tour, companies will submit proposals by Nov. 12. These proposals can be hundreds of pages long with many technical details, Wermedal said. This is where the companies will explain potential operational changes or ideas, the variety of food ideas, plans to hire staff, possible investment ideas and more.

Currently, Aramark is the dining services vendor and franchise holder, providing all catering on campus. The company also manages the meat lab and dairy bar sales. Recently, Aramark made an investment to get a Starbucks on campus.

In all, SDSU has eight national franchises on campus: Chick-Fil-A, Einstein’s Bagels, Erbert & Gerbert’s, Java City, Panda Express, Papa John’s, Starbucks and Extreme Pita. In addition, SDSU offers specialized venues to spend Flex dollars on like the Dairy Bar and the Meat Lab, according to the RFP document by the Board of Regents.

“The variety of our retail offerings are indicative of a campus twice our size,” Wermedal said.

Typically, there are two to three finalists that compete for the contract, and university officials hope to meet with finalists in late November and early December. The company that wins the contract to provide food services at the six campuses will be announced no later than spring break, Willis said.

Each institution gets one vote for the food services provider decision. Willis and Wermedal will share the one vote representing SDSU.

When asked what SDSU officials are looking for in a food service provider, Wermedal said: “They have to be responsive to student needs. They have to be modern, contemporary and affordable.”

Andrew Rasmussen, the Students’ Association president, first learned about the RFP near the end of July.

“I was in favor of the RFP,” he said

Students and student leaders already have been involved in the process by taking a dining services survey at the beginning of the semester this fall.

“I do believe that we will have an opportunity to share our opinions and give a little bit of insight,” Rasmussen said.

Whoever lands this contract is going to have to “hustle to maintain a labor force,” Wermedal said. Whatever company wins the contract, dining services must be ready to go by July 1, 2022.

“If there is a change in providers they will have to show what they can do and benefit students as well,” Wermedal said.