After closures and lawsuits from restaurants, student leaders and remaining tenants are proposing the use of USCard in the Village.
Undergraduate Student Government Senators Sara Khoshniyati and Haley Garland are leading the charge for allowing the use of discretionary dollars in the Village restaurants. They ran on a slate together on the basis of wellness and advocating for students.
To senators, this issue aligns exactly with their platform.
“Students are obligated to have these meal plans,” Khoshniyati said. “They should have the option to spend it where they want. Especially when the Village is advertised for students [as part of USC].”
Currently, they are proposing the ability to use discretionary dollars that are part of student meal plans at Village restaurants and for students to have tax removed from their bill. This would be the same system as if a student bought lunch at The Habit in TCC, for instance. Eventually, they want to move to allow the use of Dining Dollars.
“You come into USC with a dining plan, thinking you can use it at the Village because it is part of USC,” Garland said. “But you get there and are turned away. Businesses don’t want to turn away any students. I think they were all misinformed in a way. There was a line outside Greenleaf on move-in day and people tried to pay with dining dollars and couldn’t.”
They spoke with students about their interest in implementing such a plan and drafted a resolution in the Senate after garnering mass support from a petition.
The senators are looking forward to setting up a meeting with President Carol Folt because of her mission to support students.
“We were always thinking about it, but this is the perfect time,” Garland said. "This is the perfect opportunity because Folt is new and has shown that she is pro-students.”
The senators said they are focused on helping the student body, not necessarily ensuring the success of businesses, but they have spoken to a few Village tenants.
“We are here on behalf of the students, to provide the best experience as possible for students. This would help that. We can’t speak or act on behalf of the businesses,” Garland said.
USC responded that unlike the USC Hospitality restaurants on campus, the eateries in the Village are run by third-party tenants. According to Laurie Stone, the associate senior vice president of real estate and asset management for USC, USC Hospitality operates a combination of self-branded and franchised concepts that mirror the agreements of most other franchises. USC Village venues are owned and operated by the parent company and the university is their landlord.
Stone said the reason the Village restaurants do not accept discretionary or dining dollars, or offers a tax off for students who present their school IDs, is because they are not under USC control.
“On-campus restaurants that accept USCards are operated by the university and are tax-exempt,” Stone wrote in an email to USC Annenberg Media. “Student status is confirmed through the USC Hospitality point of sales system. Restaurants that rent space at USC Village are privately owned and operated.”
Many students said they chose meal plans without the dining dollars or discretionary funds option after learning that the Village does not accept them.
“I actually didn’t even get dining dollars when I realized they don’t work in the Village because I honestly didn’t see a point,” said Daisy Owei, a freshman business of cinematic arts major. “I actually go to the Village a lot to eat too, so that’s why I didn’t see a point in getting dining dollars if you can’t use them there.”
Freshman cinema and media studies major Hope Abel was also upset to discover the limitations of eating out at the Village.
“I was pretty bummed dining dollars and stuff doesn’t work in the village.” Abel said. “It seems kind of pointless to have the restaurants and things on campus if they’re not affiliated or work with student dining plans.”
She said she would upgrade her basic Cardinal meal plan to include dining dollars if she could use them in the Village.
“Personally, I’m just on the meal plan with dining hall swipes so I’ve basically been going there for meals, but I feel like if the village restaurants were open to dining dollars then I would have to think about maybe getting dining dollars,” Abel said.
Justice Schiappa, a junior screenwriting major, said the inability to use discretionary dollars in the Village is worse because of the restaurants’ prices.
“[The Village] is an expensive place, and there are no other real options on this side of campus,” Schiappa said. “And with housing above the Village, students should at least get some type of discount.”
Many businesses in the Village are not happy either.
The Butcher, The Baker, The Cappuccino Maker (BBCM) and Rance’s Chicago Pizza both recently closed. They filed a lawsuit against USC on Aug. 15, accusing the school of promissory fraud, misrepresentation and breach of contract.
They claim the university “defrauded and deceived” the Village restaurants. According to the lawsuit, the owners of the two restaurants allege the university “falsely represented” that the restaurant operators would be able to accept USC meal cards as payment from students and “fraudulently concealed” the plan for a dining hall in the Village.
Aaron Tofani, co-owner of Rance’s, said he had no choice but to close after experiencing low traffic and high rent.
He said the $5 million he and the BBCM owner are asking for in the lawsuit covers the total combined out of pocket loss they experienced. This covers the initial build-out and the overall loss sustained throughout operation since December 2017.
Tofani was under the impression students could use their USC Card to pay for food with their meal plan. He believes they were set up to fail by their landlords: the university, itself.
“They are good people who are struggling,” Tofani said in an interview with Annenberg Media. "There are simple things that can be done to help the community, the tenants and the students.”
The university denies these claims made by tenants. In a statement made in response to the BBCM lawsuit, the university said it “believes the allegations that Rance’s and BBCM have made in their lawsuit are inaccurate" and "will vigorously defend against them in court.”
According to Jonathan Rollo, “commander-in-leaf” at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, being asked by USC to set up shop in the Village “was like being asked to prom.” That dream has soon become a nightmare, he said, as he and other tenants share a similar negative experience with USC.
“We are in our third year and it’d been detrimental,” Rollo said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “We were sought after by USC under their own operational prowess. And with all the volume [the Village accrues], businesses are not operational.”
He believes if students could use their meal plan money, they would frequent restaurants more often. Rollo also echoed the claims made by the owners of BBCM and Rance’s, saying the university’s talking points in their first meeting were misleading.
“In the initial walkthrough, we all anticipated the use of dining dollars, that was the conversation,” Rollo said. “No one saw a dining hall that would take dining dollars.”
He called this an “inaccurate representation” due to “unfair monopolistic competition.”
Rollo spoke with USG Senators and the real estate agent who acts as the liaison for the university. He even wrote two letters to the school, one last May and one before this semester started in August, asking to meet and resolve the ongoing issues he and his colleagues face every day.
“This would be a thriving, cross-beneficial plan,” Rollo explained. “It should be a win for everyone. The school gets more money and happy tenants, if sales increase, they could even increase rent. Students want it.”
In addition to the dispute over discretionary dollars, Rollo said Village tenants are upset over high rents, low summer traffic and lack of community engagement.
To supplement the empty tables in the summer, Rollo and his colleagues expected more traffic from the non-student community. He said many of the tenants have suggested events like pumpkin patches, movie nights and Christmas tree shops to bring in more people year-round.
“Besides Target and Trader Joe’s, no one is going to the rest of the Village,” he said.
Rollo explains the university sold the Village to tenants as a community hub, which he calls an “unfair justification for higher base rent.”
Stone said that the tenants are responsible for the costs of building out their spaces in the Village and that they keep their profits and the university only collects rents. In terms of the lulls in the summer, Stone said retail lease terms vary and the university supports retail tenant outreach efforts through signage, promotional activities and events.
Despite several meetings between tenants and the university to discuss boosting engagement with the community year-round, they have not had any productive response from the school.
“It has landed on the shoulders of the tenants to advertise the space to the community, and it’s not sustainable,” he said. “Tenants have put their life savings in and they are suffering. They put millions in good faith and assume all the risk while USC has none of the risks. It’s very scary.”
Rollo said USC gave several reasons why the university does not accept discretionary dollars. The university told him using discretionary and dining dollars would reduce funds available to USC auxiliary and hospitality, require enabling technology too complicated to install and if they opened the tax discount to students, they would have to open it up for everyone.
There are six different meal plan options for students that range from $330 to $3,450, according to the USC Hospitality website.
Within those plans, there are three types of “campus currency” included in a meal plan: Meal Swipes, Dining Dollars and Discretionary Dollars.
Some students are required to have certain meal plans, depending on their class standing and where they live.
According to USC Hospitality, students in most on-campus USC housing are required to participate in the Cardinal Meal Plan, which includes unlimited Meal Swipes, or can choose to update to a larger Meal Plan that includes Dining Dollars in a discounted price.
All Freshmen living in USC Housing are required to participate in the Meal Plan Program. Students living in The Village Apartments, Century Apartments and Cardinal Gardens Apartments, regardless of class standing, are automatically assigned the Apartment Meal Plan, which includes 40 Meal Swipes and $150 Dining Dollars throughout the semester.
All non-freshmen living in Parkside Apartments and Webb Tower must, at least, participate in the Apartment Meal Plan. All Freshmen living in any USC owned, off-campus housing must, at least, participate in the Apartment Meal Plan.
The Community Meal Plans are available to all USC Students who are not required to have a meal plan. These plans may be renewed at any time during the academic school year; however, they will reset at the end of the Spring Semester.
Meal Swipes can only be used in the USC dining halls: Everybody’s Kitchen, Parkside and the USC Village Dining Hall.
Dining Dollars can be used at USC Hospitality venues, including the restaurants at the Tutor Campus Center, the dining halls, Starbucks and Coffee Beans on campus, Seeds, Fertitta Cafe, Little Galen and others. Dining Dollars and Meal Swipes do not carry over from semester to semester and cannot be used at places that serve alcohol.
Discretionary Dollars are a separate amount of money students or parents can add to a USC account, much like a debit card. They can be used at the same places as Dining Dollars are taken.
Discretionary also can be used at USC Hospitality venues that serve alcohol, like Moreton Fig, McKays, and The Lab, as well as for other services besides restaurants, such as the bookstore, printing and copying, and the on-campus pharmacy.
As of now, USG Senators and the new administration are discussing a possible plan to allow discretionary dollars in the Village. In the meantime, the student will continue to swipe in at the dining halls and spend their own money on the village restaurants.
But the other Village businesses might not have time to wait.
Tofani, however, is looking ahead towards a brighter future.
“I want to change the attitude and treatment of those tenants,” he said.” I am hopeful for positive change.”