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COLUMN: New food service company Chartwells will — hopefully — serve up better food

During my freshman year at Central Michigan University, I survived on Aramark french fries, grilled cheese sandwiches and soft serve ice cream as I ate in Fresh Food Company daily.

It was not worth my $5,000. 

Next year, freshmen should have better luck with Chartwells, even if all they eat is desserts.

On Dec. 7, Central Michigan University announced that Chartwells would be the new food service company for residential dining halls starting July 1. After 25 years with Aramark, the university signed a 10-year contract with Chartwells.

The big question on everyone's mind is "Will Chartwells food be better than Aramark?"

Two of my colleagues and I jumped in my car to drive down to Eastern Michigan University on our March 10 Wellness Day while other students were sleeping in and enjoying the nice weather. After a talkative two-and-a-half-hour drive and 15 minutes trying to find where to park, we were officially on campus.

As we found our way into "The Commons" at EMU to taste what Chartwells thinks college students want to eat. I braced myself. My previous experience with Chartwells was the crummy, barely-cooked rectangular pizza slices I was served every day in grade school. 

When I saw them serving circular pizzas – and desserts that actually looked appetizing – I sighed with relief. We paid for our meals and were each handed a plastic bag with plastic utensils and a napkin. Being used to the large open cafeterias at CMU, their only all-you-can-eat cafeteria with a small walkway with most of the food stations seemed underwhelming. 

With no lines at all, everyone was ready to serve us and eager for us to pick their stations. 

Because of COVID-19, at each shiny, stainless steel station we received our food in styrofoam takeout containers. The salad bar – which left much to be desired – was clean and fresh. Drinks were filled by request and mainly consisted of individually bottled drinks.

We made our way into the large seating room. After finding a secluded corner of the cafeteria, we dove into our food, taking in each bite to record educated opinions to share with you. 

The pepperoni pizza and guacamole turkey burger with sweet potato fries were standard fares, but definitely a step above what is currently served at CMU. The chicken cacciatore had seasoning and flavor! The salad bar had no bugs as far as the eye could see! The honeydew and cantaloupe were crisp, ripe. 

The Boston Cream Pie and cookies were genuinely good. Delicious, in fact.

An executive chef and one of the managers sat near us with their meals and engaged us as if we were EMU students. They joked with us in a way staff members at CMU don't. 

Not many students were in the restaurant when we were. Those who were dining seemed to be in a good mood and at least mildly enjoying the food. 

Although I believe Chartwells' overall food quality is better than Aramark, EMU students seem to have a similar attitude toward their food service provider as we do toward Aramark.

"The quality of food is fine. Obviously, it's not gonna be great, but it's fine," said Grace Beebe, a Tustin freshman at EMU. "The problem is that the consistency is really bad. I mean, it's everything I expected. I didn't expect great food, and it's not usually bad. It's just that you never really know what you're gonna get if you order something."

A lot of people at CMU feel similarly about the food here, specifically consistency between days and the different on-campus residential restaurants.

I think after living at home for 18 years with a full range of your parents' fully stocked kitchen any cafeteria food is a major letdown. Although, if you haven't had a bug in your salad and have consistently good desserts, I think Chartwells is bringing a solid effort to the college cafeteria experience.

One of the biggest complaints CM Life has always received about Aramark is the quality of the desserts. At EMU, the main takeaway from students was the great quality of Chartwells desserts.

"The desserts are the best," said Jordyn Gerwid, Howard City freshman at EMU. "Especially the cookies and cream pie."

Every Eastern student, myself and the two other CM Life reporters talked to seemed to have good things to say about the Chartwells desserts.

"I would say definitely desserts are probably the best thing,"Grosse Pointe freshman Cam Perrino said. 

In addition to good desserts, Chartwells seems to offer a variety of fun activities and meals for students. 

The company is offering an upcoming "Teaching Kitchen" event for students to learn how to make vegan sushi with the director of marketing via Instagram Live. They are also hosting a "Waffle Palooza" as well as celebrating Farm Worker's Awareness Week. In the past, they have also celebrated national holidays, such as National Oreo Day.

Besides a Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner, Aramark doesn't really offer any special or fun events for students to enjoy. I would have loved having different days and events celebrated in the dining halls to make the food more exciting.

Although not the best college food I have ever eaten, EMU's Chartwells was definitely a step or two above the Aramark food – food best served in the nation's prison system instead of our university.

Since I am a junior who lives off-campus, my time being forced to buy a CMU meal plan is over, and I have gladly spent all year away from the residential restaurants. Even though I won't be tethered to dining halls next year either, I will definitely find my way there a few times to see if they live up to my relatively low expectations. 

Hopefully, if Chartwells at CMU is anything like it is at EMU, I will find something I like, even if it is just desserts.