Spotlight: Aramark employees tell stories of health code violations, workplace hostility

Left: A cockroach found in Grace Lemons’ omelet Right: A fly found in Nuanqui Hou’s salad

Jordan Hulseberg '19, Editor-in-Chief

Flies on the food and cockroaches on the cutlery. Employees of Rhodes’ food service provider, Aramark, have shared claims of health code violations, as well as personal stories of what they described as “workplace hostility.” Employees spoke to The Sou’wester on the condition of anonymity—fearing that speaking with the press could endanger their jobs. Despite this concern, some employees gave permission for their personal experiences to be published.

Aramark has emphasized its commitment to serving quality food and has already begun implementing a number of changes to ensure the college’s and the company’s own standards are met. At the college’s direction, Aramark has dispatched two senior-level managers to assist with quality control. Aramark has also assigned a new general manager to head dining services.

President Marjorie Hass thanked The Sou’wester and other students for bringing these issues to the college’s attention. She further maintained her dissatisfaction with the “current state of dining services” and said she has “directed Aramark to take immediate steps to improve the food and dining experience on campus.”

Alleged Health Code Violations

Employees described seeing a number of health code violations. One employee claimed seeing small cockroaches—each smaller than the size of a dime—on cutlery in the kitchen.

“I have personally seen roaches crawling on clean spoons and forks and knives. I didn’t think to take a picture of it, but I have seen it with my own eyes,” the employee said.

Another employee also spoke of high concentrations of cockroaches. They said, “It’s infested with roaches. I have pictures. Roaches all around my register. I have my food that I bring with me but they’re everywhere—flies everywhere, fruit flies, everything.” (Photos below)

The same kind of cockroach described by the first employee and within the photographs the second employee provided was recently found in a student’s food. Grace Lemons ’20 found a cockroach in her omelet on Nov. 5 in the Rat. She provided a photo of the incident to The Sou’wester. (Photo below)

Grace Lemons ’20
A small cockroach found in Grace Lemons omelet.

In sharing her experience, Lemons said, “I got an omelet and it had sausage, bell peppers and onions, and that was it. I was eating my omelet, I got halfway through it, and all of a sudden, I see a little glint on the plate. I thought, ‘I really hope that’s not what I think it is.’ I keep looking at it and my friend keeps talking to me while I’m just staring at my plate. I pick the plate up and, sure enough, it was some kind of beetle or cockroach. I texted my mom a picture and she said, ‘Darling, I’m sorry but that’s a roach.’ So, I went and found some Rat worker and said, ‘I don’t know who I’m supposed to talk to but there’s this roach. What do you want to do about it?’ They said, ‘Okay I’ll get my supervisor.’ She seemed very less-than-concerned. She brought out the supervisor and she also seemed less-than-concerned about the whole issue. She was basically just like, ‘Yeah, we just got our health code inspection and we got a 96. This doesn’t really happen; I don’t know what to tell you.’ I don’t know, I feel like something needs to be done about this.”

When told about sightings of similar cockroaches by Aramark employees, Lemons said, “I’m not very surprised, but I’m scared. I have not eaten at the Rat since; I just can’t do it. If they know this is happening, I just don’t understand the dilemma in getting something done about it.”

Employees also levied claims of flies on food as it is being prepared. One employee said she saw flies on food in the kitchen “all the time.”

Recently, a student found a fly in her salad, as well. Nuanqui Hou ’21 said the fly was buried within her salad on Sept. 26. She also provided a photo of the incident to The Sou’wester. (Photo below)

Nuanqui Hou ’21
A fly found in Nuanqui Hou’s salad.

“So, I just went to the Rat to grab a salad because I was very busy, and that’s what I did that day. I went back to my room and I found a fly in my salad, which was really great because I already ate half of it, so, I was like, ‘I have to throw up,’” Hou said. “I personally am not a picky eater, but I do want the food to be clean at least. It doesn’t need to be really, really delicious. I know the Rat is not the best food, but I want it to be clean and I want it to be safe to eat. From that day on, I just don’t feel that anymore.”

If she had the choice, Hou said she would never eat at the Rat again.

Both cockroaches and flies in the kitchen constitute violations of the Shelby County health code. According to Shelby County’s Environmental Health and Food Safety Administrator Kasia Smith-Alexander, the infraction falls under Violation 6-501.111 Controlling Pests.

Other allegations of health code violations centered more around human error. Specifically, the employees’ allegations were directed at management staff more than anyone else.

One employee said, “When the cutlery kits fall on the floor, I throw them in the garbage because that’s nasty. I don’t really like germs. I was told I didn’t have to throw them away. No, I’m throwing it in the garbage. I feel like this: If I wouldn’t want to eat from it, I don’t want nobody else to eat from it. It’s as simple as that. A lot of the things [managers] do are nasty. They’re really, really nasty. They walk around with no hair nets on. They eat food from off the lines… It’s not right.”

The employee even shared a specific incident when a manager ate food from the line without any proper food preparation gear.

“[A manager] decided, with no gloves, I don’t know whether her hands were clean, even if they are, no one really knows if her hands are clean because you’re supposed to wear gloves. She picks some food up with her hand, goes ‘Mmmmm’ and walks away and puts the gloves on. I’m washing my hands and another supervisor saw her and I saw the look in [the supervisor’s] face. When I got to washing my hands, I asked her, ‘Why was you looking like that?’ And she said, ‘Because she always do that. She always do that. All the time. It’s nasty. I hate when she do that.’ Anyone could have walked in. It’s in the clear open and I didn’t like it.”

Another employee, speaking about the same manager, said, “I have seen management prepare food without hairnets or gloves.” The employee further stated, “The bad thing about this is, at the start of every year, they make us watch videos about cross contamination—wearing gloves, being safe, being clean and [this manager] is doing the exact opposite of that. It makes no sense. It’s like she has no business in that kitchen. It’s ridiculous.”

A third employee, also speaking about the same manager, said, “I’ve seen her take a bite out of the food. I’ve seen her prepare food without gloves on. Only certain people wear their hairnets. I’ve seen people cook food without hair nets or hats on.”

Food being prepared without gloves, food being prepared without hats or hair nets and food being eaten as it is prepared are all Shelby County health code violations. According to Smith-Alexander, the infractions fall under,respectively: Violation 3-304.15 Gloves, Use Limitation; Violation 2-402.11 Effectiveness/Hair Restraints; and Violation 2-401.11 Hygienic Practices.

All three employees said they do not eat from the Rat themselves—excluding food they watch being prepared—and still would not eat there even if the food were free.

One employee said, “The only thing I eat from there is the fried chicken and the bacon and that’s because I’m seeing it prepared. Other than that, I bring my own food. If I don’t bring my own food, then I don’t eat.”

An Instagram page under the name “RealRhodesDining” has also garnered some attention in the past weeks. The page features 17 posts of unsettling and unappetizing food. Concerned Rhodes community members and parents have contacted the college due to the page’s newfound prominence. Page administrator Ashley Mullarkey ’21 permitted The Sou’wester to publish her name on the condition it be noted that she expressed concerns about her name’s usage in an article featuring a multi-million-dollar corporation. According to Mullarkey, Rhodes College community members submitted each photo. (Screenshot below)

RealRhodesDining has uploaded 18 submissions of unappetizing food. According to Ashley Mullarkey, all submissions are from members of the Rhodes community.

Speaking on what inspired her to make the account, Mullarkey said, “My friends and I were eating dinner at the Rat on a weekend night, which are infamously known for being the worst times to eat at the Rat, and the idea for an account was brought up. Honestly, the account started as a joke, in order to poke fun at the fact that our options for food as students were so limited. Along with limited food options, there is a limit to the actual quality of the food. It is comical, to compare the quality of the food and the price of tuition. There is also humor found when comparing the actuality versus what is advertised to us, on the official Rhodes Dining pages. The Instagram account is not a ‘hate account,’ but rather one that is showcasing actual food and meals that are served to our community. Rhodes students are unsatisfied with the food service at their institution and the account has become an open platform for expressing their thoughts on the topic.”

Mullarkey wants food to be a positive talking point at Rhodes, unlike the general student consensus surrounding it now.

“I wish for the quality and flavor of the food to be important and taken into consideration for all meals. Students should be able to enjoy their time at the dining hall and have access to good food,” Mullarkey said.

Aramark’s Response to Alleged Health Code Violations

Aramark responded to the alleged health code violations and the photos pulled from “RealRhodesDinining” by underlining their commitment to health and by announcing a plan of action to ensure food quality meets both the college’s and their own expectations.

Aramark Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Karen Cutler provided the following statement regarding health code compliance:

“We work closely with the College and the Health Department to ensure that the food served at Rhodes is of the highest quality and prepared within the safest environment. Any issues found during routine health inspections are addressed and corrected quickly. We consistently receive high scores on our health inspections. The most recent inspection by the Shelby County Health Department, conducted October 24, resulted in a rating of 96/100. The points deducted were non-critical in nature and corrected on-site and did not relate to any foods prepared as part of the allergen program.

Our food safety processes and procedures are industry leading. We maintain rigid standard operating procedures for the entire flow of food production. This includes providing an environment that protects the safety and integrity of food from its delivery, throughout its storage, preparation, transport, and ultimately, to the point of service to the customer.

Our food service staff is also engaged in a learning environment that includes a food safety orientation before associates start work, ongoing manager and associate food safety training, and job-specific training to continually reinforce safe practices.

In addition to working with the Health Department, who inspect our operations regularly, Aramark also conducts frequent internal inspections and takes the added step of engaging independent third-party auditors to objectively evaluate our practices and ensure the utmost safety in our operations.” [Sic]

When presented with photos pulled from “RealRhodesDining,” Cutler provided a second statement, which outlined a number of changes and increased quality assurance methods Aramark plans to or has already implemented.

“Nothing is more important to Rhodes Dining Services/Aramark than food safety and the customer experience we deliver.

We take all student and customer concerns about food quality very seriously and were shocked by the images that we saw for the first time on social media this week. Rhodes Dining Services/Aramark was not contacted directly regarding this issue, and we are unable to determine the exact time/location of service based on the social media posts. However, as soon as we became aware of these concerns, we took immediate action to put a plan in place to ensure we are delivering the quality and service we promised and students deserve.

Additionally, we are bringing in Aramark’s corporate leadership and health and safety experts to conduct a complete review of our operation and the dining facility to ensure that any questions or concerns are properly addressed.

Our food safety processes and procedures are industry leading. We maintain rigid standard operating procedures for the entire flow of food production. This includes providing an environment that protects the safety and integrity of food from its delivery, throughout its storage, preparation, transport, and ultimately, to the point of service to the customer.

In addition to unannounced frequent health inspections by the Shelby County Health Department, Aramark also conducts regular internal inspections and takes the added step of engaging independent third-party auditors to objectively evaluate our practices and ensure the utmost safety in our operations.  The most recent health inspection by the Shelby County Health Department was conducted on October 24, 2018, in which we received scores of 96 and 97 out of 100. Further, our inspection score has been 90 or above for8consecutive years.

We are very proud to serve the Rhodes community and take full responsibility for any food quality or service issues. While none of the issues were reported to anyone with Aramark or Rhodes Dining Services, we agree that they are concerning and contrary to everything we stand for as a food company who has been in business for over 80 years.We encourage anyone with a concern about their dining experience to contact any of our Managers on Duty in the dining location, or one of our associates, so that we can provide immediate attention to any concerns, comments or suggestions on the spot. You may also contact the dining office at 901-843-3541 or send feedback through the dining website, or Your Voice Counts web portal which has instructions posted at various locations in each of our dining sites.

Please be assured that we are committed to providing a positive, safe, and healthy dining environment and that we will continue to take all necessary precautions to ensure food safety and maintain a quality dining program.” [Sic]

However, Aramark’s claim that “none of the issues were reported to anyone with Aramark or Rhodes Dining Services” is contrary to Lemons’ statement that she approached the supervisor on duty about the cockroach in her meal. Lemons, it would seem, was also contacted by the third-party auditor mentioned within the statement. At the time of her interview with The Sou’wester, Lemons had not spoken to the auditor about the incident.

Alleged Workplace Hostility

All three employees interviewed said the managerial staff make their work environment hostile. Additionally, the employees drew a causal link between their claims of workplace discomfort and the quality of the food.

One employee said, “I believe what I witnessed is because of the hostility and also because management just doesn’t care anymore. How can they expect their employees to give them 100% if they’re being treated like trash and paying newer people better wages than the people that have been here for years and years? If management would actually hire people who are qualified, and not just their friends, then the service might be a lot better. That’s another thing a lot of the people who are in management at the rat should not be. Now you have people who are here from corporate Aramark and I hear that they are watching the employees like hawks but I feel like it’s too late for that. I also feel like it’s unfair to the hourly employees because it’s not like it’s all their fault. I believe a lot of the blame should be on the people in charge… It’s management who comes up with the menus and who’s walking around without hairnets and gloves. Basically, we have to follow the lead of management and if they aren’t fit to lead or not leading us in the right direction then the service will never be good.”

They further stated, “As far as the recipes, all that needs to change. How they cook the food has gotten worse. It’s ridiculous. A lot of it starts with the management. We need people in there who are qualified who care about the students and who care about the employees, too. Not just trying to get the day over with.”

Another employee said, “Yes, the students make me happy, the other employees make me happy and I feel that’s the only reason I’m still there, but when [management staff] come in, it’s like a black cloud. I just feel drained.”

They further stated, “Things got worse when we came back from Summer Break. If you ask me, that’s when [management] really stopped caring about anything and everything and started mistreating the employees unfairly.”

A third employee said, “The only way it’ll get better is if we get people who genuinely care about us. They say they care, but it’s hard to tell that they do. Obviously if they cared, they wouldn’t have flies on the food. They would take precautions. They would do things that’s necessary to keep the bugs out. I don’t think they care either.”

Cashiers have also not been permitted to sit—though Rat cashiers had their chairs returned to them—and have been prohibited from wearing jackets. According to two employees, they were told the rationale was to prevent “stealing from the cash drawer.” They also characterized the policy as “ridiculous.”

Black Student Association President Jamarr McCain ’19, who has been openly critical of Aramark’s treatment of its employees, released a statement to The Sou’wester.

“After talking with some Aramark employees at Rhodes, I know/believe that the Aramark employees that serve our food are not respected or treated fairly. Unfortunately, I am not surprised that most of the workers, who complained to me about said mistreatment, are black. As a black student at a predominantly white institution (PWI) like Rhodes, I can only imagine the reality of being a black Aramark employee at Rhodes and serving a lot of affluent students (with a small pocket of them never having seen a black person in person before). I know all too well what kind of microaggressions and explicit prejudice my white peers/professors are capable of expressing (i.e. lynched sock monkeys and bigoted alt-right articles, to name a few). I also have witnessed how my white peers will belittle or dehumanize black Aramark employees when being served in the Rat or Lair. For example, barking commands at the people that serve you food and subsequently yelling at them for not being “fast enough” is sickening, to say the absolutely very least.” [Sic]

McCain’s statement also drew a link between employee treatment and food quality.

“On another note, I firmly believe the quality of Aramark’s food is connected to the mistreatment of Aramark’s employees. If your being mistreated at your job by management and customers, then it is plausible your work ethic and passion may dwindle. So, when I walk into the Rat and see the same food presented in slightly different ways each week, I am far from surprised. What does surprise me is the amount of Rhodes students that will cry and complain about the food but fail to ask the necessary question that will lead them to an even bigger issue: why is the food this bad? I can assure you that the unseasoned, bland recipes are not the only culprits. If you wonder why the people serving your food don’t look happy when serving you, then ask why are they unhappy. Do you see my point here?

Compassion and trying to understand someone else’s pain and suffering can go a long way. Tired of hard noodles and rice and bland (and sometimes half-cooked) chicken? Then you should look at how tired our Aramark employees, especially black ones, are of being mistreated, disrespected, and dehumanized by Rhodes students, faculty/staff, and their bosses. It’s simple. People who are, at least, respected and treated properly at work are more likely to produce better products/services. In our case, the Aramark food becomesbetter when Aramark employees are treated much better than how they currently are.” [Sic]

To read McCain’s full statement, click here:

Aramark’s Response to Alleged Workplace Hostility

Aramark emphasized they have not received any complaints regarding a hostile work environment.

“I can assure you that we take all concerns raised by students, customers, guests and employees very seriously. For employees, we provide many channels to bring any concerns to our attention. These include direct communication with their supervisors and managers, talking to their HR manager, and a 24-hour toll-free hotline (managed by an independent third-party) where they can choose to remain anonymous.

As we hope you can understand and appreciate, we cannot violate Human Resource policies and discuss specific personnel matters publicly.” [Sic]

Aramark’s statement also asserted that it does not tolerate harassment and underlined its status as a well-respected company by notable advocacy organizations.

“We do not tolerate bias, harassment or discrimination of any kind. In fact, we pride ourselves on championing diversity and inclusion, and the proud history of achievements we are building doing so.

We are recognized as an employer of choice by many respected institutions, including:

  • One of DiversityInc’s ‘Top 50 Companies for Diversity,’ the annual survey tracking the nations’ top companies in terms of hiring, retaining and promoting women, minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ and veterans. DiversityInc’s survey is recognized as the most rigorous, data-driven rating of its kind in the country.
  • A ‘Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality’ with a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index;
  • A ‘Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion’ by the Disability Equality Index with a 100% top-score.
  • A ‘Top 40 Best Company for Diversity’ by Black Enterprise magazine
  • Our Chairman, President, and CEO is a Catalyst CEO Champion for Change, joining 50+ global business leaders who have pledged to help accelerate more women — including women of color—into senior leadership positions.” [Sic]

The College’s Response

President Marjorie Hass released a statement to the college community following the widespread distribution of the RealRhodesDining Instagram page on Friday, Nov. 9. The Sou’wester had also contacted the college for a statement on this story prior to the message’s release.

Hass expressed both concern and dissatisfaction and outlined the college’s plan of action to improve the quality of dining services.

According to the message, Aramark has assigned Todd Littrell, the dining services director of operations at the University of South Carolina, to be Rhodes’ interim dining services general manager as Julie Clay, the current general manager, will be departing. Aramark has also dispatched two senior-level managers to ensure quality control. Wayne Kemp and Brad Davenport will be “auditing food safety procedures” and “conducting employee training and support.”

Additionally, Hass requested the president of Aramark’s higher education division to visit campus. The college has since been informed that he will bring a team of senior executives and the company’s regional culinary director. The delegation will meet with student focus groups, employees and Hass, herself.

Associate Dean of Students for Inclusion and Involvement Meredith Davis has been labeled the college’s point person for student concerns. Davis will be working closely with Aramark employees and managers to improve food quality.

Dean of Students Russ Wigginton will continue to keep the college updated with the progress of both Rhodes’ and Aramark’s efforts.

Regardless, Hass expressed hope in the college’s work to improve the entirety of Rhodes’ dining experience.

“As a residential liberal arts college, food is an important part of our culture. We must ensure our students, faculty, and staff members have access to high-quality, satisfying, and nutritious dining options. I visited the Refectory this morning and spoke with many of our dining employees, some of whom have worked here for decades. I’m encouraged by their resolve and willingness to work together with the college to restore the confidence of our campus community in the dining program,” Hass said.