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Bon Appétit Dining at Cornell College

John Harp.jpgWhen students pushed the administration at 1,100-student Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa to change their dining services provider, V.P. for Student Affairs John Harp (right) did his homework. He understood students’ concerns about the mediocre quality of food provided by Sodexo, a publicly traded corporation that provides dining servces to institutions all over the world. Students put forward the name of the Bon Appetit Management Company (BAMC) as an alternative.

BAMC — which is unrelated to the cooking magazine Bon Appétit — was founded in 1987 in Silicon Valley, and its headquarters is still in Palo Alto. It began life as a purveyor of dining services to companies and museums in California, and it branched out when its management saw a real opportunity to serve high-quality food to schools.

BAMC Splash.jpg

Harp found the idea of BAMC’s fresh dishes prepared to order to be enticing in comparison to Sodexo’s steam tables of food cooked in large batches. In visiting three other colleges, he found that BAMC does what it says. Not only is BAMC’s food fresh as advertised, but the structure of the storage areas of the company’s dining halls backs up that assertion. As compared to standard institutional food businesses, BAMC’s sites have far less dry storage space devoted to canned goods and other pre-packaged food items, and a great deal more space allocated to coolers holding fresh ingredients, many of which were sourced from local farms and small businesses.

Cornell College came to an agreement with BAMC, and the company began serving food to its students in 2012. The entire Sodexo staff was hired directly by BAMC. They were given extensive training, an effort that was needed because serving freshly prepared food requires better organization and more intense work. In its first several years of operation in Mount Vernon, BAMC increased both the number of food service workers and the wages and benefits that they received. Nonetheless, within two years approximately 75% of the Sodexo workers had left for other jobs. BAMC’s open-to-view food preparation — which it calls “exhibition cooking” — and its work pace are more akin to a private restaurant than an institutional dining hall. It seems that many workers were unwilling or unable to adapt to these changes, despite better compensation.

For students, the cost of Cornell College’s obligatory, all-you-can-eat dining plans increased somewhat. However Harp found that students saved money overall: the high quality of BAMC’s food meant that they chose to eat less frequently in town restaurants. Harp says that Cornell College’s dining hall cuisine is “the best food in town.”

The only hiccup in the transition was finding the right BAMC managers to supervise the dining facility. Harp watched BAMC work with several people before finding the right leaders in their organization to work at Mount Vernon.

Addendum: Cornell College’s full dining plan with BAMC will cost $4,800 for the 2015-2016 academic year. That figure contrasts with the total current cost of $5,550 for Dartmouth’s SmartChoice20 plan. Once again, I would cite this difference as an example of Dartmouth doing less with more.

Addendum: Below is a partial list of BAMC’s 500+ clients:

Education: Penn, MIT, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Case Western Reserve, Denison, Hampshire, Carleton, Oberlin, Reed, St. Olaf, University of the Pacific, Washington U. in St. Louis, Wheaton College.

Corporate: Adobe, DreamWorks SKG, eBay, Electronic Arts, Genentech, Google, Levi’s, Lucasfilm, Nordstrom, Oracle, Plantronics, SAP, Starbucks HQ, Sony, Target Corporation, Twitter, Yahoo.

Museum and specialty venues: Terzo Piano at the Art Institute of Chicago, AT&T Park (San Francisco Giants), Getty Center and Villa (Los Angeles), Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix), Theory at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, Public House (San Francisco), Panorama at the Saint Louis Art Museum, TASTE Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum.

Addendum: John Harp also noted that BAMC listens attentively to students’ wishes for particular recipes. Here’s a flyer from the dining website at Carleton College, a longtime BAMC client :

BAMC Carleton.jpg

Addendum: UC Santa Cruz’ Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems has written a thorough case study of BAMC’s business model.

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