Raphael Elison, owner of Portabella Catering in Amherst, chats with Debby King of Amherst while she buys her lunch on January 18, 2013.
Owner Raphael Elison poses behind the counter at Portabella Catering in Amherst on January 18, 2013. The store features a variety of gourmet groceries and snacks, most of which are local and organic.
Raphael and Kristine Elison own and run Portabella Catering in Amherst. The store features a variety of gourmet groceries and snacks, most of which are local and organic.
AMHERST — When alumni returned to the University of Massachusetts campus for Homecoming last fall, the lure of free food gave them an incentive to stay on campus for their meals.
For students who want chicken wings and pizza delivered to their dormitory rooms, an on-campus service is now available that has lower prices than nearby restaurants — and can also more easily get its printed menus to students.
And departments seeking to have events catered on campus are required to use food provided by the university’s auxiliary services, not local private caterers.
A group of Amherst restaurant owners recently formed to question these practices, which they say are jeopardizing their livelihoods.
“What we are looking at is a devastated downtown Amherst within two years,” says Reza Rahmani, who owns Moti and Lit restaurants in the town center.
Rahmani says his dire prediction will come true if UMass limits opportunities for local businesses to serve food on campus.
“People who have been here a long time say this is the worst they’ve ever seen it,” he said.
Rahmani is part of a group meeting regularly with university and town officials to figure out how best to approach the issue.
Portabella Catering owner Raphael Elison warns that Amherst will see a number of restaurants close if this “level of unfairness,” as he refers to it, continues.
“They are using my tax dollars to compete against me,” Elison said.
Already facing tight economic times, restaurateurs say they are being increasingly squeezed by auxiliary services at UMass and the university’s promotion of award-winning chef Ken Toong, who directs its dining services.
Rahmani said many restaurants saw a significant decrease in business during the summer, a trend that continued into the fall.
Nancy Buffone, executive director for the Office of External Relations and University Events, said the university is emphasizing downtown dining destinations and also making students, parents and alumni aware that some of the best food is on campus.
“We’re aware of the concerns and are working with people to address these issues,” Buffone said. “Having a strong town of Amherst is just as important to us.”
She noted that all restaurants that are members of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce are listed in the commencement program, gaining exposure among out-of-town visitors. The university’s “Adventure into Downtown” brings freshmen into town during orientation to learn about the shops and restaurants. In addition, UMass pays an assessment for the Business Improvement District.
Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said UMass officials are caught in a bind: They want to see Amherst prosper and they also want to run a successful on-campus food system.
“We’re working on ways to engage, connect and promote with the university campus,” Maroulis said.
Part of the solution, he said, is ensuring the community is welcoming to students.
“This has to be much more about being an integrated student and resident population,” he said.
Town Manager John Musante said he has heard businesspeople express worries over the growth of auxiliary services and on-campus catering.
“We want to make sure there is access and they have an opportunity to compete,” Musante said. “It’s good for the health of the town. There’s a mutual interest in strengthening downtown so the university and local businesses in the community can all thrive.”
BID Director Alex Krogh-Grabbe said he understands the frustration of restaurant owners who are seeing a drop in business, possibly related to university directives and improved campus services.
“It’s important not to be adversarial, but to work together to address the problem,” Krogh-Grabbe said.
He said he is confident that administrators at UMass understand the need for local businesses to remain vibrant.
Nick Seamon, owner of Black Sheep Deli, isn’t buying that.
“The way it looks to us is they are trying to keep every dollar on campus,” Seamon said. “That is very anti-community and short-sighted.”
He has put up a sign stating that he will not make donations to UMass organizations until this changes.
“We want to have a good relationship with the university,” Seamon said. “We just want to have a level playing field.”
“If the job of the university is to generate as much income from departments and students as they can, they’re doing a great job,” Elison said.
Harold Tramazzo, who owns The Hangar restaurant and Wings delivery service, is seeing direct competition from an entity called Southwest Delivery Express, which offers a nearly identical menu to his but with lower prices.
“Delivery is the focus of my business. How do I compete with the university?” Tramazzo asked.
John Korpita, who owns Amherst Brewing Co. on University Drive, said conditions have deteriorated for many restaurants.
“They can’t be totally blind to the fact that what they’ve been doing is hurting businesses and restaurants in town,” Korpita said.
Like Elison, he is concerned that tax dollars are being used to undermine local businesses and to offer special deals and free food to students, alumni and parents, as well as other groups that come to campus.
“The relationship with the university is important to all of us, but it has to work both ways,” Korpita said.
He would like to see UMass discontinue providing free food at certain events.
“That’s definitely affected everybody,” Korpita said. “It’s hard to compete with free.”
But Buffone says complimentary food is part of the university’s way of welcoming families to campus. “When we have parents weekend and Homecoming, it’s important to us that they have a great experience while here,” she said. “We do everything we can to encourage them to stay on campus, but also explore the community.”
Improvements in the quality of food served on campus over the past decade have diminished the Our Campus Meal Plan, a private meal-service program offered to students that generated considerable revenue for local restaurants, especially on the slower weekdays.
Joe Deng, owner of Lime Red Teahouse on Main Street, said UMass also is not participating in OneCard, a program in which students can use the card to eat at restaurants or shop at stores. Amherst College and Smith College are among those who provide the card to their students.
Seamon traces the current situation to the creation of a new catering policy nearly six years ago.
An April 2007 memo sent by Joyce Hatch, then vice chancellor of administration and finance, to deans, directors and department heads advised them that UMass catering would be required for all campus events. The memo prohibited outside food carts, concessions catering and other food service operations.
In her memo, Hatch wrote: “The policy is meant to insure compliance with applicable state health and safety standards regarding the preparation and serving of food and to provide the campus with reasonable controls to insure services meet standards which preclude issues of campus liability.”
Elison said from 1995 to 2000, UMass was his biggest client. While he now focuses on weddings and other functions, the policy upsets him.
“The premise is a farce,” said Elison, who says the Amherst Health Department conducts rigorous inspections. “The idea they are protecting liability? I don’t understand what they’re protecting people from.”
Buffone notes that while catering is restricted, the university still has a much more flexible policy than it would if a private company handled campus dining services. Such companies, she said, prohibit all outside food.
At Hampshire College, catering for events and meetings is part of the dining services agreement, said spokeswoman Elaine Thomas in an email. But there is flexibility.
“This is in practice a loose agreement, with many groups and programs on campus hosting events and meetings, with the details regarding food arranged by the sponsoring group,” Thomas said.
Amherst College allows outside caterers, as long as they are approved, to use space at the Alumni House, but not Valentine Hall or any other campus dining services facilities, said Amherst College spokeswoman Caroline Hanna. Mobile cooking equipment can also be used by private caterers, she said.
UMass bars the preparation of food on campus by outside sources but allows prepared items to be delivered and served.
Local restaurants still generate significant revenue from bringing food to academic departments and administrative offices. The spending from the “ProCard,” a credit card-like option for making purchases, totaled $614,000 for local businesses in 2010 and $588,000 in 2011, according to information supplied by Seamon.
Rahmani said he doesn’t expect quick changes.
“We need to get the attention of policymakers. Look, you’re a state institution, you’re becoming corporate,” he said.
Buffone said she is listening.
“I’ll continue to sit down with restaurant owners,” she said. “We’re always looking for ways to work together and what options there are.”
Bobby Barkett, owner of White Hut restaurant on Boltwood Walk, said he wants to get along.
“Everybody wants a relationship with the university,” Barkett said. “That’s why we’re so upset.”