In a statement Wednesday, Vice President for Finance and Administrative Services Tom Axtell announced Director of Dining Services Helmut Mayer will be retiring Aug. 31, 2015. The college has expressed an intent to begin searching for new management immediately.
“I’m 65 and something else needs to happen with my life. I’ve been doing this since the age of 19,” Mayer said in an interview.
Looking to the future, there are two options for the college to consider: finding a new person to replace Mayer, or bringing in a management company. As a culinary chef and dining services director, Mayer was capable of handling much of the work independently.
The question now comes to whether the college will be able to find someone with the same skill sets or if they will turn toward an institution separate from Knox to manage the operations.
Mayer, who has been at Knox since Feb. 2008, said that he would prefer that the college hire another dining services director.
“Any company that comes in, the motivation is different than if it’s in house,” he said. “None of those companies do it as a charity. They don’t do it to break even. They do it to make money. Their motive is profit. If it’s in-house the motive is not profit. The motive is to break even and do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
In a Student Life Committee (SLC) meeting prior to the official announcement, faculty and students debated the pros and cons of each method. Axtell and SLC Chair Jennifer Smith, among others, stood behind moving to a managing company.
“Just because we’re saying corporation does not mean processed,” Smith said, responding in advance to a possible criticism that the food provided would become more processed.
She also argued that Knox is lagging behind other colleges and worried how competitive it can be with schools that do use managing companies.
Axtell looked to financial situations and noted that Knox has not prioritized updating dining facilities.
He believes the college could gain the means of making these changes if a managing firm was used. More resources, such as food variety and staff trainings, may be made available to the college, though it would be more costly than hiring a director.
Mayer said a company would likely give the college money to refurbish its cafeteria, but would rather see the school raise that money on its own.
“If they can raise 12 million or 13 million dollars for Alumni Hall, I don’t see why they couldn’t raise 13 million dollars for a new Student Union. From my perspective, that would be the better thing to do,” he said.
In his email, Axtell said that they will first be pursuing a partnership with a management company due to the benefits it could offer Knox.
Despite believing a managing company would be a better solution, senior and Senate President Hiba Ahmed argued that students should have a voice in the proceedings.
Students’ desires may be filtered through what is called a “response for proposal,” or RFP. This is a list of what the college is looking for in the new management, whether this be the kind of food options or other factors the college considers important.
Sophomore Michelle Luna, a student dishwasher, is against introducing a management company.
“I think having one person instead of some kind of management company would be better … I see Helmut as if he is the father of the entirety of Dining Services, and you can’t replace a father figure with a management company.”
Students also expressed concerns about the vegan, gluten-free and other speciality options offered through Mayer’s system. Another consideration is how the home-grown food initiative would factor in under a company.
“I feel like a management company wouldn’t be as responsive to student needs or our little comment cards,” Luna said. “I can’t see a management company being as responsive to that in general, but also as quick to respond.”
The college is not moving away from unionized workers. While Mayer’s retirement coincides with end of the current union contract, Axtell spoke only of potential changes in practices, not in the school’s staff. Dining services jobs for students are also likely to remain.
It is Axtell’s plan to formulate a committee comprised of two students, one faculty member (likely someone from SLC), Associate Dean of the Students Craig Southern and a person who deals in catering, such as someone from Alumni Affairs. This committee’s job is to create the RFP within the coming weeks as Knox tries to find a person or company to bring on campus.
Mayer said that he will likely move to California to help his family start a restaurant. He plans to later move back to Austria.
Mayer said he will miss his customers at Knox the most.
“Those are the ones who keep me alive and continue keeping me young. As far as customers are concerned, they’re the best customers you can have.”