Things will be changing soon in House cafeterias.
Ed Cassidy, the House chief administrative officer, announced Wednesday that food service conglomerate Sodexo will be taking over as the food service vendor for all 10 dining areas in the House and House office buildings beginning on Aug. 10. “They’ve got vast experience, considerable resources, flexibility and a commitment to customer service that we think positions them well to be an effective partner in providing high-quality, affordable food services to members, staff and visitors to the House," Cassidy said in an interview in his office Tuesday morning.
Sodexo's American headquarters are in Gaithersburg, Md., and it will be taking over House food operations from Restaurant Associates, the New York-based company that has been running the House dining services since December 2007. Cassidy could not comment on whether Restaurant Associates bid on the new contract.
House employees were alerted to the new vendor Tuesday afternoon, in an electronic "Dear Colleague" letter that detailed the changes coming to the House dining facilities, including more brand name offerings, different operating hours and new ordering options to counter the long lines in cafeterias.
Two of the most visible changes will be a Dunkin' Donuts taking the place of the Longworth Creamery and a Subway shop replacing the Rayburn Deli. The Rayburn cafeteria will also be selling Jamba Juice smoothies. The letter mentions longer operating hours for some of the House carry-outs, as well as "expanded grab-n-go offerings" in the Capitol Market.
House staff will be able to order food online via a computer or mobile device, or place orders at freestanding kiosks and have the opportunity for self-checkout. The Members' Dining Room will transition from á la carte to buffet service.
Cassidy, a former House staffer himself, recalled leaving cafeterias due to long lines, and said allowing for quick dining options was a top priority. "Yes, it’s about quality of the food; yes, it’s about the variety of the food; yes, it’s about nutrition; yes, it’s about customer service," Cassidy said. "But it’s also about how easily and quickly can I assess my options, make my selection, pay for my meal and be on my way.”
But customers might be facing price increases throughout the cafeterias. Cassidy noted in his letter and the interview that prices have not gone up for six years. He explained there is a pricing mechanism to alter prices based on the "Producer Price Index," and that future price increases are capped at 3 percent.
David Scanlan, president of government services for Sodexo, said the company has an incentive to provide a pleasurable dining experience in the House. The nationwide company operates in roughly 9,000 sites throughout North America, including federal office buildings and other agencies in the District of Columbia.
“We know that if we do a very good job here, it’s going to help us get more federal business,” Scanlan said in Cassidy's office.
The new food-services contract comes at a time when some lawmakers are attempting to raise wages and improve conditions for Capitol workers. Though food service workers in the House are represented by a union, Unite Here Local 23, Senate and Capitol Visitor Center Restaurant Associate workers are not unionized, and some of them walked off their jobs twice in recent months.
House Democrats, led by Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., recently attempted to insert amendments into the Legislative Branch spending bill to direct the CAO to take factors such as wages and a parent company's country of origin into consideration. None of the amendments were attached, but Cassidy said he discussed the concerns with Wasserman Schultz.
"She has expressed an understandable desire to ensure that the people who provide services to the House are compensated fairly," said Cassidy. "And we are committed, and we wanted a partner who was committed, to that same goal. ... We are very pleased by the signals that Sodexo sent regarding the value it places on a strong, effective, fairly compensated workforce.”
Cassidy said the House did not make any stipulations about union representation in the procurement, instead allowing bidders to present their own proposals. Sodexo voluntarily said it would recognize the union and assume its contract for representing House workers. The company would also abide by, though it is not legally obligated, the D.C. Displaced Workers Act, which guarantees employees' positions for 90 days when a provider changes.
In other words, Restaurant Associates employees in the House will be allowed to remain on the job for 90 days, beginning on Aug. 10, during which time they can demonstrate their value to Sodexo.
“The reality is we want all the workers here because of their experience of working in the House," Scanlan said. “All of the employees that are part of the team today will be offered employment opportunities.”
The transition to Sodexo will begin immediately and ramp up during the August recess. The contract has a four-year base period, with six two-year options. So, after four years, the House will have the opportunity to continue the contract for another two years.
Cassidy wrote in his letter that there are currently no changes to operating schedules in June or July, but revised schedules will be posted in August as temporary closings occur to install equipment and begin complete construction.
The Restaurant Associates contract with the Senate is also in flux. When asked if Sodexo was interested in providing food on the other side of the Capitol, Scanlan said, “We’re interested in all types of opportunities with the government. ... I’m actually not personally familiar with where the Senate is in their contract.”
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