Sodexho weighs anchor

You may think it is your God-given right to enjoy an overpriced cup of coffee and prepackaged muffin while you ferry across to the mainland, but ferry officials say it ain’t so.

Washington state ferry riders will likely see a big change in food service starting in January, as food concessions giant Sodexho has decided not to renew its contract with the ferry system, citing declining revenues on many runs. No other vendors came forward to bid for the service.

With no concessionaires to provide food service, ferry riders might be left to pack their own lunch or plunk coins in a vending machine for their dinner as well as snacks.

Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Patricia Patterson said the system is exploring options for providing food service, but they don’t yet know what that will be.

“The fundamental question becomes public service versus making money,” she said. “Our goal would be to provide food service for folks.”

Under a five-year contract, Sodexho paid the ferry system 10.5 percent of their profits annually. Last year that amounted to nearly $1 million.

Patterson said vending machines are one option, local independent contractors with limited service is another. The ferry system is also discussing shorter operating hours with possible contractors.

Sodexho says it has lost money largely because many runs don’t pay for themselves. For example, the short Clinton to Mukilteo run has always been a money loser, Patterson said.

Galley workers’ pay is also an issue, one that prompted a rally on the Seattle docks in August. Galley workers have a union contract with the Inland Boatmans Union, and make between $9.94 and $14.50 per hour. The actual cost to Sodexho is even more with benefits figured in, and the upper range is more than twice what a typical fast food worker makes.

The Boatmans Union has a contract with Sodexho through 2005, but Sodexho opted out of renewing its concessions contract for another five years, leaving the state of future workers in question.

“It isn’t about not wanting union workers,” Patterson said. “We had assumed the concessionaire would have their own workers contract.”

Brian Volkert, manager of financial accountability for the ferry system, said he is hoping to solicit ideas from some of the big concession providers on how the state can make food service on ferries more palatable to the concessionaires.

“Labor costs are certainly a factor,” he said. In addition to the union wages, shipboard food service providers have other expenses that land-based operations don’t. For example the kitchens are more expensive to set up and operate, as they have to comply with U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations.

Patterson said the ferry system is negotiating with Sodexho to have them continue for a few more months, until they can come up with an alternative food service plan or find another food service provider.

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