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The end of an era at Suites Dining, part II

This is the second part of a long-form article on the University’s decision to end student management at the Suites Eating Clubs. Click here to view parts one, three, and four.

When I finally walk out of Tresidder Union Suite 9 an hour later, the first thing I do is drive home, sit down at my computer and start writing. I separate my document into three headings: board bill costs, health and safety, and financial mismanagement.

Board bill costs

In more than an hour of conversation, the trio of ResEd administrators had repeatedly cited Suites’ high board bill as a pressing reason to seek a less expensive corporate vendor to provide food. But a closer inspection of University financial records indicates that this justification makes little sense.

To begin with, the Suites board bill is no higher than that of the Row houses, which are currently managed by private contractor Student Organized Services, Inc. (SOS) – making it difficult to see how changing to a private contractor will lower the board rate.

The problem, however, goes deeper: the University, not GCDS, is itself responsible for creating the problem it now insists upon stepping in to fix.

Prior to 2007, the quarterly Suites board bill was among the lowest on campus at, according to former GCDS CEO Leah Sawyer ’07, approximately $1,200 per student per quarter. Suites Dining also provided more meals per week – 17 – than the more expensive Row houses, which typically provided 10.

In 2008, however, the University combined the Suites Dining Society bill – which covers food – with the University Housing bill, which covers housing maintenance costs.

Since then, Student Housing – a division of Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) – has dramatically raised its prices, forcing up the total costs that appear on the Suites board bill. From the 2011-12 academic year to the 2012-13 academic year alone, Housing raised its prices by 25 percent. Housing maintenance now takes up just under a quarter of Suites residents’ room and board expenses at approximately $500 per resident per quarter.

ResEd’s attempt to fix Suites’ rising board rate made matters even worse. According to former GCDS CEO J.T. Sullivan ’11, ResEd responded to Housing-driven Suites board bill inflation by setting an overall room and board price cap of $2,000 per student per quarter. Since ResEd has little to no power to limit the price charged by R&DE, however, the Housing portion of the board bill kept climbing – resulting in smaller and smaller percentages of student money going to GCDS for food and a budget crunch for GCDS managers.

The budgetary strains caused by ResEd and R&DE were exacerbated, moreover, by additional overhead costs imposed by the University. In 2009 – a year after the Housing bill was merged with the Suites Dining bill – ResEd began auditing and regulating GCDS financial operations. With ResEd’s heightened involvement came two additional categories on Suites students’ board bill: “Admin” and “Overhead.”

Prior to the beginning of ResEd’s takeover in 2009, Suites was run entirely by students – they collected students’ board bills, paid chefs and hashers and even distributed room keys. But ever since ResEd stepped in in 2009, students have been paying ResEd administrators to reread Suites financial documents, incurring overhead costs that further drive up the board bill total.

Those total costs were $161.57 per student in 2011-12. Multiplied by the roughly 260 students who live in Suites, the total amount of overhead paid last year to ResEd administrators to do the work student financial managers formerly did themselves is about $42,000 – more student money, as a 2011-12 Suites financial manager (FM) I interviewed put it, “disappearing down the black hole that is Residential Education.”

According to Avanti chef Anton “Tony” Dietz, who has 19 years of experience in food services administration, any outside contractor is likely to levy additional administrative fees amounting to between eight and 11 percent of Suites’ total budget. Suites’ budget in 2011-12 totaled approximately $1.1 million. Assuming administrative charges at the typical corporate rate, Suites residents next year will be shelling out an additional $100,000 in surcharges.

Health and Safety

During that interview in Suite 9, Boswell, Buzay and Golder repeatedly advanced student health and safety as a “considerable concern” but failed to mention almost any specific instances of health and safety violations. The only specific evidence Golder offered was a claim that multiple fires had recently broken out at Suites.

“If we weren’t fixing all the fires that come,” exclaimed Golder at one point, “they [GCDS] wouldn’t be getting by.”

There was, in fact, only one fire at Suites recently, not “all the fires that come,” and it was caused by two inexperienced Suites residents – not student managers – using the Avanti kitchen to boil a large pot of hot oil on a Saturday evening in May 2012 in a disastrous attempt to fry empanadas for Cinco de Mayo. Fortunately, a chef was hosting a free movie-and-food night for residents on his day off in a neighboring club – the kind of thing Suites chefs tend to do. He and a student manager immediately rushed in and put out the blaze with the club’s fire extinguisher, which GCDS had properly placed according to fire code.

No outside contractor, short of completely barring student access to the kitchen, could have prevented that fire, and switching to a corporate vendor will do nothing to prevent the possibility of similar fires in the future.

Suites has a similar record in other areas of health and safety. I was hashing in Beefeaters on Jan. 15 when the Santa Clara County public health inspector came to visit this quarter. She left just as I finished cleaning, having found zero health violations. The other three clubs were also inspected that day, with two violations found in Avanti, two in Bollard and four in Middle Earth (one of which was caused by Housing’s failure to repair the salad bar). Suites’ average number of violations was two per kitchen, and none were classified as “major.”

The average number of food inspection violations for Row houses – which are run by exactly the sort of contractor that will be moving into Suites next year – is 3.83 per house. Ten locations on campus, including Row houses managed by corporate contractor SOS, were found responsible for “major” violations.

Records of documented Suites health violations in the past support this year’s results. After health inspectors visited Suites in the spring of 2012, GCDS’ then-CEO Sullivan met with Boswell and Buzay to determine who was responsible for the 26 reported violations. Almost all of the violations were minor – among the worst appears to have been some mold in an ice machine. Other violations included a broken paper towel dispenser, the ice scooper not being in its plastic cup and the cleaning solution being too strong.

Boswell, Buzay and Sullivan collectively assigned responsibility for each violation to one of three groups: University Housing, GCDS, and ResEd and/or its student manager employees (ResEd now pays student managers, while GCDS’ pay to chefs and its CEO and CFO remains an entirely separate category). Of the 26 total violations, Housing was found responsible for 10 – including the mold in the ice machine – and ResEd and/or its student manager employees were found to have committed 16.

GCDS – the student nonprofit that ResEd now wants to eliminate – was held responsible for zero.

Financial Mismanagement

In our interview, Golder had been especially emphatic about student mismanagement of money. Arguing that students had “run [Suites] into the ground” amid “years of mismanagement,” she claimed that “the only reason they [GCDS] are getting by is because we’re supporting them, frankly. And if we weren’t, they wouldn’t be getting by.”

According to two financial managers who worked in Suites prior to ResEd’s takeover in 2009, GCDS had never gone over budget or had to borrow money from the University. When I pressed her, Golder offered only one piece of evidence to support her assertion.

According to Golder, ResEd had advanced GCDS “tens of thousands of dollars” from ResEd’s own budget that has to be paid back at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. But this – the only evidence ResEd has provided thus far of student financial mismanagement – is, according to student managers, flat-out wrong.

Suites managers say ResEd allowed GCDS advance access to money from its own budget this year – in other words, Suites spent some of its own money ahead of schedule. No money needs to be paid back to ResEd at the end of the year. There is no loan for students to pay off.

Boswell and Buzay also noted that, prior to ResEd involvement, GCDS lacked a recognized tax ID number and liability insurance. That much is true. But former GCDS CEO Sullivan oversaw the 2011 purchase of a liability policy valued at $2 million and incorporated GCDS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meeting ResEd’s requirements.

Moreover, several student managers reported that ResEd officials have argued that the four Suites chefs are overpaid. But last year’s chef contract reveals that an academic year’s pay for a chef at Suites in 2011-12 was $51,182. That’s hardly a gold mine in the Bay Area – let alone Palo Alto – especially since ResEd, according to Avanti chef Tony, already mandated a wage freeze for Suites chefs three years ago, eliminating the annual cost-of-living increase formerly granted by GCDS.

In any case, Suites chefs deserve compensation appropriate for their skill level and experience. Tony was born in Germany in 1946

Tony Dietz, at home in the Avanti Kitchen.

Tony Dietz, at home in the Avanti Kitchen. (MEHMET INONU/The Stanford Daily)

and began his apprenticeship to a baker at age 14. Since then, he has catered White House functions on the top floor of Washington Hospital Center with President Jimmy Carter in attendance, personally overseen food production for the 1977 Hollywood release party of the original “Star Wars,” crafted all the food for the set of “The Love Boat” and worked at elite San Francisco hotels from the Hilton to the Fairmont to the Stanford Court Renaissance.

He was hired as an executive chef for the Saga Corporation by Ernie Arbuckle ’33 MBA ’36 – after whom the Graduate School of Business’ Arbuckle Dining Pavilion is named – and taught at the California Culinary Academy. He shook hands with Princess Grace of Monaco and Charlton Heston and catered parties for Ronald Reagan’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Michael Boskin, who is currently a Stanford economics professor.

That’s Tony. He’s been working in Avanti for 18 years, and ResEd is not going to renew his contract. And don’t even get me started on Caroline, Dennis and Frank.

If there’s anything else that GCDS has done wrong, ResEd wouldn’t tell me. The three administrators didn’t even seem to know how changing to corporate management would theoretically solve the nonexistent problems they think they’ve identified. When I pressed Golder on how exactly ResEd knows switching to an outside contractor will lower the board rate, improve health and safety or enhance the quality of management, her response was simple: “We don’t.”

***

When I walk in to see Frank right after breakfast, he’s already busy preparing lunch, and I already know what he’s going to say.

“Miles, my main man, how we doin’?”

As we chat, I notice that he’s posted Renée Donovan ’15’s recent Stanford Daily profile of him to the kitchen’s refrigerator door. Someone has drawn little stars around it. During our conversation, two students drop in to cheerfully give Frank more copies. He adds them to a stack he’s gradually accumulating on the table.

Frank has been told nothing by ResEd officials other than that his contract will not be renewed at the end of the year. When I ask how he feels about the possibility of losing his job, he abruptly stops chopping vegetables and looks directly at me.

“Listen to this. I enjoy when I come here in the morning and I cook for everybody. I feel more happy than… Listen, they are happy with me.”

“Everybody loves you, Frank.”

“And I love them more than what they love me. Believe me. I swear to God. You know, that’s why I come so early in the morning.”

Frank seems to care only about his students, and he doesn’t want to talk about himself or his problems. I have to ask several times before he finally opens up about how hard this will be for him.

“I’m now going to be 59 years old. How I save money for my retirement? Do you understand me?”

I did. Frank had started his retirement planning a ways back, and every time I came in for breakfast, I would ask which new place he had in mind. Hawaii and the South Seas were the dream, or maybe the California coast. But on $51,182 a year, Arizona made more sense, and it was Arizona we had talked about the most.

“This make my life…” He searches for the right word. “Worried. Now they come over here, they cut my salary, and they ask me, ‘Be smiling.’ How can I be smiling when I am worried about my rent?”

I don’t know how to answer that one. While I’m busy thinking of something to say, Frank shuffles over to the chef’s closet. “Let me show you something, Miles.”

He unfolds a single sheet of white paper and hands it to me.

“Dear Mr. Hassan,” the paper reads, “Because of the increased cost of maintenance, taxes, insurance, utilities, we must reluctantly inform you that your rent is being increased by $100.00 per month. Effective 01/01/2013 your new monthly rent will be $1,800.00.”

Frank shrugs. “The landlord, he wants his money.”

Overpaid. Right.

But Frank only truly begins to look worried when he starts, hesitantly, to talk about Student Organized Services.

Continue to part 3

  • guest

    I am in tears reading this story. As a Stanford alum, I am also outraged. It sounds to me that every move the university is attempting to make regarding this issue is poorly thought through and will be poorly executed. All of this goes directly against the standards and values which so many of us expect from Stanford. I am so disgusted and so very angry. The university must immediately reverse it’s decision. And as for you, Ms Golden, get it together or better yet, just get out!