A typical meal at a University Dining Hall: a group of student notice one of their peers is not eating nearly as much as tradition dictates. The wisest of the group warns, “Eat up. This meal costs you $8.”
The company responsible for this behavior, and the larger management of University Dining Services as a whole, is Aramark Corporation.
Aramark entered into a 12-year contract with the University of Minnesota beginning July 1, 2008, providing catering for the U in various ways, with locations and events around campus, according to Business Wire. Not simply limited to catering, Aramark’s activities stretch from clothing production to health and sports facilities to educational institutions.
The company seems successful and legitimate for the most part–except for when you find out just how far their god-hand reaches.
Their history provides an interesting, puzzling narrative of seemingly noble practices coupled with hidden allegations. Just this year, Ethisphere Institute named them to be one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 2013. At the same time, CBS Sports reported earlier this year that after commissioning Aramark to sell wine and beer at their college football games, the University of Minnesota actually lost money. The math seems to defy all logic, until discovering that the company received over half of the overall profits.
Beyond its role on University campuses, Aramark’s transgressions include tax evasion in 2005, wildly underpaying Baltimore workers in 2004, and mistreating workers and withholding pay at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2008. The list goes on.
Back before 2008, voices on campus and in the larger metro community opposed the renewal of the company’s contract, which had begun nearly 10 years earlier. One of these voices, former columnist for the Minnesota Daily and former Aramark employee John Hoff, launched a 5-part investigative editorial on the company entitled “What’s behind your lunch,” in which he delved into the company’s policies and track record.
The voices never gained traction and word wasn’t spread quickly enough, so the University backed recommendations on the company and Aramark bought 12 more years on their lease.
In the end, they wielded their power of complete monopoly to convince people to stick with what works. Students living in a dormitory are required by the University to purchase a meal plan from University Dining Services, which is managed by Aramark. If they neglect to choose one, they are assigned the most popular $1,891 meal plan, as opposed to the cheaper $1,712 plan.
The Minnesota Daily reported back in 2008 on the countless cases of wrongly paid workers due to manipulation of time cards coupled with record-high termination rates. This came after the company claimed employee satisfaction had risen, which was met by those same employees claiming managers created a hostile work environment, used verbal abuse, discouraged injured workers from seeking immediate medical attention, and using borderline unethical practices to save money.
The beauty of Aramark is that no one really knows about them. No one has to know. UDS employees and freshmen Harsha Sanekommu and Roman Kachinske had never even heard of Aramark prior to our conversation.
Then again, the company has never really been one for appearances. They find efficiency in operating below the belt and out of the public eye. At the Sanford Hall dormitory dining room, I asked to speak with the manager for UDS. I was introduced to a man who I asked if I could interview.
“I’d have to speak with my marketing manager,” he replied. After hesitating for a moment, he added, “What is the interview about exactly?” Upon explaining that it is an article regarding Aramark and their relationship with the University, he said, “I can’t do that interview.”
By staying out of the conversation, Aramark has stayed out of trouble. The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities chapter of the activist organization known as the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) is attempting to change that by investigating their contract and relationship with the University, and above all else, starting a dialogue.
Although the conversation is merely beginning, the group is already hitting roadblocks regarding the company’s seemingly airtight contract, with issues like unjustifiably high prices and a lack of affordable options for non-residents at the University being explored. More than that, it’s important that someone—some voice always try to keep our corporations honest.