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Ferry food service to end

Lines in the galleys aboard Washington State Ferries are about to get shorter – the galleys themselves are going to close.

Attempts to find a new concessionaire for on-board kitchen services have failed, leaving vending machines the only option for riders who want a cup of coffee or a snack on board the ferry come Jan. 1.

WSF officials say they hope to see galley service restored by spring, in time for the tourist season.

“The goal is that this is an interim thing, not a permanent shutdown of galleys,” said Celia Schorr, WSF spokesperson.

Ferry officials in August announced plans to move away from a single-vendor galley toward service by an array of local vendors. The proposal was touted as a way to improve the quality and variety of food fair, and increase revenues for the cash-strapped ferry system.

In September, WSF put out a request for proposals from vendors in seven different areas: on-board food, beverage and retail (galley services); on-shore food and beverage in terminal buildings; news, books and convenience items at terminals; fast food at terminals; cold beverage vending on-board and at terminals; hot beverage and snack vending; and game vending.

In the meantime, with the current kitchen contract set to expire in October, WSF and Maryland-based concessionaire Sodexho negotiated a three-month extension to continue service through the end of this year.

But when services were put out to bid – reportedly with the percentages tilted a bit more in favor of WSF – only the vending machine contracts generated any interest.

No kitchen concessionaires came forward. Not even Sodexho.

“We’d like to continue,” Sodexho spokesperson Leslie Aun said this week. “But the way the business is structured makes it impossible for us to make a reasonable profit. We tried to come up with different ideas, ways to adjust the various percentages, but couldn’t make it work.”

Shorr said that other concessionaires queried cited problems with the logistics of providing kitchen services aboard the boats, and concerns over labor costs.

The latter issue has also put WSF at odds with local unions, irked by the elimination of unionized kitchen jobs.

Monday morning, ferry riders expressed disappointment at the imminent loss of the food service, but also expressed a certain degree of incredulity.

“The prices they charge, they should be able to afford to stay,” said Elmer Karjala of Seattle, riding the ferry toward Bainbridge Island. “I guess I’ll have to go to McDonalds instead.”

Said Paul Noot of Seattle: “The real question is, why can’t they make any money? If there are other people out there making money, then they must be doing something wrong.”

Last year, WSF made approximately $900,000 on its contract with Sodexho, which pays the ferry system a 10.5 percent commission on its onboard sales.

But profitability of the kitchen concession across the ferry system remains an issue; the Bainbridge Island-Seattle run is reportedly the only one of 10 runs on which the galley consistently runs in the black. Others are said to do well only seasonally.

Shorr said that WSF now will put the concession contracts out to bid again, but even under a best-case scenario, the galleys are likely to be closed from January until late spring.

During the interim period, she said, WSF will attempt to find vendors to provide snacks at area terminals during commuter hours – coffee and rolls in the morning, other fare in the afternoon.

What form the sales would take is unclear, she conceded; it could mean kiosks or pushcarts in the terminal building and vehicle holding areas.

Island ferry rider Katie Sloan called the galley shutdown a disappointment, saying that riders have come to rely on the food service. But she also saw a chance for terminal-area shops to meet the need.

“Maybe it will open up the opportunity for cafes to open right on the edges (of ferry runs),” Sloan said.

Staff writers Ryan Schierling and Charlie Bermant contributed

to this report.

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