Carte Blanche–its origins and effects

At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the T/W Dining Hall, students don’t have to read performers’ lips to figure out their lyrics. The TV sets can be heard clearly, disturbed once in a while by a blast from the jukebox, but never by the din of conversation.

In Eickhoff Dining Hall, residents hang posters protesting Carte Blanche in their dorm windows, trying to make their voices rise above the commotion of the full house below.

The College’s dining atmosphere has transformed in the wake of the newly implemented Carte Blanche program. Freshmen don’t flock to the late-night hot spot that once was T/W and Eickhoff is not the casual setting conducive to studying between classes.

Students have expressed discontent both among friends and publicly, culminating in a heated discussion with Sodexho representatives after a Student Government Association (SGA) meeting last Wednesday. They demanded to know the rationale behind changing a dining system with which most were content.

Despite significant losses their first year at the College and two more years of reduced losses following that, Sodexho denies the implementation of the Carte Blanche system had anything to do with financial woes. John Higgins, general manager for Dining Services, said Sodexho’s sole motivation is to meet the desires of the students.

“There was overwhelming support for Carte Blanche,” he said, claiming that surveys and student-opinions indicated this.

However, Karen Roth, director of Auxiliary Services, said smaller portions and familiarity with the dining population “will provide (Sodexho) with some financial relief.”

In this gray area of conflicting claims is a lack of understanding as to how the program was implemented and what ramifications it has had on campus dining.

Carte Blanche as a concept

Sodexho introduced Carte Blanche in Spring 2003, conducting a two-day trial at Eickhoff. In Fall 2003, a similar experiment took place. Both surveyed students’ customer satisfaction.

A Carte Blanche committee was created to work in conjunction with the dining committee, which included representatives from SGA, Residence Hall Association and others.

“The decision was made based on customer satisfaction,” Higgins said. “It was a two-year process.”

Sodexho researched customer satisfaction at their other college accounts where Carte Blanche was in place. The College sent out its own representatives to schools where other companies ran all-you-can-eat meal programs.

“Carte Blanche is the highest-rated program we run,” Higgins said.

After the research indicated to the committee that students liked Carte Blanche, the proposal was sent to the president’s cabinet for approval. With that approval, the committee began consulting various student organizations – including Black Student Union, Jewish Student Union and a vegetarian group – for input on the menu.

“We look at the big picture,” Higgins said. “We want to retain business at The College of New Jersey. If we lose business at the College, we can lose business down the road.”

It was decided that only freshmen and sophomores would be required to select one of the three Carte Blanche plans, because juniors and seniors had more off-campus commitments, Higgins said.

Eickhoff was chosen as the home of the new Carte Blanche program because it was the only facility that could handle the volume of students passing through, Stephen Hugg, marketing director for Dining Services, said.

Carte Blanche is dine-in only to ensure that the food service is available to the people who paid for their meals, Hugg said.

If students were allowed to carry out food without restriction, Higgins said, meal plan costs would at least double.

Setting the price

To arrive at the Carte Blanche meal plan price, Sodexho took a number of factors into account. According to Hugg, the company looked at the number of visits to the dining hall, the cost per plate, labor costs, incidental costs and shrinkage, which includes waste and theft.

Prices are then compared to competitors’ prices at eateries such as McDonald’s.

Finally, Sodexho considered the amount of food and service used based on College history and Sodexho history at several hundred other colleges, Hugg said.

After determining the cost of the program, Sodexho then submits its pricing to the College.

“The College takes that rate and looks at factors, then determines what the rate to the students would be,” Hugg said.

When asked for particular figures on what Sodexho charges the college, Higgins declined to give out that information, stating he did not want to share the contract between Sodexho and the College so that competing services could not access Sodexho’s rates.

Roth said the contractor – in this case Sodexho – sets a certain price, and then gives commission to the College.

For Fall 2004, Carte Blanche meal plans A, B and C cost $1,456, $1,352 and $1,178, respectively. Last year, students chose from meal plans A, B and C, valued at $1,297, $1,089 and $882, respectively. The lowest Carte Blanche plan is $119 more than the highest meal plan from last year.

Higgins said Sodexho cannot yet determine if Carte Blanche will be profitable at the College.

“We’ll know better in a year,” he said.

Carte Blanche in action

One of the most common complaints about Carte Blanche involves the lunchtime rush. Students complain of long lines, difficulty finding seats and overall congestion.

Higgins said this has nothing to do with Carte Blanche.

“It has to do with the class schedule time,” Higgins said. “We have three dining facilities open, and every one is full (at that time).”

Since last year’s schedule had one class period ending at 12:20 p.m. and another beginning at 12:30 p.m., there was no common lunch hour, Toni Pusak, assistant director of Auxiliary Services, said. This created less traffic, she added.

“This is the first time we’ve had to handle everyone (at the same time),” Pusak said.

Higgins said Sodexho monitors Eickhoff Hall in 15-minute increments, and has determined that there is a spike in volume at 11:30 a.m., which ends by 12:15 p.m. During that 45-minute time period, Higgins said Eickhoff Hall serves 900 to 1,000 students.

To accommodate this surge, Higgins said Sodexho made a number of changes to its staff schedule and production times.

Sodexho is adding a 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, which first needs approval from the workers’ union. In the meantime, Sodexho has hired temp agency workers to pick up the slack. The dining company is also preparing more food beforehand, such as pre-made deli sandwiches, to reduce waiting time.

Sodexho’s contract

At the College, Sodexho has a three-year contract with two one-year addendums, executed in July 2001. Higgins said this is simply legalese for a five-year contract and that the company didn’t have to be re-approved in July 2004.

It is a Profit and Loss contract, Hugg said, which means that the College doesn’t assume the risk of profit and loss, only Sodexho does.

“Sodexho has not made money here,” Higgins said. “We’ve lost money every year we’ve been here,” he said, citing “significant losses” the first year and “reduced losses” after that.

Higgins said the contract does include an “out clause,” which allows for the contract to be dismissed due to dissatisfaction, but that is typically a 60-day process.

Students who want to discuss their opinions on Carte Blanche can attend the Dining Services Committee meeting on Sept. 22, or every Wednesday, in Brower Student Center room 209.

-Kristina Fiore, Managing Editor; Donna Kardos, Copy Editor; Tammy Tibbetts, Fact Checker