Sunday, April 19, 2009

Want chairs? Perhaps... 99 of them?

In case you were unaware, 99 Chairs and Trek Express will be closed for the summer in order to undergo renovations. 99 Chairs is kaput, to be replaced by a White Spot. Pizza Pizza and Timmy's will be staying put and the sandwich place will get a new name familiar to those in Vanier: Stackables.

So, without further ado, here's your Craigslist ad of the day. Chairs and tables from Trek Express and 99 Chairs can be yours for as low as $5! Not only that, Andrew Parr, the head honcho over at UBC Food Services is actually volunteering to take calls on the weekend to sell their stuff on Craigslist. Folks, that is what is known as dedication, or possibly just workaholism. Give this man a promotion!

Actually... UBC did just promote him. But that is another topic for another post!

A few weeks ago, I went to 99 Chairs for the first and last time, mostly to be able to write this post without being completely uninformed. (According to my co-worker, the main reason most people went to 99 Chairs was to buy beer on your meal card.) Although the food was passable, I did get the sense that this was a worn-out restaurant - no pizazz or excitement. It could certainly use some sprucing up. But... a White Spot?


I don't think UBC Food Services runs franchises very well. Like many university campuses, with a near-monopoly on campus food service, there is only a token effort to be competitive. (Check out this other Craigslist ad too . They go out of their way to tout “No competition” as one of the best qualities of their UBC business.) Personally, I thought the whole idea of having a franchised restaurant is that all the locations are pretty much the same. UBC Food is running the black sheep of all of these corporate families. (For the record, UBC Food describes their franchises as being “non-traditional”.)

Much like my beloved Shopper's Drug Mart which refused to honour Shopper's Drug Mart flyers, nowhere except A&W accepts coupons. The Subway in the SUB doesn't ever participate in the never-ending Subway promotions and in fact, their regular prices are slightly higher than average. The Tim Hortons at Trek Express doesn't accept Tim Hortons gift cards which are being heavily promoted chain-wide, though I'll note they do participate in Roll Up the Rim; there probably would be a revolt if they ignored that one. Have you ever been to another Manchu Wok that closes at 2:30 pm and is never open on weekends? How about a Tim Hortons that closes at 3:30 pm and is likewise restricted to Monday to Friday? Heck, McDonald's in the Village is open to 3 AM!

So you may have guessed by now that I'm not terribly excited about White Spot. Don't worry, there will be no Durganesque rant about the horrible dangers of corporations. Instead, I am wondering how much time and effort is going into this plan. After all the dust has settled, what real changes will we see? My prediction: not much. The food will still be mediocre, the hours terrible, they won't participate in White Spot promotions, and you'll have to start tipping. It seems like a completely lateral move from what 99 Chairs was, except that it will take a large amount of money (franchise fee of $75,000 and an initial investment of $750,000 - $2,500,000) and effort to get there. What's the point?

UBC's ancillaries, UBC Food included, could definitely serve students and the larger UBC community better with a different set of priorities. If you read the documentation of UBC Food's visit to BoG in February, there is a long list of objectives they are working on. Reading it as a potential customer of theirs, I could not find a single objective where I read it and thought “Oh, that's a good idea.” I guess potential customers is not a market segment they are hoping to attract.

Some things about ancillary structure are indeed changing soon, driven by UBC Admin. The full details aren't out there quite yet, but I'm sure you'll hear more as it develops.

I will give UBC Food some brownie points for the simple fact that they are not Aramark or Sodexo. Still, I can't help but thinking that they are wasting a lot of resources on initiatives that, in my opinion, have no real benefit in the end. If they really have so much money and time they wish to expend to improve food service on this campus, I have ideas for some more tangible ways to do it:

  1. Lower prices. That's pretty self-explanatory. While I would not describe myself as a poor, starving student, I am cheap and would love the food to be more affordable.

  2. Keep longer hours. As a grad student, I habitually work evenings and weekends. I also work year round. Over the summer, dinnertime service at UBC Food outlets stops. Surprisingly, my body's need for dinner does not.

  3. Stop running “non-traditional” franchises. Start accepting coupons and participating in specials at ALL of the chain locations. Please stop abusing the fact that there is very little competition at UBC.

  4. Follow the AMS's lead and invest in water fountains at any location big enough to handle it. Put a fountain in Trek Express over the summer, and follow it up with some more around the dining area of Pacific Spirit Place.