CAS price increases raise discourse concerning efficiency, quality, hospitality

Alex Lyons/Photo EditorCampus Auxiliary Services is a nonprofit self-servicing corporation that provides laundry services, cable, 69 vending machines, an off-campus restaurant and nine dining establishments to students, along with numerous other services, supported by fees embedded in tuition. CAS is particularly noted for its dining services, which are updated each semester. Changes in fall 2013 include revamped food options, a new retail layout at Books & Bytes Café in Milne Library, price increases on all-you-care-to-eat meals and a “going green” charge on paper cups for 10 cents.

These changes inspired recent conversation as well as angry and positive student dialogue on the CAS Facebook page.

“It seems like every year the quality just declines a little bit in terms of what food is available, the quality of the food and kind of just overall overcrowding,” junior Lauren Costello said.

According to CAS Executive Director Mark Scott, the organization, which supports its dining establishments solely on income from meal plans, exists to fulfill the mission of the college and support students.

“We only exist to serve SUNY Geneseo,” he said. “We are a local business; in other words, we wouldn’t be here if the institution weren’t here.”

Campus service corporations exist at nearly all 64 SUNY campuses. Each serves different purposes at each institution, providing flexibility outside of state regulations on the colleges.

Geneseo established CAS roughly 60 years ago and Scott has been executive director for six years. He arrived at Geneseo after working in hospitality at Walt Disney World, food distribution at Sodexo and student engagement at Canisius College in Buffalo.

In his time at CAS, Scott has made major changes to the organization and aesthetic of Geneseo campus dining.

He has spearheaded major dining renovations including establishing Fusion Market and the gut renovation of Letchworth Dining Hall, which should be completed in late spring 2013 but will not open until fall 2014.

Scott has also aided CAS in adopting a more culinary-focused philosophy, creating the position of executive chef in 2004, for which he hired Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef Jonna Anne.

Anne, who works to streamline the visions of each of the restaurants and cafes on campus into a cohesive unit, has hired a team of experienced chef managers to devise culinary strategy in each dining location.

She said that CAS’ relatively new “culinary-centric” approach to dining is a testament to a general transition in higher education hospitality. Trends have shifted from cafeterias to dining hall establishments to the restaurants and cafes model that is increasingly visible in new locations.

“The kitchen is no longer the back of the house,” she said. “We really try to take and make as much customization as possible. That’s kind of the evolution of being a restaurant where you come to dine; you don’t just grab something to eat.”

The pricing for this food is a major source of contention among students. Residential students at Geneseo are required to purchase a meal plan ranging from $1,854 to $2,298 a semester, allotting them roughly $13 to $17 per day.

“It’s very frustrating to me as an upperclassman who’s lived on campus all four years to have to pay every semester an exorbitant of money to eat when, if I were feeding myself, I could buy better quality products for a much cheaper cost,” senior Dante Tufano said.

According to Scott, Geneseo’s food purchasing system has two parts. CAS has a contract with Provista, a group-purchasing provider, which aggregates buying power of a large group of partner businesses to get cheaper prices on products directly from the manufacturers. CAS is also partnered with food distributor US Foods. Its warehousing and distribution facilities physically stock the shelves and provide additional, but not unlimited, pricing and product options for CAS to determine the best deal.

When calculating meal plan costs, Scott said that CAS also factors in rising wages and insurance rates as well as inflation.

“We’re a business just like any other, and we face the same kinds of cost pressure that families face when they’re going out to buy groceries. You can see it in your everyday stores. Every year our prices go up. That just is what it is,” he said.

Because stores like Wegmans and Wal-Mart can expect to engage in millions of transactions each year, they can afford to receive only 2 to 3 percent marginal income on their product sales. Scott said that CAS, however, has a customer base of only about 3,000 residential students.

As for the unspent money that students cannot redeem from their meal plans, Scott said all of it goes back into the business, particularly to cover the costs of updates to dining facilities. While state funding covers state-owned buildings like Letchworth Dining Hall, smaller undertakings like Fusion Market and the upcoming addition of Tim Hortons’ are expenses funded by CAS itself.

CAS Administrative Assistant Catherine Cieri compiled statistics chronicling 43 college food services, ranking all of the four-year colleges in the SUNY system as well as Geneseo’s competitive colleges based on the average of their top three residential meal plans. Geneseo ranked in the bottom third of colleges at number 33 with a meal plan average of $2,076.

Meal plan prices have risen 3.37 percent since last year. Geneseo’s meal plan increase was roughly average when compared with other colleges; some such as Villanova University, Skidmore College and SUNY Potsdam experienced 4 to 8 percent increases in the past year.

According to Scott and Anne, CAS quantifies feedback via an annual survey by the National Association for College and University Food Services, allowing CAS to gain student insight on taste, nutritional value and sustainability of its food. Focus groups follow in the fall.

Senior Joanna Simone, a four-semester CAS employee and a student supervisor at Mary Jemison Dining Hall, said that CAS takes student feedback on Facebook very seriously. Managers print out the Facebook posts and encourage employees to adapt to student demands.

“I feel that a lot of things would be better addressed if students would come up to a manager or student supervisor and addressing the concern rather than going on Facebook because we can more directly deal with the problem if students bring up the issue to a student supervisor or a manager,” she said.υ