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Food Fight: Local Restaurant Criticizes Aramark, Students Caught in Crossfire

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

UPD Owner Akram Musa poses in front of UPD on Vine Street. Tuesday, November 1, 2022. Allie English, Staff Photographer

Akram Musa, owner of the University Pizza and Deli on Vine Street, claims one of Aramark’s managers promised Musa a permanent spot in the Local Restaurant Row section of the University Center’s food court. 

After the incident, Musa suffered financial losses, Muslim students changed dining habits to follow their religious diets, Aramark limited conversation with reporters, and UTC officials worked to mitigate the damage.

Students may remember the UPD, which operates down the road from West Campus, from its extended stay in the food court throughout the Spring and part of the Fall semester. According to Musa, some customers wanted him there permanently, leading to an Aramark manager telling Musa the spot was his. When Musa pressed for a contract, he said the manager deflected.

“I was told by the people in charge of Aramark, it’s mine permanently,” Musa recounted, seated at one of his restaurant’s yellow tables. “When I went back to talk to them, they said 'no this place was not for you permanently.'”

Important to UTC students, the UPD serves Islamic-compliant food, known as halal. According to the Muslim Student Association’s President, Rizwaan Abdul, Aramark did not offer halal protein prior to the UPD’s departure– only vegan and vegetarian options.


“A month or two ago, they said UPD would be back in the UC in two or three weeks,”

Abdul replied to questions from within the Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science building. “We were counting down weeks after that; they did not come back.”

Kaitlyn Simpson, a UTC senior and practicing Muslim, detailed how she adheres to the Islamic diet, despite the numerous challenges. For example, even though vegetarian options don’t serve meat at all, some include alcohol, which her religion prohibits. Without UPD in the food court, she can’t use her meal plan as much.

“For me, UPD has so many options, so it is pretty essential [because] I don’t cook,” Simpson typed. “I feel like Aramark could do better offering options for whole meals. Crossroads should offer halal meat everyday instead of just Wednesdays.”

The Muslim Student Association met with Aramark’s Residential District Manager, Steven Hoyng, and UTC’s Director of Auxilary Services, Michelle Prince, to secure new options. According to Abdul, they appreciate Aramark’s efforts, but weren’t wholly satisfied.

“They are now giving halal chicken every Wednesday in [Crossroads,]” Abdul said. “There was a lack of communication because we specifically requested that they tell us beforehand.”

Aramark and UTC officials dispute Musa’s claims, explaining his extended stay resulted from being the sole participant in the program. They also assert the alleged promise would be impossible and inaccurate to the rotating restaurant concept.

The Local Restaurant Row concept, according to Hoyng, provides a dynamic dining experience with rotations after two to three weeks.

“This concept is used to support local businesses and the community in Chattanooga,” Hoyng wrote in an email. “…during COVID with the recent national difficult period of staffing, we were fortunate to be able to provide this space to UPD for a temporary extended period...”

Prince, who has managed the university’s food service contract for the past 19 years, explained Musa did sign a contract to participate in the program. 

“The local Aramark management team on UTC’s campus recruits local restaurants…,” Prince wrote. “The restaurant applies and enter into a standard contract with Aramark’s corporate LRR division created to accommodate the unique intricacies produced by this type of partnership.”

Musa’s contract does not specify a termination date, but does empower Aramark to terminate the agreement upon at least 14 days of written notice.

Between taking orders and answering the phone, Musa detailed the financial and personal burdens he's faced since the incident. He said he purchased a parking permit, paid for a chef to fly from the Middle East and hired new staff members to run the location.

“I paid them 25% out of my gross sale, plus credit card commission [3.6%] too,” Musa revealed, gesturing towards the University Center. “You think if I was not told, I would go get a chef, go buy permit for my car, and hire new people for in there?”

Moreover, Musa’s regular customers, like Simpson, struggled to understand he could no longer accept MocsBucks—Aramark’s currency for meal plans on campus—leading to canceled orders and wasted food. Meal plan currency– Mocs Bucks– goes exclusively to Aramark. 

He’s asked to use Mocs Bucks off-campus, but UTC’s Assistant Director of MocsCard, Vending, and Dining Services– Mary Lee Clark– explained Musa’s requests are unfeasible. Essentially, the UPD may only accept Aramark’s currency while participating in Aramark’s Local Restaurant Row and under their contractual terms. Unless in the food court, the UPD may only participate in the University's Off Campus Merchant Program: Scrappy Cash.

“Scrappy Cash is voluntary funds that are deposited onto a students Mocs Card and can be used at various locations on campus such as the bookstore, print/mail services, vending machines, and other service areas; as well as, the participating off campus restaurants,” Clark wrote. “Mocs Bucks are used only at Aramark food service locations on campus as specified by the university’s exclusive food service contract.”

While the Aramark employee in question could not respond due to Aramark’s policies, Musa claimed the employee denied the conversation. The restaurant owner named Aramark’s Food Service Director, Courtney Green, as the only other witness to the event.

When asked if she attended or witnessed an Aramark manager promise Musa a non-rotational spot in the Local Restaurant Row, she responded with “No.”

Changes to the Local Restaurant Row are extremely unlikely. Much like a franchise, the concept remains the same across the nation. Aramark hosts available case studies fromBaylor University and the University of Kentucky.

Musa also alleged Aramkark serves bad food, but investigation revealed no unsafe food safety practices. In actuality, Musa accused the franchises and their recipes as being overly reliant on oil and breading.

“Aramark are looking to make money, they are not looking to feed students healthy food,” Musa claimed. “I try to serve the students healthy food, good quality, big quantity, and make them happy.”

The Echo investigated the claims of bad food by reviewing Tennessee Health Department Food Service Establishment Inspections. Aramark’s restaurants in the food court reported scores in the high 90s and 100s. 

UPD publicly displayed an outdated score from Dec. 15, 2021. His past two routine inspections, scoring an 84 and 83, required follow-up inspections.

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