• Cozy cafes from now on

    Canteens for sale

    Restaurants and canteens at the RUG are on the chopping board. Many small cafes from a new proprietor will replace the large canteens, and lots of staff will go, too.
    in short

    Large canteens have become outdated, so they’re being put up for sale.

    They should become gathering places with small eateries like the food court at the University of Rotterdam.

    Students there find the eateries pleasant, but the prices slightly high.

    Together with the commercial party who is buying the canteens, the RUG will set the prices for certain items.

    One condition of the sale is that the personnel will also be taken over.

    For the employees, it feels as though they have been kicked out onto the streets after years of being in service at the RUG.

    However, according to De Witt Hamer, it will all turn out just fine.

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    It’s just out of date, according to department head Tom de Witt Hamer from Food & Drinks, as the organisation of the canteens, restaurants and takeaways is officially called. The large canteens where thousands of students and staff get their cheese sandwiches, coffee and soup are simply not good enough. ‘The trend now is for everyone to switch to small scale’.

    Satebar and Tostiworld

    Rumors were already floating around about the canteens being tackled. Years ago, the university decided to outsource as much as possible. If it does not fall under education and research, it can better be handled by commercial parties. ‘That is how the repro shop and post office situation has been viewed. There, you could see the decline in print work and the rise of digitalization, and we could not go on like that any longer. That is also what you see happening here. The scale of the canteens will become smaller. The way the market has developed means that you don’t do these kinds of activities yourself. That has been going on for years. In the meantime, virtually all of the universities have outsourced to an external company. Nevertheless, the notion is that the market can adapt to the changes, which blurs the lines between catering and hotels, and restaurants and cafes, and the emphasis is placed on creating an experience and providing a place for people to meet, says De Witt Hamer.

    One extreme example is the food court in Rotterdam. Rather than one long counter for coffee and sandwiches, students and staff visit small businesses. A Satebar, Tostiworld, Has Döner Kebab, Starbucks and Spar under one roof, just like the Markthal in the harbor city or the many fresh markets in Barcelona, Stockholm and Valencia.

    Pleasant but pricy

    ‘At the University of Rotterdam, you have a lot of space occupied by 15 to 20 small eateries. You can pick up a sandwich, chips, Chinese, Italian: you name it. There are tables in the middle where you can eat, drink or study’, says De Witt Hamer enthusiastically. With internationalization comes more demand for diversity. The eateries address this. ‘I can see it happening at Zernike. There are already ideas for developing Zernike further with more small scale economic activity by putting shops and cafes in the middle of the campus. That is not a unique development; you see it in many places.’

    ‘I assume that we can take all staff members with us’

    Photo by Daria Scagliola & Stijn Brakkee

    Students in Rotterdam find the eateries pleasant, bringing more life to the place. ‘There is a lot of light and a few cozy corners, which you rarely had with the old cafeteria. To my mind, the old canteen was massive, more of a real canteen. Moreover, the food here is much tastier and has more variety’, one student says. ‘This kind of food court makes the campus more attractive, especially for international students who come to live on campus’, says another. However, the prices are a little higher.

    ‘At each university and with every survey, the result that came out is that it is too expensive. Two years ago, we did a benchmark and we found that our price policy was somewhat strange, so we have made some changes. Soup was 1.60 euros and now it is 1 euro. The subsidised cheese sandwich went from 60 cents to 90. Last year, we did another survey, which again showed that we are too expensive. But I suspect that that has something to do with the German students. In Germany, meals are heavily subsidised’, says De Witt Hamer.

    Prices and range

    If the canteens are outsourced, the price policy will be decided upon in consultation with the university. De Witt Hamer: ‘Usually, you decide that there is a basic package, and you decide together what the price should be. The caterer is also free, to a certain extent, in deciding the prices of other things that they want to offer.’

    Additionally, agreements are made about the range of products. ‘What do you want to be offered and what don’t you want to be offered? It is not the case that the caterer is completely free to do what they want, but you do have to allow them to carry out their economic activities. A caterer also wants to earn something from the venture.’

    In February or March, two national caterers and a local business will pay a visit to the RUG to talk about how they view the market. Then, together with the students, the conditions will be set for the businesses who want to take over the canteen. There is a big chance that a national caterer will win the contract.

    ‘However, we still want to create the possibility for a local business to have a chance, like we have do at the Sportsbar and the espresso and sandwich bars at Micaffe, for example’, says the department head.

    Permanent staff coming along

    A week and a half before Christmas, he informed staff about the plans. The employees were not exactly enthusiastic, especially as the holidays were just around the corner. ‘Even so, it was a very conscious decision to do that. Of course I had considered whether I should do it or wait until January. But a number of people already knew, so before the news spread, I thought it would be decent if people heard it from me first. I didn’t want to give a nice speech over New Year’s drinks and then turn around a week later and say: okay, people, this and this are going to happen. And I do think that people have appreciated that’, says De Witt Hamer.

    ‘I can’t just lose my job, I have children’

    Photo by Daria Scagliola & Stijn Brakkee

    They were not surprised, he thinks. The RUG had not invested in new personnel for some time. Half of the staff is made up of temporary employees. ‘You’ve already chosen a direction by doing this.’

    A condition of the contract with an external company is that the personnel are taken over by the business and retain their contracts, says De Witt Hamer. ‘That, we can enforce.’ But that only refers to about 30 permanent staff members. The contracts of seconded employees will just expire. ‘I wholly believe that we can take all staff with us in the contract and can say to the commercial party: we have this many employees and they have to have a job with you. Dismissal is absolutely not on the agenda.’

    They have no say

    The same thing happened last year with Grafimedia, the repro shops and post offices at the RUG. The costs could no longer be managed. Back then, De Witt Hamer also had to tell staff that the department would need to be reorganised. ‘I have been through this kind of track a number of times now. I know exactly what that feels like for the people. It just feels like they are being kicked out onto the street. That is also what I tell them. And I understand it as well, as the staff member doesn’t have a say in such a track. The decision to outsource is made from the top, but you do have a responsibility to make sure that everyone has a new position.’

    For staff members, it still hits hard, confirms one of the chefs. ‘After Christmas, everyone here was walking around with the same question: ‘What now?’ You don’t just do something like that, making that kind of announcement right before Christmas. I have worked here for five years and know the customers, but I have been seconded. I have to leave in ten months, and I can’t just be unemployed. I have children.’ The chef is especially worried about those with permanent jobs who work there, some of whom have been in their positions for thirty years. ‘I really hope that they get taken on. If they get fired, who will take them then?’

    ‘Change manager’

    According to De Witt Hamer, the concerns are not necessary. He assumes that all permanent staff will be brought along under the new plans. And if this is not the case, a new job will be found for them. ‘If people want to stay at the RUG, then we will look at other possibilities. However, I have already said: don’t expect too much. At that level, there are not many jobs available. Maybe somebody will want to look elsewhere. We will then help them will interview training, internships: you name it. In the meantime, there are a number of people who have already specified that they would like something else, so they will also receive mentoring.’

    De Witt Hamer – ‘Change manager’, as he calls himself on LinkedIn – has experience with reorganisations and changes in direction. Still, the reorganisation of Food & Drinks was not a predetermined plan when he was placed there as an interim manager two years ago, he says. ‘At catering, there was no talk of it at that moment, but there was the idea that something would happen. That is why the decision was made not to replace people.’

    ‘We are just in time’

    It is not a cut back, he insists. ‘A much more important reason is that I believe the market can adapt more easily to the changes that take place. The fact that it is potentially financially attractive is also a factor, but it is not the reason why the RUG has chosen this route. We have become a management organisation, and we are constantly looking to see if we should keep on doing it ourselves or if we should outsource it to the market. In the case of Grafimedia, we were just in time to allow for a substantial number of employees to transition to the new service provider. It might sound a bit crazy, but there is also a certain responsibility in it. As an employer, you have to think: at this point, I can still do something with my staff. If I wait too long, it might be too late, and then the whole market will have switched to small scale businesses which don’t need staff members from bigger organisations.’

    Photo by Daria Scagliola & Stijn Brakkee