Verbum Ultimum: Dining Disconnect

Dartmouth’s dining policies hurt local business.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 1/31/20 2:10am

Just this month came the announcement that Jewel of India, a restaurant that has stood as a Hanover landmark for the past 28 years, will close by the end of June. The restaurant, which operates out of a Dartmouth-owned building, is one of many Hanover businesses that have closed in recent years. 

The College justified its decision not to renew Jewel’s lease due to the estimated cost of structural repairs for the building. We won’t comment on the details of this specific case, which remains ongoing. But as the College chooses not to renew the lease and to allow another small Hanover business to fade, the time seems optimal to focus on the broader question on the College’s relationship with the Hanover community.

Dartmouth’s policies, especially its insistence on an expensive and limited dining plans, drastically curtail students’ ability to support local businesses. If Dartmouth wants to truly engage with its community, it needs to change its policies.

The College and Hanover depend on one another. Dartmouth does a lot for the Hanover community — art exhibitions at the Hood, music and theater performances at the Hopkins Center, film screenings at the Black Family Visual Arts Center and a host of free public lectures and guest speakers draw people from across the Upper Valley. And Hanover’s local businesses certainly benefit from the presence of over 6,000 students at the College — not to mention faculty, staff and visitors. 

But while the College has remained the central institution of downtown Hanover for over 200 years, the businesses around it have not experienced the same staying power. Since the Class of 2020 arrived on campus, at least a half-dozen retail and restaurant locations have been forced to close their doors — the Dartmouth Bookstore, Wheelock Books, Canoe Club, Kata Thai, Orient and long-time favorite Everything But Anchovies have all gone out of business since 2016. These businesses, especially EBAs and Jewel of India, have not just been random components of the Hanover landscape. These restaurants were a regular presence in student life, whether it was through club meetings with Jewel catering or late-night trips to Allen Street for pizza at EBAs.

Of course, part of this turnover may well be due to the difficulties inherent in running a small business. Twenty percent of small businesses fail in their first year, and only around half make it past the five-year mark. But especially when it comes to restaurants — and five of the seven Hanover businesses faced with closure in the past four years have been restaurants — the College’s dining policies explicitly disadvantage local small businesses. 

For students living on campus — who make up nearly 90 percent of the student body — meal plans are mandatory. The cheapest option for students living in a dorm costs $1,900 for a 10-week term, or $190 worth of food per week. Even the few students living off-campus must spend at least $1,000 per term on a Dartmouth Dining Services meal plan. 

With so much money already spent for them, the student body hardly has the luxury of supporting Hanover restaurants. Many students — particularly those on financial aid — have a hard time justifying eating out in town when they are already required to enroll in a campus meal plan. The effective cost of dining out becomes far higher for students than for those not bound by the meal plan; after all, money spent at a restaurant is in addition to the amount already extracted by DDS’ meal plan. For many students, that excess spending simply isn’t feasible. And local businesses suffer for it.

Many of Dartmouth’s peer institutions — including Swarthmore and George Washington University — have implemented some version of dining credit reciprocity, allowing students to spend their dining plan at local restaurants. Dartmouth would be wise to do the same. Hanover restaurants would see a surge in customers, while students would see a welcome increase in dining options. DDS, meanwhile, would lose its current monopoly on dining. This would benefit everyone; faced with competition from other restaurant providers, DDS would have a greater incentive to fine-tune its options to better meet student needs. And, faced with price competition from local restaurants, DDS would perhaps finally lower the cost of what are widely regarded as overpriced snacks and meals.

We are not proposing a complete overhaul of Dartmouth’s dining system. But a simple change — allowing meal plans to work at local restaurants — can make a big difference, both for students and for the Hanover community. Dartmouth relies on Hanover. Let’s do our part to support its small businesses.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief.