Good news for the captive followers of the United Nations cafeteria: Help may be on the way.
The UN is selecting a new outfit to run its food services in New York, including the main cafeteria, the Delegates Dining Room and the catering of outside events held in the private rooms clustered around the Delegates Dining Room.
With luck, a new caterer will be in place by July 2014 to replace Aramark, the sadly disappointing current food services best known outside the UN for catering prisons around the world.
A word of caution: Since the bidding for a new caterer is an open process, Aramark could in theory join the competition and win a new contract, ensuring another five years of disappointing food and mediocre service. UN officials said that Aramark’s intentions were still unclear. Aramark had no comment.
The sorry state of UN food services was highlighted by PassBlue in an April 2013 UN Eats review, “The UN Cafeteria: Nowhere Else to Go,” about the main cafeteria, which stoked staff discontent, infuriated Aramark and — most significantly — helped prompt UN demands for improvements.
Aramark drew heavy fire after UN staff members began returning to the main Secretariat building after the completion of the years-long headquarters renovations. While the food was not that great before the renovations, it took a big turn for the worse after Aramark won a new five-year UN contract in 2009. Aramark had expected the renovations to curtail its headquarters business for just one year, but the downtime stretched to three years.
Typically, the UN caterer makes its money from catering private events held in the UN compound, but these, too, were shut during the renovations. Soon the company was complaining of a few million dollars in losses. Fearing more losses from the improvements being asked by UN management, Aramark walked away from its contract. A new one-year pact was negotiated, which includes new service and quality demands but shields Aramark from losses by requiring the UN to cover the net cost of catering operations.
This means that the UN is getting all the income from catering but paying Aramark for the actual costs. So if expenses are higher than revenue, the UN pays the difference out of its own pocket.
Usually, big institutional or corporate cafeterias in New York are subsidized. But the General Assembly has insisted that UN catering be self-sustaining (apart, of course, from providing the caterer with kitchens and dining rooms). So UN officials are hoping the next contract enables the new food services provider to again turn a profit on its private catering operations, as in the days before the headquarters renovations.
Could bad food and mismanagement also be contributing to Aramark’s lagging UN revenue? Will the recent quality improvements demanded by UN management be enough to lure back disenchanted staffers? Or are other forces at work? Please let us know what you think by adding a comment. And be sure to check back in July. In the meantime, pray for quality bidders.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.