O burger, where art thou?: The 'O' to close on campus

After 10 years of burgers, peanut-oil-bathed French fries, and increasingly clogged arteries, the Original Hot Dog Shop is leaving. The "O" as many students know the first-floor University Center eatery, is the only food venue on campus open after midnight.

"Sales at the 'O' have dropped significantly this year, and the reason identified for leaving was financial, i.e. declining profits," said Tim Michael, director of Housing and Dining Services. Michael also noted that the "O" faced labor difficulties in the fall.

In a meeting with the University last Wednesday, the "O" confirmed it would not renew its five-year lease before it expires on June 30, according to Michael. Parkhurst Dining Services conducted negotiations on behalf of Carnegie Mellon, with Michael involved in the process.

"Students' complaints started to increase," Michael said, referring to the service at the "O".

Sydney Simon, the owner of the "O" and founder of the first Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland, posted notes at the campus location last week with a message addressed to the students of Carnegie Mellon. The notes claimed that Parkhurst and Carnegie Mellon's contract was "way out of line," with a postscript declaring that the "O" would only accept a contract identical to the contract signed last year.

"We were number two or three on campus in terms of volume -- or that's what they told us," said Simon, referring to the vendor's profit rank among campus eateries. "They gave us a list of insurances that we've never had before, that my insurance agent said we don't need for a food court. I think it's an unleveled playing field."

Simon also said that Parkhurst prohibited the "O" from raising prices, when costs have gone up 35 to 40 percent in the food industry.

Simon attributed the decline in profits to labor shortages.

"The problem was with the help. We worked hard, but some managers quit, and we had call-offs, and we apologize for that. I don't think [the new vendor] will try as hard as we did," said Simon.

Simon also felt that increased competition played a role in declining profits.

Michael noted the decline in profits may be attributed to a growing interest in healthier dining and lifestyles.

"The [specialty at the "O"] is hamburgers and French fries. Their most famous item is their bag of fries. While they're delicious, they're probably not the healthiest things for you," Michael said. "The "O's" menu has not changed to reflect the change towards healthier eating.

Michael claims that he and the Parkhurst staff offered assistance to the "O's" management in reviewing their business model. This included reviewing the menu, the staff, and the hours of operation for efficiency and customer appeal. Ultimately, they hoped to discern the reason for dropping sales, but Michael claimed the "O's" management never responded to requests for a business plan.

According to sources at the Original Hot Dog Shop offices, the current economic climate is creating difficulties for everyone in the restaurant business.

"I don't think he knows the first thing about food, or the food business," said Simon, referring to Michael.

On May 9, at the last meeting of a Dining Advisory Committee, a subsidiary of Dining Services, there will be a discussion about filling the vacancy in the University Center in the wake of the "O's" departure.

According to Michael, this meeting will include a group of students, faculty, and staff representatives who provide input and feedback on campus dining operations.

"It makes me sad. We've always come to the "O" late night," said Rebecca Obley, a junior information systems major and a Pittsburgh native. "My dad went to Pitt and used to talk about going to the "O" late night."

According to the "O's" website, Sid and his wife Essie opened the first venue in Oakland shortly before the 1960 World Series in which Bill Mazeroski hit a game-winning home run for the Pirates, only a few blocks away at Forbes Field. The "O" has remained in Oakland for 47 years and at the University Center for 10 years.

Michael said that it is his intention to continue to meet the demand for a late-night food venue in the University Center.

"CMU students were a pleasure to have as customers," Simon said. "Of all the stores I have, I really appreciated those kids, and I know my employees did too."