Sparty’s locations throughout Michigan State University have been closed down since the start of the pandemic. At least six Sparty’s on campus are still closed, including some high-traffic buildings such as the Engineering Building and the Main Library.
Associate Director of Marketing and Communications for Culinary Services Cheryl Berry said the majority of Sparty's closures can be attributed to the continuing student staff shortage seen throughout campus.
“We rely heavily on our student supervisors and student workers to run those,” Berry said. “We are at about a third of what we typically hire for student employees right now.”
While the number of student employees is slowly growing, most new employees are being allocated to the university’s dining halls. Berry said this comes down to efficiency, as the dining halls have the capacity to feed more students than Sparty’s locations.
Additionally, Berry said the dining halls can provide for students with dietary restrictions more easily than retail locations.
“It’s much more feasible that we focus our employees in those locations than to spread them out in convenience stores that don’t serve the needs that we need them to,” Berry said.
The status of vacant Sparty’s locations varies. Some, such as the Engineering Building, still remain relatively intact with display cases and logos. Meanwhile, locations like the Communication Arts and Sciences Building have been removed of all Sparty’s-related furniture and decor.
Berry said that it is probable that some of these vacant Sparty’s will not return — at least not in the way students are used to.
“I wouldn’t say it would never come back, it may come back in a different way,” Berry said. “I wouldn’t say that it won’t be a food operation, I just can’t tell you exactly what type of food food operation it might be.”
While nothing is set yet, possibilities for Sparty’s replacements include an Amazon Go-esque store where staff is not needed or vending machines making customizable salads or pizzas.
Plans to shut down or reimagine some Sparty’s throughout campus have been in the works since before the pandemic. Berry said COVID-19 merely expedited the process.
“We have been for the past, probably, three years looking at ‘What are the needs across campus?,’” Berry said. “What are the needs for the different locations that we’ve got, and that have been established?”
The 11 open Sparty’s face their own difficulties, specifically surrounding keeping shelves stocked.
Many students have complained about the lacking selections at many retail locations on-campus.
Berry said the poor selection can be attributed to the lacking nationwide supply chain post-pandemic. Many shipments RHS expects simply don’t come in, or are a fraction of what was ordered.
“We’re hopeful every time we place an order that we’ll get what we made, but it just doesn’t always happen,” Berry said. “It’s rare for us to get a full order anymore.”
Freshman electrical engineering major Norah Daley said that the Sparty’s she goes to throughout campus do not have many options. She cites the MSU Union and Biomedical Sciences building locations as particularly barebones.
“I guess the best way I can put it, I don’t mean to be mean to whoever’s working there, but it’s pathetic,” Daley said. “They don’t have any food there, like ever ... it’s like ramen or junk food like dessert things — like Little Debbies.”
Daley also believes that re-opening the vacant Sparty’s throughout campus would help her academically. Studying at the Main Library, for example, is made harder by not having dining options within the building.
“When there’s a Sparty’s in the building that I’m in or near it, I don’t feel like I need to leave and find food,” Daley said. “I can stay there in between classes and keep studying.”
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One solution that RHS has used to address these issues is the implementation of vending machines, serving products such as hot coffee, chips and cold sandwiches.
However, Daley said that she can’t afford to pay for the food and drinks in the machines, especially when she is paying $3,000 for a meal plan.
Daley said she’s frustrated about paying full price for a meal plan she feels has not been fully available to her.
“In my opinion, that price reflects full accessibility with every dining option open for the whole entire year,” Daley said. “I would have rather taken my $3,000. That would have been enough for me to eat out every single meal.”
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