Who stole the breakfast special?

Whether it’s grabbing a sandwich from the Library Café, discussing that critique over a cup of coffee in Curiositea or tucking in to a three course meal in Xananas, we all find ourselves eating on campus. With over a dozen outlets serving everything from skinny lattes to tiger prawn linguine, you would imagine students to be pretty contented with the University’s performance. But evidently you’re not.

Of the deluge of despairing comments made by students on the cost of living, the most frequent complaint seems to be the cost of eating on campus. According to our survey of over 450 students, 97 per cent of you feel that food is too expensive on campus.
Last year’s removal of the £1.95 Breakfast Special even spawned a campaign movement, which is set to be revived this term to pressure Warwick Retail into introducing cheaper alternatives. And this has not gone unnoticed. In its 2012 Big Five Survey, the Union has declared that “pricing of food and drink is a key issue”. According to the survey, the words ‘cheap’, ‘food’ and ‘drink’ all featured in the top 6 most commonly occurring words in responses to desired changes to the SU.

As a result, an investigation into the state of campus food pricing was inevitable.
However, whilst the SU has engaged with this investigation wholeheartedly, the University seems to be on the defensive. When we contacted Jonathan Bailey of Campus and Commercial Services, we were redirected to Communications Director Peter Dunn and told that “Admin staff at Warwick do not give interviews to any media”, and that “[the Press Team] responds to all questions by email”.

This positively killed any discussion of financial matters, since our specific FOI requests could be rejected under clauses that protect “commercially sensitive information”.
Likewise, the campaign for a return of the Breakfast Special has been met with derision. Third year student activist Ben Frew, who spearheaded the campaign, told the Boar: “In response to the unjustified and surprise abandonment of the Breakfast Special offer last year, with a much more expensive option being introduced, I repeatedly requested further information from Warwick Retail regarding the feasibility of continuing the offer, and the state of their finances in general.”

“They refused to provide me with access to their accounts [and] refused to explain why they increased the breakfast option by £1.10 – an increase of almost 60 per cent.”
So, whilst the verdict is still out on Warwick Retail, we can answer the question of whether we’re getting ripped off by our Union, or if there is more to it.

Are We Getting Taken For a Ride?**

If you want to find out whether or not you’re being ripped off, the obvious place to start is how your prices compare to other outlets in the area. Warwick campus is undoubtedly a pricey place to go to buy your goods. Homogenous items like a can of Coke amply demonstrate this: 70p in the Bread Oven, 50p in Tesco.
However, as most of the SU’s wares aren’t homogenous, this isn’t really a useful measure. Anyone with a tongue can taste that a Bread Oven sandwich isn’t comparable to one from Jin’s. As such, the question over whether we’re getting truly ripped off hinges on whether the Union is making an abnormal profit from our lunches. Ultimately, we want to know that we’re not being overcharged. The thing is, Warwick SU appears to be making nothing near an abnormal profit on food and beverages.

Whilst the SU was unable to provide precise accounts due to the same reasons of commercial sensitivity that the University claims, food-specific public data, emails, and meetings with them have demonstrated that financial circumstances are making such profiteering impossible.
In recent years, Warwick SU has made a minimal profit on food and beverages. In its last annual report, the SU revealed it was making less than £80,000 gross profit on food and beverages, inclusive of alcohol sales. With a revenue of almost £2.5m that’s only around 3% profit.

Although unable to make a statement at time of press, Food and Beverages Manager Becci Burrows-Watson assured The Boar the pressure to turn an operating profit is stronger than ever.
Furthermore, it’s important to consider where that profit ends up going, since all profits are reinvested back into the Union. As the Boar revealed last February, the SU spends more than twice it makes on welfare, advice services, democracy, club nights, and society funding. Whilst the grant from the University covers some of this, profits from the SU’s retail outlets are needed to subsidise these integral parts of what the union provides.
Although it might be convenient to assume we’re paying through the nose due to profiteering, it’s simply not the case at the Union.

The Pricing Dilemma**

If they’re not making vast profits from our food, then why is it still so expensive to purchase food from the SU? The answer, it seems, lies with basic costs. According to our research, the most significant reason for high prices is that Warwick SU faces pressure to purchase stock with a high price tag, such as Fairtrade and halal produce.
Since 2005, Warwick has been a certified ‘Fair Trade University’, a move predominantly pushed by the student body. In support of this, the Union has previously stated that “it is worth paying a small premium if necessary to purchase fairly traded goods”.

Nevertheless, such an honourable commitment to the wellbeing of farmers around the globe comes with a catch; we can’t expect the same prices as under unfettered capitalism. Likewise, the need to cater for specific requirements stretches the SU’s budget. Purchasing only halal chicken, turkey and lamb may be necessary and proper in order not to discriminate against Warwick’s Muslim community, but it does increase the base costs involved.

Thus, the student is hit with the dilemma. What do we value more, an ethical lunch or a cheap lunch? The problem is that there’s increasingly no cheap alternative. With Fairtrade coffee, Halal meat and upmarket Ubuntu cola on the shelves, there are fewer and fewer options for those who can’t afford to pay extra.

According to Becci, supplying cheaper options is “simply not financially possible” due to the scale of the SU’s operation. One of the few available options is The Bread Oven’s “Cheep Cheep” sandwiches, which give you a baguette with limited fillings for £2.20, however the buck stops there.

Unfortunately, the SU’s ability to provide us with cheap, good food is ultimately hindered by a costly mixture of demand for ‘specialist’ produce but precious little economies of scale to make it financially viable.

**Where Warwick Retail Fits In**

Whereas we can perhaps forgive our Union for its prices, it’s not as easy for Warwick Retail. A number of issues have suggested the University may not be under the same pressures as the Union when it comes to pushing prices lower.

First, the latest public finances show that after a brief setback in 2010/11, the University’s retail operations (including non-food products) have surged, with gross profit increasing by nearly £3m. Likewise, Warwick University as a whole had a superb financial year, given the economic climate. With annual turnover increasing by 5%, financial surplus increasing by over £11m and strong growth in academic fees from overseas students, the University has boasted of “sound financial strength”.

Additionally, students’ perceive the quality provided as poor, an issue echoed by former Union Development Officer George Whitworth last year when he told The Boar: “University-owned outlets such as Library café provide a pretty weak service, fairly high price and for fairly low quality food.”

Whereas the Union has managed to justify its pricing, to an extent, through its standard of provision, Warwick Retail remains unable to pull the ‘quality’ trump card. Add to this the outrage against the removal of the Breakfast Special, and Warwick Retail’s position seems perilous at best.

It remains to be answered why food prices continue to rise across Warwick Retail; but it is a question we will endeavour to answer.

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