Bon Appetit: Fresh and sustainable, but at what cost?
Eric Parks, Managing Editor
When students make the decision to attend Saint Martin’s University, they need to choose whether or not they will live on campus. If they live on campus, all freshman and sophomore students are required to select one of the three main meal plans provided by Bon Appetit: Gold, Silver, or Bronze. Many students will consider the cost of each meal plan, but the difference in price between the Gold plan and the Bronze plan is only $350, which is small considering their respective prices, as seen in the graphic. The names of these meal plans indicate that the Gold plan will equate to more “meal currency” than the Bronze plan, but that is misleading. While Gold offers the most meal credits, it comes with the least amount of flex cash. Students who eat lunch on campus and frequent Monk’s Bean and the Parson’s Store, but often opt for other dinner options than St. Gertrude’s Cafeteria, see the Bronze as the best value because it comes with the most flex cash and fewer meal credits. Therefore, the plans are not necessarily “ranked” from gold to bronze, but rather are designed to fit students’ individual needs.
As the graphic shows, students pay anywhere from $26 to over $40 for each “All you care to eat” meal credit. This cost is far higher than most other similar institutions in the area, such as Pacific Lutheran University, Whitworth University, and Seattle Pacific University. Their meal credits cost as much as $16 and can cost as little as under $7, but these universities do not have Bon Appetit as their food service provider. With a drastic difference in price compared to other institutions, are students really getting their value?
In a recent email interview with Saint Martin’s Bon Appetit General Manager Carole Ann Beckwith, she stated that, “Bon Appetit is proud to have company-wide standards for how we cook. We serve meals centered on abundant fresh produce, whole grains and lean and/or plant-based proteins with minimal amounts of healthy, plant-derived fats. Flavors are developed through healthy cooking techniques. Stocks, soups, salsas and sauces are made from scratch. All salad dressings are made from scratch. Deli turkey and beef are roasted in-house daily. We aim to buy at least 20 percent of our ingredients from small, owner-operated farms within 150 miles of St. Martin’s.”
The company prides itself in making sure that all cooks are well-trained to provide healthy, tasty meals to students. The effort that Bon Appetit puts forth is impressive, although it should be noted that not all of their food is fresh. Chicken tenders, french fries, tater tots, and other foods come from a frozen bag that is then deep-fried. This provides students with more choices, because not everyone wants the entrees that require more effort to prepare, like showcase and global options. Bon Appetit provides plenty of options for students that value fresh, quality ingredients.
Other points of emphasis for Bon Appetit are their sustainable business practices.
According to their website, the company supports local agriculture, serves only seafood that meets the Seafood Watch sustainability guidelines, helps reduce antibiotic usage on farms, considers the impact that the food industry has on climate change, and, of course, the removal of plastic straws and stirrers. Abiding by these policies is likely not cheap, which may contribute to the higher cost per meal credit.
Bon Appetit has advantages over other companies in the industry, like Sodexo, our previous food service provider. The company has won several awards for their practices in sustainability and quality, and a full list of these awards can be found on their website. The key disadvantage that Bon Appetit faces is how expensive their meal plans are. Students are forced into buying meal plans if they are freshman or sophomores that live on campus, so they do not have any other option. However, juniors and seniors that live in apartment-style campus housing can opt-out of meal plans. Because our campus is small, Bon Appetit can feasibly provide only a handful of options for each meal. However, at $26 to $40 per meal, students can find closer to what they are looking for at local restaurants and grocery stores. For example, Red Lobster is seen as one of the more expensive restaurants in the area, but their Ultimate Feast, which comes with lobster tail, snow crab legs, garlic shrimp scampi, and Walt’s Favorite Shrimp, as well as rice, two sides, and bread, costs $31.49. Wild-Caught Whitefish and two sides is only $13.99, less than a meal credit under any meal plan. El Sarape’s menu features a few dozen entrees under $20 and comes with unlimited chips and salsa. Granted, these prices do not include tax, and people who dine out are expected to tip and will likely order a drink, increasing the price of these meals. The tip and beverage costs could be avoided if the customers take the meal to go.
Bon Appetit offers deserts, beverages, and unlimited sides at no additional cost when using a meal credit, but students are only allowed one entree. So is “All you care to eat,” really all you care to eat? Additionally, students cannot take food to go when eating at the caf. Many restaurants serve portions large enough for leftovers, providing not only one meal, but also a snack or effectively a second meal.
Returning students may have noticed that the cost of meal plans have increased. Beckwith stated that the increasing cost of the meal plans is due to inflation, which was 1.9 percent over the last school year according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, but meal plans now cost between 6.00 to 7.32 percent more than they did last year. There was no further explanation provided for why the cost increase outpaced inflation by over three fold.
Another important aspect of Bon Appetit’s contract with Saint Martin’s is the Parson’s Store.
According to Beckwith, “Product choices are driven by student requests and sales data. Pricing is consistent with local convenience-store pricing. Since Bon Appétit’s primary business is cooking fresh food from scratch, we do not enjoy volume discounts on individual store items like a big-box retailer would.”
I went to 76, which is one of the closest convenience stores, and compared prices for identical products. As the table illustrates, many products are slightly more expensive at the Parson’s Store, but there is not a significant difference. Students do not have to leave campus and can use flex cash, which is already paid for, at the Parson’s Store. A trip to 76 or Chevron is inconvenient, and those businesses do not accept flex cash. The slightly higher prices at the Parson’s Store is a direct result of Bon Appetit’s limited buying power. 76 is a larger convenience store with higher foot traffic and is open 24 hours. Because of that, 76 can bargain for larger bulk discounts than Bon Appetit can, which results in slightly higher prices for students. Dollar for dollar, the Parson’s Store is not quite as affordable as its direct competitors, but the prices are similar enough to make it a popular destination to purchase snacks, supplies, drinks, and treats. Additionally, students do not have to pay sales tax on purchases at the Parson’s Store, or anywhere else that they use flex cash, leading to more savings.
When asked what the company profit margin was on its Saint Martin’s contract, Beckwith informed The Belltower that company policy prohibits sharing such information. It is also important to understand that much of what Bon Appetit does and the costs associated with their operations is dictated by the university and not the company. Further information on the contract with Bon Appetit, as well as the opinions of students, will be provided in a future issue of The Belltower.