NYU Shanghai Searches for New Canteen Vendor After Previous Vendor Quits

OCA Editor Haley Sadoff analyzes the list of reasons for the NYU Shanghai canteen's turnover and possible solutions for the forthcoming vendor.

Compass Group will no longer be NYU Shanghai’s canteen vendor after this semester, NYU Shanghai Campus & Facilities announced in an email on Monday morning. As of this summer, we’ll have changed cafeteria vendors. Again.

Chartwells, like the previous vendor, Nine Masters, signed a three-year contract with NYU Shanghai. Within the first six months of this contract, however, a probationary period allowed the company, via its parent company Compass Group, to notify NYU Shanghai if they wished to terminate the contract. “They have indicated that the model was not working for them and that they did not want to continue past the semester,” said Associate Dean of Students David Pe.

And so, NYU Shanghai’s quest for a suitable canteen vendor continues. To help ensure our next experience with a vendor works out, students, faculty, and the various groups involved in the search committees must consider what problems arose amidst NYU Shanghai’s relationships with Nine Masters and Chartwells and how to avoid repeating those same mistakes.

When NYU Shanghai first moved into our Century Avenue location in 2014, the university hired the first cafeteria vendor, Nine Masters. Both parties signed a three-year contract, specifying that after those three years, the school could legally change vendors. According to Director of Campus and Facilities, Jack Li, companies were then invited to bid to operate our school canteen. Thus, in 2017, NYU Shanghai was offered multiple bids, including a resubmission by Nine Masters.

As NYU Shanghai had no experience with other canteen vendors and instead had witnessed a plethora of complaints by students, faculty and staff about the quality and service of Nine Masters, a cafeteria committee was set up to investigate alternative options. This committee was established by the joint efforts of four constituents: Human Resources, procurement, faculty and students, who all put forth representatives.

“The initial idea wasn’t necessarily to get rid of Nine Masters,” explained the cafeteria committee’s faculty representative, Yifei Li, but rather “to get a sense of the landscape.” If it turned out other companies were doing “exceptionally well or far better than what Nine Masters was doing,” he said, “we would propose a change of that relationship.”

For a period of two months before the Nine Masters’ contract expired, a group of students (numbering one to three and recruited by either Student Government or the faculty representative), faculty (Li, recruited by Dean of Arts and Sciences Maria Montoya) and staff (around five who volunteered) surveyed other companies. Dining experiences in schools like Shanghai American School (SAS), Concordia and Honeywell were sampled, as was a vendor for a foreign company with a Shanghai branch. After every trip, attendees were asked to submit feedback relating to food quality, health, taste, price, diversity and overall environment.

After visiting the canteen at SAS, the committee concluded that their dining experience was substantially better than the experience provided by Nine Masters and “also far superior to a number of the other [sampled] establishments…visited,” said professor Li. The company operating the canteen at SAS was Compass Group, the parent company of Chartwells, our current cafeteria vendor.

Compass’s willingness at SAS to work with students (they engage in biweekly meetings with their Student Government), their phenomenal selection and care given to food procurement were all reasons the cafeteria committee recommended them to NYUSH leadership. “On every single score the SAS cafeteria was better,” Li assured. And since Nine Masters’ bid to continue operating our canteen “did not propose anything…that indicated anything aside from how they were operating,” Pe explained, the university leadership decided to switch to Compass.

Moreover, when working with Nine Masters, our community faced several information disclosure issues. Given its capacity as a private corporation, Nine Masters was paid directly by cafeteria customers. This payment process gave us no visibility on our spending, revealed Director of Campus and Facilities Li. According to Pe, once we changed vendors, we did not even know how much money was left on personal accounts. Furthermore, Li noted that Nine Masters was unwilling to share with us details about where their raw materials (i.e. foods) were coming from as well as how much food waste our community produced.

Information disclosure improved with the switch from Nine Masters to Compass. Cafeteria customers’ money now goes through NYUSH accountants who pay Compass accordingly by month. This new payment system has also allowed the IT department to incorporate cafeteria spending onto our WeChat platform.

So, why are we changing vendors again? Is our community that dissatisfied with the quality and service provided by Chartwells?

“There are definitely parts of the cafeteria that students are okay with. For example, we can all agree that halal is generally satisfactory,” Jeffrey Kung, who oversees the Student Government’s cafeteria committee, said. “Generally, people are upset with the salad bar closing, not just the vegetarians and vegans, but everyone. There was also one day the Western section didn’t open and they didn’t tell us why,” Kung noted, stating that this lack of communication has been the biggest issue.

However, unlike with Nine Masters, Compass decided to discontinue the contract, not NYU Shanghai. This decisions stems from a variety of reasons.

First, the bureaucratic structure of both of NYU Shanghai’s previously selected vendors had huge overhead, over-complicating the implementation of requests. Onsite Nine Masters and Chartwells staff were at the bottom of long chains of command and had to request and receive approval for all our community’s desired changes. “There was not a lot of flexibility in the way they staff and procure,” explained Pe, which lead to frustration on behalf of cafeteria management as well as our wider community. “We’re currently casting a different net,” Pe assured. “We’re now looking at smaller businesses that do not have large overhead and can work with us directly…so we can raise issues and see change faster.”

After all, one of the reasons the cafeteria committee initially praised Compass’s work at SAS was precisely because of their willingness to work with the community. But last semester, “they would only have done one of the four things we had asked them to do,” says Kung. And this semester, Chartwells has yet to meet with our Student Government’s cafeteria committee even once. The committee has tried scheduling meetings, but Chartwells declines. “They’re not ready for a meeting yet,” Kung said, “they’ve been avoiding us, basically.”

Still, the main complaint of both Nine Masters and Chartwells is their inability to turn a profit on our campus. This is in fact the official reason that Chartwells has indicated for terminating NYU Shanghai’s contract. Jackie Li, our current cafeteria manager, routinely expressed his frustration at the fact that the NYU Shanghai our community continues to demand both lower prices and higher quality foods. Pe speculates our unrealistic pricing point was also what caused Nine Masters to lose “interest in being mindful with what we want.”

But since we “cannot ask the vendor to reduce the quality” of food, maintains Director Li, nor can we increase the canteen staff’s salaries, how can we ensure another vendor doesn’t give up on us? After all, if vendors cannot make money here, “they will quit again and again and again, [which is]…not so good for our university’s reputation,” states Director Li.

One method is being totally transparent with whoever our next vendor is. Fortunately, this is what our university administration intends to do. According to Pe, NYU Shanghai administration will explicitly warn the next vendor that over summer and winter breaks, there will be significantly less students, faculty and staff on campus. As stated in the email, sent out to students, the administration “cannot ignore the complexity of factoring food cost, the number of patrons, days of operations, customer spending, labor expenses, and general services.” Our administration will also be up front with the new vendor from the beginning that our community requires dishes of a wide price range. “The next vendor will need to continue to offer low priced items (2-18rmb) while introducing more moderately priced items (20-50rmb),” the email stated.

Another means of fostering a better relationship with our new cafeteria vendor, as proposed by Director Li and Associate Dean Pe, would be a change in our community’s culture. Instead of only interacting with the cafeteria staff when complaints arise, why not also praise their efforts when dishes are good? Pe also suggests we show greater respect to cafeteria staff by eliminating poor behaviors like putting feet on the chairs, leaving trays behind and dropped food on the floor. He insists we consider our relationship with the new cafeteria vendor a mutual, rather than simply a service-oriented, one. He believes that if we can “embrace everyone as part of the community…[cafeteria staff are] going to want to work hard for us” and will not end up resenting us and/or feeling like outsiders. “I can understand this, because they were constantly being harassed,” Kung said. “They didn’t respond to those situations in too good of a way,” Kung adds, “I guess it was bad on both our parts.”

Soon, the cafeteria committee will shortly resume surveying companies to take over our canteen by summer. Our school administration will not release names of potential vendors just yet, due to confidentiality reasons, but Pe believes these will be small businesses that students, faculty and staff will recognize in China. He has also indicated that once a new business begins operation of our canteen, it will not shut down after breakfast and/or lunch service, but rather operate throughout the day.

As per the email sent to all members of the community, “if you have suggestions or feedback, please email shanghai.facilities@nyu.edu so that the search committee can raise these issues during the next search. We will be reaching out to Student Government, the Faculty Council, and HR to ensure that representation from the different constituents are part of the conversation.”

If you’re interested in being one of the students involved, reach out to Student Government’s cafeteria committee via et1352@nyu.edu.

This article was written by Haley Sadoff. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Mohos Mate via the NYUSH – All Classes and Study Away Facebook page

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