ASSOCIATE EDITOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON
Dining dollars will now to be allowed to roll over from semester to semester, according to director of operations at SAIS Washington, Debbie Walls. One hundred points will still be added every semester, and they can roll over to the next semester until a student graduates.
The decision reverses an earlier plan in which SAIS DC students’ dining dollars would be wiped out at the end of each semester. The original plan to erase the residual points at the end of each semester was intended to help the new café to assess demand by being able to realize revenue at the same time services are offered.
But Walls soon realized the Blackboard system is unable to differentiate the 100 mandatory dining points and the ones added voluntarily by the cardholders. There is a risk that voluntarily-added points will be removed wrongly.
“The risk of removing the funds in error is more risky than not realizing the revenue,” Walls said.
The SAIS DC Nitze Café is operated through revenue from café sales and a subsidy from the university. SAIS DC students have been assessed a mandatory $100 per semester per person in tuition contributing to the subsidy for the café.
However, the approximate $70,000 is not enough to cover all the café’s expenses, and the school pays an extra subsidy to cover the difference between expenses and revenue to sustain the café — something it did with previous iterations as well.
When students swipe their JCards using their dining points, the machine keeps a record for the school, but money is not simultaneously transferred to the café. The revenue generated from credit card or cash sales also goes to the school, as the credit card machine is registered under SAIS, and the café delivers the cash daily to the business office of SAIS.
At the end of each month, the café presents an expense report, which mostly consists of payroll and ingredient expense. The café operator does not pay a rent or utility expense.
The school then writes a check to the café to cover its expenses. The funding comes from three major sources: the revenue realized through dining points, which are contributed mandatorily or voluntarily by students; the revenue realized through credit card as well as cash sales; and lastly, an additional subsidy taken from the school’s budget.
“If I spend on the café subsidies, it is taking away the opportunities of spending (the budget) on other services,” Walls said.
She has thought of various approaches to raise the café’s revenue to decrease the subsidy that SAIS has to provide. Asking for more money from students seems unfeasible. A SAIS student survey last year showed students were reluctant to pay more than $100 per semester, although they would be able to enjoy better food.
Also, SAIS mandated all SAIS staff to use the old café to cater for on-campus events two years ago, which decreased the subsidy, yet this policy put too much pressure on staff of both the old café and SAIS, so it was discontinued.
Students and staff have many dining options other than the café. Lots of people tend to bring their own lunch, and there are plenty of locations where one can eat out since the school is located in the city center.
The café also lacks emotional ties with students and staff, which is available in SAIS Europe. Walls said, “I want the atmosphere at Giulio’s [in Bologna]. Even staff goes down there every day, eating what students eat. Everyone is like a family.”
SAGE is working with Walls to monitor the menu to see what is selling. Discussions are ongoing regarding ways to boost revenue. That may include adding theme days or the ability to purchase alcohol on campus.
SAGE does not sell alcohol at any of its 200-plus locations, as it is only licensed to sell food and does not have the additional licensing for alcohol.
The District Manager of the café, Mavrene Burns had no comments on the possibility of supplying alcohol.
When asked whether the café has incentives to boost revenue as it is guaranteed to be paid without any sales conditions in the three-year contract, Nathan Hooks, the administrative coordinator at SAIS DC said: “They (the café staff) are extremely responsible.”
Burns said the incentive is “pride.” “Food is all about people. When you come in and enjoy your meal, we see a smile on your face; (it is like) we hit a home run,” said Burns.
She emphasized SAGE wants to be accountable to SAIS and its students. “We are here to manage their dollar just like our dollar,” Burns said.
Given the challenges of trying to boost the café’s popularity, Walls stressed she puts students’ need as the highest priority.
“Believe me, I am not thinking about earning money out of the café. I know SAIS will never be able to get rid of the subsidy, but we are paying for the variety of choices for students. It is all about giving students what they want.”