August 21, 2019

Swiped – How the New System Eliminated Key Services

by Ryan Hulbert ('21, Staff Reporter)

Photo by Windover Construction

If you read my first article on Gordon’s new dining system, I hope you’ll recall that it was largely neutral. I did my best to present objective observations of how the switch to swipes has affected our dietary behavior, as opposed to providing any sort of value judgment. Likewise, this article seeks to inform—to detail the causes and effects of recent dining reforms. That said, it is important to understand that this narrative, objective as it aims to be, may appear in contradiction to the reasoning supplied, explicitly and implicitly, by the administration. I leave you to determine what is accurate and how you should respond.

The following sections are written in direct response to a campus-wide email sent by VP of Finance, John Truschel, on January 14, 2019 entitled “Changes to Dining Services this Semester.”

Background & Gillie’s Afternoon

“The Gillie’s Deli and Buffet will also close earlier on weekdays, ending at 2 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. Since introducing the improved Food Court and the all-you-care-to-eat program, usage of Gillie’s after 2 p.m. has declined by 85%.”

Before diving into analysis, I should point out that “usage of Gillie’s” is a particularly vague metric. Though the administration was unable to clarify, here’s four possible meanings: A) the number of students using Gillie’s, B) the quantity of discrete items purchased, C) the amount of dollars spent, or D) some concoction of the three—each option having different ramifications. To keep things simple, though, I will address all four possibilities at once.

The email lead you to assume that this year’s improvements inadvertently reduced post-2 p.m. Gillie’s patronage by 85%. If this is the case, then it would indeed be fiscally responsible to cut hours. However, there’s a problem here: most students attended Gillie’s after 2 p.m. for a reason. Usually, it’s because they 1) had a late breakfast, 2) have a tight midday class schedule, or 3) just want an afternoon snack. In other words, these students have a situation that cannot be rectified by a full lunch at the Food Court. And yet, the administration makes it sound as if the improved Food Court, which now closes at 1:30 p.m., somehow caused 85% of these afternoon eaters to abandon Gillie’s.

Here’s a better explanation: the swipe system. Before we discuss that, though, let’s take a trip down memory ‘Lane’ to last year’s dining system (Freshmen, you’ll just have to imagine). Previously, a full $2000 meal plan provided you with 2000 universal “dining dollars” to be spent on anything, anytime, and anywhere. Though I could write a book discussing the system’s pros and cons, I want to highlight its finest attribute: divisibility. Put another way, dining dollars allowed students to divide their daily food spending so as to most accurately accommodate their individual needs. At around $18 per day, students could have two $9 meals, three $6 meals, one $12 meal and two $3 snacks—whatever combination was needed. Ultimately, the system ensured that expenditure reflected hunger across time. To see exactly how this worked, let’s return to the three types of post-2 p.m. Gillie’s goers I mentioned earlier (the group that was later driven to 85% extinction):

1) “Late Breakfast” – Students who had brunch or a delayed breakfast for whatever reason could opt for a smaller (cheaper) lunch at the Food Court, have a full lunch at Gillie’s later that afternoon, or simply snack at Gillie’s/Bistro until dinnertime. The size and corresponding price of dinner would likewise be adjusted accordingly.

2) “Tight midday schedule” – Students lacking a substantial window between midday classes could grab a small item at Gillie’s while compensating with a larger breakfast and/or dinner.

3) “Just wanted an afternoon snack” – Students wanting a quick snack mid afternoon had the funds to buy one (or two). And as snacks naturally made you less hungry at dinnertime, you consequently spent less on dinner.

The bottom line: dining dollars allowed students to buy exactly how much food they wanted, when they needed it most. Most importantly, you’ll notice that Gillie’s afternoon service played a critical role in this flexible dynamic.

Now let’s compare this to the new swipe system. To do so, we’re going to have to crunch some numbers. The following calculations are based on the two meal plans* that are most analogous to the old system’s 2000-point plan:

Plan A: 190 swipes + 300 dining points (default option)

Plan B: 240 swipes + 100 dining points

  • Divide total swipes (190 or 240) by days spent on campus this semester (115)
  • Result: Plan A provides 1.65 swipe meals per day; Plan B provides 2.09
  • Implication: Anyone wanting more than 1.65 or 2.09 meals a day will need to use dining points
  • Divide total dining points (300 or 100) by days spent on campus this semester (115)
  • Result: Plan A provides 2.61 dining points per day; Plan B provides 0.87
  • Implication: Both quantities are barely enough for a small snack, much less an additional meal.

*Informal Facebook polls of 194 students on the ’19, ‘21, & ’22 classes found that 69% percent of students with meal plans had one of these two plans.

Now let’s examine how this affects our three afternoon Gillie’s goers from before:

1) “Late Breakfast” – Forget “late,” now students who swipe for breakfast at any time effectively cannot eat again until dinner. With two or less swipes and fewer than 2.61 dining points daily, it simply is not financially possible to regularly purchase additional food at Gillie’s anymore.

2) “Tight midday schedule” – Students who can’t attend the Food Court lunch before its 1:30p.m. closing now only have two options: A) eat a larger/later breakfast and wait until dinner or B) skip breakfast and use your first swipe at Gillie’s or Bistro later that afternoon. [Option B at Gillie’s has since been eliminated]

3) “Just wanted an afternoon snack” – Once again, with only 2.61 or 0.87 dining points a day, this year’s students barely have enough funds for a small bag of chips, much less a $6 sandwich at Gillie’s.

The bottom line: without the capacity to divide and transfer value throughout the day, the new swipe system effectively barred students from Gillie’s afternoon back in August. Upon reading John Truschel’s January email, however, many of us, myself included, wrongly assumed that it was because our fellow students no longer needed or wanted Gillie’s after 2 p.m. In other words, we were led to believe that we collectively invited the reform by our actions. Think about that logic. That’s tantamount to raising the price of gas to $10 per gallon and then closing the roads because 85% of people don’t seem to want to drive anymore. The “85% decline” is not a random externality that students caused—it is a failure rate. It represents a group of students who can no longer purchase the food they want when they need it most.

Before moving on, let’s address the likely responses from dining services:

There’s still Gillie’s Grab ‘N’ Go & Bistro”:

1) Students still don’t have enough daily dining points to buy anything substantial at either location.

2) Students who only want 1-3 items often feel forced to buy additional food to justify a pick-4 swipe. This wastes both student money and food–something Bon Appétit claims to care about.

3) Even if you get 4 items, a pick-4 at Grab ‘N’ Go or Bistro is inferior to a swipe at Gillie’s full service or the Food Court.

Switch to an unlimited meal plan”:

1) This plan is not actually “unlimited.” The plan provides only one pick-4 swipe per day.

2) When it comes to buying snacks or drinks at Chester’s or Bistro, students still have only 0.87 dining points daily–barely enough for an apple every other day.

3) Even if it provides the same value as last year’s standard meal plan ($2000), it costs $250 more per semester. And if you want slightly more than 0.87 dining points per day for drinks and snacks, that can easily become a differential of over $400. Furthermore, last year’s meal plan left most students with hundreds of dining dollars at the end of the Spring.

Chester’s & Weekend Late Night

“Discontinuing Gillie’s Late Night on Friday and Saturday. This is another service that has shown a very low usage rate at this point of the week. Chester’s (which is more popular at this time) will remain open late on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Though not mentioned in the January email, Chester’s nighttime hours were reduced drastically, with Sunday-Thursday’s closing time dropping from midnight to 8 p.m. and Friday-Saturday closing an hour earlier. Compare this to 2 a.m. last year.

You know the drill by now. Bon Appétit implements their swipe system, students no longer have the dining points to buy as many snacks and drinks, Chester’s and Late Night patronage falls, and then management cites the plunge in usage to justify slashing service hours. While the administration was unable to provide numbers on these declines, Chester’s student manager, Nicolas Smith (‘19), was able to give me an estimate. He explained that before the swipe system, Chester’s usually made between $500 and $700 daily, often passing $800 on a good day. After the switch to swipes last semester, however, Nico says daily averages are between $350 and $400 and falling. The simple reason: students have fewer dining points and usually opt to spend them on snacks.

In an email to the Tartan, VP of Communications, Rick Sweeney, explained that the changes in hours were “an efficiency move so they would not be running two services at the same time.” Management proposes that “students can still get [beverages] in Gillie’s on the nights [they’re] not available in Chester’s.” In other words, just get coffee at Gillie’s. I asked Nico what he thought of this alternative, to which he replied “I mean, you can, but it’s not quite the same beverage experience.” Without espresso machines, syrups, and talented baristas, Gillie’s drink offerings are severely limited. Even if Gillie’s somehow managed to add your drink of choice, it wouldn’t be included in a pick-4 and once again you’d be required to spend scarce dining points.

Beverages aside, the termination of nighttime service during weekdays has had a depressing effect on Chester’s atmosphere. Without students passing through to buy drinks and the baristas playing music, the place feels stagnant–almost lifeless. Though it remains a prime study location, it is not the hangout spot it used to be. It may even be said that the changes have undermined the faux pub’s role as a central student space for the Gordon community. Seeing the service window dark and barred just after dinner, one can’t help but feel as if the entire campus has dimmed.

Friday and Saturday, however, present the opposite problem. While the administration claims that Chester’s is “more popular at these times”, anyone who has visited it late on a Friday or Saturday night knows that the place is a ghost town. This is because it is primarily used as the most cozy study spot on campus—a role it need not serve on the weekend. To close it on weekdays, therefore, seems backwards.

Despite the changes, Nico was adamant that “Chester’s will remain committed to making great coffee.” He also shared that they’re looking for new ways to keep the space lively after closing. Finally, he says he’s “incredibly proud of the Chester’s staff for their support and flexibility.”

Conclusion

I reprised my examination of dining services because I saw a contradiction: the college was cutting hours because usage of Gillie’s and Chester’s declined drastically, and yet, nearly everyone I talked to still wanted to use both services. In other words, how could consumption fall when desire did not? The swipe system became the clear culprit. It had been choking out usage of Gillie’s and Chester’s since we arrived back in August. When the decline was used to justify cuts, it was all too convenient. Bon Appétit’s strategy seemed to be “kill the chicken, kill the egg.”

The problem was, most of us didn’t see the connection. The class of ‘22 hadn’t even experienced the old system. So we assumed the “85% drop” and other declines occurred because everybody else genuinely didn’t want the services we wanted–that we were in the minority. Social psychologists call this phenomenon “pluralistic ignorance”–when those in the majority reject something privately, but go along with it because they incorrectly assume most others accept it. In other words, we assumed the emperor had new clothes.

As I finish this article, Exit17 has just ended. In years past, the show’s audience would be flooding Gillie’s, grabbing food, and lingering until midnight. Tonight, however, the place lies dark and empty. I do not claim to have all the answers, but I have tried to clarify why these changes were made. We must always assume good intentions, but we must also speak up. Though a budget deficit may necessitate cutting hours, nothing negates the need for transparency.  

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