Wherever a monopoly exists, the variety of choice and quality of service are diminished. Authoritative bodies, such as the government, can be manipulated into granting exclusive contracts with lavish privileges and protections to those that lobby effectively. These monopolies breed complacency. Without a need to compete for customers, they feel little pressure to innovate, maintain low prices or demonstrate quality.
UAA has such a monopoly. All food and beverages served at a catered event on campus must be provided by Seawolf Dining & Catering. They have been awarded this monopoly as per the terms of their contract with the university. You could request permission to use an outside vendor for catering your event, but the success of this is unlikely. Seawolf Catering would need to conclude that they cannot accommodate the food needs of your event. Typically, they will insist that they can even if the evidence shows otherwise. When their contract comes up for renewal, UAA should seriously reconsider the terms of this monopoly.
Doubts about the quality of Seawolf Catering have been apparent on campus for over 10 years. Former USUAA president John Roberson expressed concerns about how clubs were being treated as far back as 2008, citing one outrageous example where an on-campus club was charged $50 by the caterer for a cake that still had a $10 Costco price tag on it. Markups are seldom justified by NANA Management Services, which operates Seawolf Catering. They are not beholden to transparency. They are only required to meet the expectations of UAA’s contract management, which doesn’t always reflect the concerns of students due to miscommunication. This means that the student population is less like a customer base and more like a token to be bartered away in a contract.
Large events on campus are especially vulnerable to catering shortcomings. Model United Nations of Alaska has hosted conferences at UAA for many years, and these events involve hundreds of high school and college students from around the state. Catering for that many students is a challenge that Seawolf Catering struggles to meet, despite the fact that it exclusively claims the job every year and charges upwards of $8,000.
For example, portion control is something that should be reasonably expected from a caterer, especially when it comes to hungry high schoolers. To accommodate nearly 300 students, Model UN structures lunch into three back-to-back phases. The first group eats lunch and leaves, then the next group follows suit. Unfortunately, Seawolf Catering appears to be shy about enforcing portion control in the first and second phases, so by the time the third group is ready to eat, there is hardly enough food available to them. There were also reports that catering staff departed the lunch event too early, and failed to accommodate special dietary requests like allergies and vegetarianism.
Large event organizers have high expectations for caterers, but Seawolf Catering is mostly immune to these expectations because they can always rely on continuity. Model UN will be held next year, like always, and they will be forced to hire Seawolf Catering, like always. A monopoly suffers no consequences.
The answer, then, is to break the monopoly. There are a multitude of catering services in Anchorage that would be happy to compete for contracts at UAA if given the chance. The decision-making of who to hire for catering an event must be given to the organizer of that event. Furthermore, a caterer’s performance is more accurately evaluated by the event host than the university’s contract manager. The manager can only be informed of shortcomings if students provide constant feedback, which they often do not.
Breaking the monopoly can be done through a revision of the contract. USUAA should push for this. It should be understood clearly that the cessation of the monopoly does not have to imply the doom of Seawolf Catering. It just means that they will have to work hard for each job and take nothing for granted. They will have to demonstrate competitive quality, and this would have positive implications for both the customer and the provider — a service built on reputation rather than coercion.
Ben Edwards was a member of the 2019 Model UN Secretariat.