In August 2014, Infinite One Pvt. Ltd. beat three other competitors to bag the contract for setting up an International Cafeteria in the Institute – a change necessitated by the end of Cafe Coffee Day’s contract to provide its service for the same. Infinite One Pvt Ltd showed a lot of promise initially – it won the technical bid hands down and promised “Chennai’s first motorcycle-themed Cafe”; fittingly named Kickstart Cafe. However, within a few days of opening shop, complaints started pouring in about poor service and non-availability of items – complaints that didn’t subside as days, and then months, passed by. Nearly a year later, in August 2015, the Committee for Monitoring General Facilities for Students (hereafter referred to as the CMGFS) took the decision to terminate the contract on the basis of the periodic monitoring of the facility carried out by the CMGFS as well as the feedback received from nearly 1600 students through an online survey. – an overwhelming number (80.1%) of whom rated the service provided as bad. However, due to procedural delays, bureaucratic red tape and a show of arrogant defiance to the institute’s authority, Kickstart continues to offer its services in the institute – creating a rather unpleasant situation between the concerned parties.
Awarding the Tender
The very first sign of trouble with regards to Kickstart Cafe can be traced back to the possibly flawed technical evaluation by the CMGFS team during the tendering stage. On the 13th of July 2014, a CMGFS team visited the outlets of Infinite One Pvt Ltd, B&M Hot Breads and Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Company (CCD) in Mogappair in order to conduct technical evaluations. While the rating for Hot Breads and CCD averaged at around 55 on 100, Infinite One Pvt Ltd blew away its competitors by posting an average of 86 on 100. Further investigations by the T5E team suggest that this huge variance in scores could possibly be due to the difference in the type of outlets run by the competitors. Hot Breads and CCD ran outlets which were quintessential coffee shops while Infinite One Pvt Ltd ran a full scale restaurant. This led to an obvious difference in the quality of service provided and would have been one of the major factors that resulted in the mammoth score awarded to Infinite One Pvt Ltd. This fact – that the technical bids were comparing unequals – might have been overlooked while awarding the final contract. Furthermore, the fact that Hot Breads and CCD were well established food chains while Infinite One Pvt Ltd had no prior experience in running a Cafe seems to have had little effect on how the final contract was awarded. The reason behind Kickstart’s successful bid could also be possibly attributed to the fact that it was listed amongst the top 10 restaurants in Chennai by Zomato.
Speaking about this, Prof. M.S Sivakumar, the Dean (Students) attributed Kickstart’s successful bid to the manner in which the process of shortlisting was done. According to him, the process did not require prior experience on the part of the applicant as experience is not necessarily a guarantee for good performance. Besides, lack of experience was discussed in the Tender Committee meeting and the decision to shortlist Infinite One Pvt Ltd. was made, seeing their promise.
Terms of Contract
The final contract that was signed between IIT Madras and Infinite One Pvt Ltd stated a couple of things fairly clearly. Firstly, the contract clearly stated that IIT Madras shall have the right to terminate the contract without giving any reason – the only caveat being that a month’s notice must be given to the licensee. Secondly, dispute resolution mechanisms had been laid down very clearly in the agreement, with IIT Madras having the final say on any dispute. The role of CMGFS had also been formalized in the agreement. The concerned provisions have been reproduced below –
Provision/Clause : 5
Breach of Terms and Conditions
The LICENSOR will have the right to monitor the LICENSEE’s premises, facilities and operations periodically through the Committee for Monitoring General Facilities for Students (CMGFS), appointed by the former. Any violation of the terms and conditions mentioned herein will entail a corresponding financial penalty and/or immediate cancellation of the license and forfeiture of the Caution Deposit. In matters of disputes, the decision of the LICENSOR shall be final and binding on the LICENSEE.
Provision/Clause : 8
Termination of License
The LICENSOR has the sole and inalienable right to terminate the agreement by giving one month’s notice to the LICENSEE without assigning any reason.
Negative Feedback and Termination of Contract
Since the inception of the Cafe, CMGFS has been fulfilling its contractual role by continuously monitoring Kickstart Cafe. The weekly review meetings that were held by the CMGFS Coordinator elicited negative feedback from nearly all the customers present. Some of the complaints were to do with stale food and improperly cooked pizza – others were concerned with food quality and hygiene. Consistent negative feedback, followed by a major goof up where a non-veg pizza was served instead of a vegetarian pizza led to Kickstart being served its first memo[note]Memorandum, here a Memorandum of complaint.[/note] in March 2015. Two more memos followed in May 2015 for non-payment of electricity and water utility dues. The lack of a satisfactory response to the charge of poor quality of food and services prompted Anand Babu, the newly elected HAS, to float an online survey asking for opinions regarding Kickstart.
On June 9, 2015, the CMGFS shared the above mentioned customer feedback survey of Kickstart on smail. When the form was closed a month later, a total of 1611 responses had been recorded. Feedback was taken on the availability of items, taste and quality, cleanliness and hygiene, ambience and comfort of the seating arrangement, speed of service and overall service. The feedback on overall service was largely negative with 51% being unsatisfied, 31% slightly satisfied, 11% satisfied and only 7% very or extremely satisfied. In the same vein, the periodic responses collected by the CMGFS in the complaints/compliments book show that nine out of ten persons have given an average or negative rating across all categories – food quality, quantity for price, speed of service and hygiene.
The results of the online survey reinforced the reports submitted by the HAS and the CMGFS team regarding the services provided by Kickstart Cafe. In its meeting on the 30th of August, the CMGFS unanimously decided to terminate Kickstart Cafe’s contract and the same was conveyed to the Estate Section[note]The administrative section of the institute in charge of issuing and rescinding contracts [/note]by Prof. Arockiarajan, the CMGFS Chairman. The final termination notice was sent to Kickstart Cafe on the 14th of September. As stated earlier, the contract gave Kickstart Cafe an exact duration of one month to vacate the premises and Kickstart Cafe was duty bound to vacate the Institute by the 14th of October.
Back and forth over the termination, one too many times.
The notice, however, went unanswered by Kickstart Cafe’s owners for nearly two weeks. On the 26th of September, Mr Prateek Darolia, one of the directors of Infinite One Foods Pvt. Ltd. the parent company of Kickstart Cafe, made a personal representation to the Registrar, Ms V. G. Bhooma, asking for the termination order to be revoked and subsequently mailed her and the CMGFS Chairman detailing the steps taken by him to improve Kickstart Cafe.
Close to the stipulated termination date of 14th October, the Registrar’s Office (which has the final say on administrative matters pertaining to external vendors), issued a formal communication to the CMGFS Chairman and other concerned parties stating that the termination order was being revoked. CMGFS was also asked to be more meticulous with regards to issuing prior warnings, and was asked to collect feedback over the next two months. This decision, taken without involving CMGFS, was deemed by its members as a slight to CMGFS’ work so far, especially since CMGFS was seen as losing credibility and authority.
This setback to the CMGFS’ decision was fiercely contested by student representatives, Hostel Affairs Secretary(HAS) and Students General Secretary(SGS), who made a case for Kickstart’s termination to the Director immediately. The Director, agreeing that the CMGFS’ action was justified, suggested that the contract be terminated. This decision however, met with further bureaucratic delay in the Registrar’s Office, as they failed to sign the termination order for nearly two weeks after repeated attempts by the student reps to expedite the process. Finally, on 30th of October, Kickstart Cafe was served a notice to vacate the Institute premises by the 30th of November, a whole month-and-a-half after the original termination date.
This wasn’t the end of the issue though. Just a week before the new termination date 30th of November, Kickstart’s owner met the Registrar once again with positive feedback from customers and requested for the termination to be revoked. This unofficial feedback lacked a date or timestamp, with the names and roll numbers of the reviewers also not clear everywhere. Obliged to verify these new claims, the Registrar directed the CMGFS team to collect feedback once again – this time in the form of hard copies. The CMGFS team collated the collected feedback and prepared a detailed report during the end semester examinations period. The new report re-emphasized the previous reports and presented a strong case for termination – enabling the administration to reject Kickstart’s request. However, Kickstart has struck a defiant note since then. Claiming that the termination order was “baseless” and “illegitimate”, Kickstart’s management has refused to vacate the premises without a further meeting with the concerned authorities. Mr. Sarthak Darolia, who manages the cafe in the institute was unavailable for a comment.
The prolonged delay and bureaucratic hurdles faced by CMGFS in this case illustrates the need to empower CMGFS. The CMGFS ensures effective functioning of eateries by constantly factoring student feedback and clearly needs to be vested with more decision-making powers with regards to vendors. At the same time, CMGFS has a lot to learn from this episode – the tender evaluation process, for starters, needs a relook. To its credit, CMGFS has already started making changes – this being the first time that a contract has been terminated prematurely, the administration and CMGFS are looking at revising the contract agreements with the vendors.
The administration has now announced new tenders for the cafeteria, in which three new vendors have shown interest. While this process is nearing completion, Kickstart’s refusal to vacate the premises has aggravated the whole issue. With the administration unwilling to take any drastic step like cutting off electricity or water supply, the Hostel Affairs Secretary and the Students’ General Secretary have decided to call for a boycott of Kickstart among the campus community to bring their operations to a standstill. As for supporting this decision, this boils down to a simple question – whether to eat or not at Kickstart.