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College junior Joey Campanella, who constitutes part of the 32 percent of upperclassmen and graduate students signed up for a meal plan, helps himself at the salad bar in 1920 Commons, which was renovated this summer. [Jill Reiner/The Daily Pennsylva

As Food Services giant Aramark enters its second year at the helm of University Dining Services, profits are up, Penn officials are claiming success and Dining officials have an impressive list of new facilities and offerings.

But students, for the most part, are still grumbling.

"I'm very reluctant to go down there," Hill College House resident Lee Tobey said of Hill's dining hall, despite his close proximity to the facility.

"It's just not healthy," the Wharton freshman added. "They have fruit, but I'm a big guy -- I can't just have fruit."

As per University mandate, all freshmen must purchase a meal plan. Yet, only 32 percent of the upperclassman and graduate student population chose to purchase a meal plan this year.

"The food wasn't good, or healthy," College junior Jennifer Katz said, adding that a meal plan "wasn't useful for... living off campus."

Other upperclassmen cited the meal plan expense as their opt-out factor.

"It was $10 for a meal, and I didn't eat that much food," College senior Emily Hillman said.

However, the number of students voluntarily on meal plans saw a 10 percent jump from last year and, "as far as industry standards go, it's a good number," according to Dining Services Marketing Manager Maeve Duska.

The increase came after just one year on the job for Aramark, a Philadelphia-based, $9 billion Fortune 500 corporation with 200,000 employees and business in 18 countries.

These strong financials are what pushed Aramark into the picture, according to University officials.

Four years ago, the University first outsourced Dining Services to the culinary management company Bon Appetit. Last year, the University switched courses, declining to re-sign with Bon Appetit in favor of Aramark, the runner-up in the 1999 decision.

After signing a long-term contract this summer worth an estimated $16 million in annual sales, Aramark will continue to run Penn Dining Services.

And while officials are pleased, campus-wide reaction has been more varied.

"It's not good," 20-year dining employee Carol Slagulter said of the transition's impact on staffers. "It used to be like a family.... It's just hard."

Slagulter cited staff treatment as the main source of discontent with both outsourcing firms, saying, "Bon Appetit was just like Aramark, but they weren't quite as bad."

"I know they come here to make friends... but don't make [staffers] feel like they're nothing," she added.

While other staff members echoed these sentiments, some were pleased with the recent changes.

"It's stricter, but it's better," three-year dining employee Syreeta Camp said of the management differences.

"The food tastes a lot better now," she added.

Slagulter, too, sees the transition much as Dining officials do, saying, "It's the future."

The future means retail. It means more Dining Dollars and on-the-go options. It means brightly colored and revamped dining halls.

Since Aramark came to campus, these changes have been undertaken -- with extensive summer renovations, the addition of Subway, Chick-fil-A, Fresh‰ns Smoothies, the Cyber Cafe in the Towne Building and Mark's Cafe in Van Pelt Library -- and are improving the image of dining for many students.

"I used the Dining Dollars the most," College junior Mollie Weinstein-Gould said, noting that while she saw the draw of retail options, she did not choose to retain a meal plan this year.

No stranger to the college world, Aramark runs food services at hundreds of universities nationwide, including Yale, Boston and George Washington universities.

Emphasizing the importance placed on retail offerings, Mike Gilligan, marketing program manager of dining at Boston University, said, "We've added a lot of pieces to the puzzle... it's no longer just cafeteria-style dining."

In part because of this integration of retail options, the 27-year partnership between Aramark and BU continues to draw an increase in both sales and profitability, according to Gilligan. New York University, also outsourcing with Aramark for over 20 years, noted similar improvements.

Yet, extensive renovations and dining overhauls have led officials to declare that the Penn partnership -- despite its infancy -- is a model of a successful outsourcing.

"We kind of look at Penn as a great example... of how we build community on campus," Aramark corporate spokesman Sean Clements said.

Aramark came to Penn 15 years ago when the Wharton School contracted the firm for its conference center. Drastic renovation changes, however, began only once all Dining Services were outsourced to Aramark.

"At the time that we went with Bon Appetit, the emphasis was more on changing the food itself," Business Services spokeswoman Marie Witt said. "That was really Bon Appetit's hallmark -- they were an upscale culinary firm."

Yet, Witt said that University demands quickly shifted during Bon Appetit's two-year stint on campus.

"We realized that we needed help with our facilities," she said.

Upon arriving, Aramark studied student demands to guide facilities changes. Decisions to bring in new offerings were based on the results of MarketMatch, which analyzed student eating habits and needs.

"We were able to talk with our customers about what their needs were, and we used that information to change the meal plans and make a lot of renovations," said Laurie Cousart, Dining Services' contract and relationship manager.

These changes have been successful with some, adding flexibility and convenience to student schedules.

"I'm too lazy to cook and too busy," Engineering senior Jason Cik said, praising the kosher dining hall and its variety of options.

"It's a big social thing," he added.

Saying that they are open to suggestions, Dining officials hold advisory board meetings to meet with students. More healthy options are being pursued in light of the most recent session, according to Dining officials.

Duska said that Aramark and University officials are still striving for improvement.

"Obviously, we're not going to just sit back now and pat ourselves on the back."

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