Catering policy upsets some local business owners
A year and a half ago, an unknown professor dropped off a copy of a memo at Black Sheep Deli that was written in 2007 by former University of Massachusetts Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance Joyce Hatch.
Attached to the memo, which was addressed to deans, directors and department heads, was an explanation for the implementation of the UMass catering policy, which was updated on April 15, 2007.
“Private vendors operating food carts, concessions, catering and other food service operations are prohibited from operating on campus,” the policy states.
Black Sheep owner Nick Seamon said that when he received the memo, it confirmed suspicions he had had since 2008 when “it became clear” that the deli was doing “less and less business” with the University. Usually handling a few catering gigs each semester for various University department gatherings and events, Seamon said his typical quota had been on a downhill trend.
“For us, that was the gravy,” Seamon said of his 26-year-old business. One catering gig could easily rake in a $5,000 profit. Take away the usual handful of yearly bookings and the effect translates into five figure losses, he said.
In the memo, the UMass catering policy also states that its purpose “is to insure compliance with applicable state health and safety standards regarding the preparation and serving of food and to provide the campus with reasonable controls to insure services meet standards which preclude issues of campus liability.”
Seamon said that he views this clause as libel and said its only purpose being in the policy was to “protect the monopoly of Auxiliary Enterprises.”
“I want them to prove it,” he said. “Even if this is technically under the law, it’s pretty anti-community … I’m inspected by the health inspector, what’s wrong with my food?”
Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, called the memo “disappointing,” adding that “there are no health safety issues in businesses downtown.”
University officials are still standing by the catering policy, but remain careful to distance themselves from the memo written by the former administrator.
“My understanding is that the 2007 memo was reinforcing a policy that’s been in place since 1991. I can’t speak to how or why it was written,” Executive Director of University Relations Nancy Buffone said. Her office handles community relations as well as the planning management of major campus events, such as commencement, which all use UMass food services.
“There’s libel issues there,” Reza Rahmani, owner of both Lit nightclub and restaurant Moti, said of the policy.
Rahmani, a 2004 UMass graduate, is fairly new in the Amherst business scene, only having operated Moti for four years.
He’s had no catering opportunities at his business this year, he said. This fall, he axed a failing delivery service because Moti “couldn’t take on that burden,” citing Baby Berk as an example of UMass competition kept on campus.
“From a business standpoint, we’re not going to be able to stand in the way of it. But what we’re seeing is cutthroat (business practices) from a state-funded institution,” he said. “There’s no way of competing with it.”
“They created a policy around catering the same way you would create a policy like a leash law on unicorns,” owner of Portabella’s Fine Foods and Catering Raphael Elison said. He went on to say that the policy is “addressing a problem that doesn’t exist.”
In a June 2012 email exchange with Andrew Mangels, associate vice chancellor for finance and budget director, Elison reacted to Mangel’s explanation of the catering policy.
“Though I understand that this policy may reduce the ability of off-campus food service providers to operate on campus, the intent of the policy is to prudently manage and safeguard university operations in the best interest of our students and departments,” Mangels wrote in response to Elison’s initial inquiry to the Office of State Comptroller. The Comptroller’s office ensures that tax dollars are being spent on their intended purposes.
In Elison’s response back to Mangels, he addressed his quells with the policy, some of which included “Auxiliary Services (sic) illegal monopoly on food service on public state property” and the “hostile business environment” he felt was created by the University.
“You are trying to compete with me and numerous other tax paying businesses with our own tax dollars,” Elison wrote to Mangels.
Mangels declined to personally comment on the email exchange when approached for an interview.
Elison said in a phone interview that not much has changed since this exchange and that he feels “like there’s a genuine lack of real concern for local businesses who do a lot to support the University.”
“They are not in the business to make money. Their objective is to feed students. It is supposed to educate young people and that’s it,” he said of the University. Elison wants to compete based on “merits,” and believes that in order for this to happen, UMass needs to abolish the prohibition of private catering vendors on campus.
“I think it is a concern and I think that we are having ongoing conversations, and I don’t expect those conversations to end … those relationships are important to us,” Buffone said, referring to the rising and increasingly vocal concern of small business owners.
“Any business decision UMass makes affects area businesses,” Maroulis said, echoing Buffone that discussions between the chamber and the University were “ongoing.”
Buffone, though aware of the issues local business owners are rallying around, said that she believed that the relationship between the town and UMass was “good,” calling it “a very symbiotic relationship. When one thrives, the other thrives.”
But many local business owners don’t agree, including Seamon, who said that though Auxiliary Enterprises “claims to be self-supporting,” small enterprises “are suffering because of UMass.”
“We don’t want any special treatment, we just want a level playing field,” Seamon said. “If they’re monopolizing, where’s the competition?”
Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises Ken Toong was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Some local business owners have begun to mobilize against the policy, hoping to create the level playing field that Seamon referred to.
Seamon as well as Rob Watson of The Lone Wolf and Mark “Harpo” Power of the Harp Irish Pub said that Seamon, Elison and Rahmani have already tried pulling on the ears of various policy makers – from the local to state level. Seamon said no one was interested.
“Nothing happened, and that’s why we’re alerting the press,” Seamon said.
Rahmani first organized a meeting last Thursday between 11 representatives from area businesses in order to gauge interest on confronting the University with their concerns.
“Our movement is growing,” Seamon said.
A second meeting was held, this time with more small business owners, yesterday in which an agenda was solidified to present to the Business Improvement District (BID), a group aimed at improving downtown Amherst commerce via collective member effort, as well as the chamber of commerce, according to Rahmani.
“It was a very positive meeting,” Rahmani said of the second meeting.
Rahmani and Seamon both said the third meeting in which the organized group of owners are expected to present their concerns to BID and chamber officials was in the works for “sometime next week.”
“We need to start getting creative … We’re businessmen, we are first and foremost problem solvers,” Rahmani said of brainstorming possible solutions, one of which may include collective legal representation on behalf of the local business owners.
“This is a great town,” Rahmani added. “If I have to leave here with my tail between my legs, I’m not going quietly. We need to make everyone aware of this.”
Chelsie Field can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.