Thursday, December 18, 2014

School year’s end will bring change in food service

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 5/3/2013

The food was palatable, but the price was not.

Some Ottawa school board members said when given another “quality” food service option at a $71,000 reduced cost, they opted to go with Opaa! Food Management Inc., Chesterfield, Mo., over longtime food service provider Chartwells School Dining Services.

The food was palatable, but the price was not.

Some Ottawa school board members said when given another “quality” food service option at a $71,000 reduced cost, they opted to go with Opaa! Food Management Inc., Chesterfield, Mo., over longtime food service provider Chartwells School Dining Services.

“We heard really good things about Opaa!, and members of our food service committee who toured the Piper school district’s lunch rooms [served by Opaa!] were very impressed,” David White, a school board member who served on the food service committee, said. “And, obviously, you have to look at the cost. I don’t think we were getting a $70,000 superior product from Chartwells.”

The school board voted 5-2 in late April to go with low bidder Opaa! Food Management over Chartwells, the only other bidder for the district’s food service business. Opaa!’s bid of $878,957.86 for the 2013-2014 school year came in $71,007.19 under Chartwells’ bid of $949,965.05. The school district and Opaa! have the option of renewing the contract for four one-year extensions, with either party able to opt out of the contract at the end of each school year.

Marcia Servatius, director of dining services for Chartwells School Dining Services, which provides food service to Ottawa and more than 550 other school districts throughout the U.S., said she was disappointed that Chartwells was losing its contract with the Ottawa school district.

Servatius has been with the Ottawa school district for 24 years — about 19 as director of dining services with Chartwells. The district’s relationship with Chartwells stretches back into the 1990s, she said.

“I was surprised,” Servatius said of the board’s decision.

If given the opportunity, Servatius said Chartwells would bid for the Ottawa school district’s food service business in the future.

“Chartwells would always be interested in serving Ottawa [schools],” she said.

Chartwells’ contract with the Ottawa district will expire at the end of the current school year June 30, Servatius said. She declined further comment about the board’s decision to switch food service providers. Chartwells, a division of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, provides dining services to 2.7 million students nationwide, according to its website.

Opaa! — which means “Hurrah” in Greek and typically is shouted in Greek restaurants to denote a pleasurable dining experience — was founded in 1978 by Kenneth Short, a former assistant food director at the University of Missouri-Columbia who started his business by serving Kemper Military School and College, Boonville, Mo., the company’s website said. Since then, Opaa! has grown to serve more than 100 school districts in Missouri and Kansas. Other districts in the region served by Opaa! include Basehor-Linwood, Bonner Springs and Piper.

It was the tour of Piper’s elementary and high school cafeterias that helped sell the Ottawa school district’s food service committee on the idea that Opaa! had the resources, menu options and quality to be Ottawa’s food service provider, Susan Ward, school board president, said.

“Marge’s report indicated Piper was extremely pleased with Opaa!,” Ward said.

Marge Stevens, a school board member who was on the committee, was traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Ward said the committee — comprised of administrators, school board members White and Stevens and other district staff — reported everyone they talked with at Piper — administrators, food service workers, teachers and students — were complimentary of Opaa!

“The [Piper] kids said they had plenty to eat and that they were not hungry,” Ward said. “Marge said committee members checked the trash cans — and they were empty. That tells you a lot about the quality of their school lunches.”

Ward said the $71,000 difference in bids played a role in the decision. Ward, White, Stevens, Bill Allegre and Brandon Jones voted to accept Opaa!’s bid.

“In this day and time, you have to watch how you spend every dime,” Ward said.

But the school board president said the decision was more complicated than just the cost, and that other factors played into it.

“We had heard some concerns from time to time, and had reports that some of the later lunch [periods] complained about running out of food,” Ward said.

But Brian Kane, who cast the dissenting vote along with fellow board member Dennis George, said he thought the reports of food shortages had been rectified.

“I think that [food shortage] had occurred early in the school year, and had been addressed,” Kane said. “I know the money is a concern, and it should be, but I didn’t think there was enough information [from the committee] to convince me that we should make a change, especially when you consider how long we had been with Chartwells. I thought they were doing a good job.”

Ward said she thought the food service committee had done a “very thorough” job.

Both food service providers tout a multitude of menu options, with both saying that all their menus meet or exceed federal nutrition guidelines. One of Opaa!’s signature items is rolls baked from scratch in the school kitchens.

Chartwells had been growing some of its ingredients in a garden it maintained at Ottawa High School. Brian Kraus, interim superintendent, said he anticipated the new food service provider or students enrolled in horticulture courses at the high school would continue to maintain the garden.

“We aren’t going to give up the garden, but we haven’t determined yet who will take it over,” he said.

Ward and White said another factor that influenced their decision to go with Opaa! was that the food service provider said it planned to try to retain the 24 Chartwells’ food service employees currently serving meals in the district.

“Opaa! said they would match their salaries and had a good benefits package,” Dean Katt, former Ottawa superintendent and current district consultant who served on the food service committee, said. “That was one area the committee was concerned about — we were glad Opaa! wanted to retain those workers.” Craig Cohen, senior vice president of operations with Opaa!, confirmed in an email Friday that Opaa! planned to offer employment to Chartwells’ food service staff in Ottawa.

“Opaa! has met with the employees at Ottawa to introduce ourselves, and we will offer Opaa! positions to Chartwells’ employees,” Cohen said in the email.

Lynda Alderman, newly elected school board member and retired Ottawa elementary teacher, said she was surprised about the switch, but said she wasn’t privy to all the information that went into making the decision. With tight budgets, Alderman said, she understood the need for cost to be a contributing factor.

“[Chartwells] served a meal at a recent board meeting when Marcia [Servatius] gave a report about their food service program, and I thought that it was delicious,” she said. “I think Marcia has always done a good job.”

Servatius said Thursday her future employment plans were uncertain.

In a letter to the school district, Kevin Short, president of the company started by his father, said Opaa! was looking forward to serving Ottawa.

“Opaa! is a family owned and operated company, providing professional food services to K-12 public schools since 1978,” Short said. “From our nutrition experts to our kitchen staff, we all share a common goal — making meal time the highlight of every student’s day — and we believe a well-nourished student is a well-focused student.”

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