Salt Lake County will redo bidding for Salt Palace concessions contract after losing company cries foul

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Large crowds fill the Salt Palace Convention Center at Salt Lake Comic Con in Salt Lake City on Sept. 7, 2013.

Salt Lake County plans a do-over on its selection of a catering and concessions provider for the Salt Palace Convention Center and Mountain America Exposition Center after its last bidding process came under fire by a runner-up.

The county issued a request for proposals, or RFP, for a 6-year, multimillion dollar catering contract in April and received applications from three companies, including the current food service provider, Utah Food Services. But that RFP was canceled earlier this month, following a formal protest by one of the losing bidders, Chicago-based Levy Premium Foodservice, over allegations that its bid had been unfairly scored and that members of the county’s selection committee were biased toward the current caterer.

“It’s unfortunate. We don’t like to have to cancel and start over,” said Jason Yocom, Salt Lake County’s procurement director. “But that’s available to us as a way to ensure that we do operate a fair and competitive process, and we have every intention of doing so on this next RFP.”

Yocom declined to comment on the specific motivations for canceling the contract award, saying he did not want to impair the new round of bidding. But he alluded to potential conflicts of interest and other “issues” that weren’t discovered until late in the process.

He said it is rare for an RFP to be protested by a losing party, and rarer still for an RFP to be canceled, but the county believed it to be in everyone’s best interest to begin again with a new request, a new procurement officer and an entirely new selection committee.

“It will be just like starting fresh from scratch,” Yocom said. “Nothing from the old one will be carried forward.”

County documents obtained by Levy Premium Foodservice through a records request and shared with The Tribune show that Utah Food Services received a higher overall score from committee members than Levy and a third applicant, Culinary Crafts. Levy outperformed Utah Food Services in the categories “pricing proposal” and “concepts and marketing," while Utah Food Services was rated as superior in its qualifications, “references and food quality,” “management and operations,” “projections and financial,” and the preference points awarded by members of the selection committee.

A county analysis also projected that Levy would generate roughly $22.9 million in revenue for the two venues over three years, compared to $18 million from Utah Food Services.

Levy objected to being passed over for the contract, noting its higher projected revenue for the county and its lower score for references despite its references never being contacted by the selection committee. And in a subsequent request for a hearing, Levy objected to two members of the selection committee being listed as references for Utah Food Services and, in one case, having penned a letter of recommendation that was included in the incumbent vendor’s bid for a renewed contract.

“Neither of them should have served as members of the selection committee,” attorney Christopher Hogle wrote in an August 12 letter to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, “and the RFP is tainted by their participation.”

A representative of Utah Food Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a prepared statement, Cindy van Rensburg, president of Levy’s convention centers division, said her organization was disappointed with what appears to have been an unfair process, but trusts the next round of bidding will be open and fair.

“We have been active members of the Utah business community for 11 years,” she said, “and in spite of the initial outcome we would like to still do business with Salt Lake County.”

Yocom said the new request for proposals will be issued in the coming months. The current contract expires in January, and Yocom said the county may need to consider a contract extension or other short-term catering and concession arrangement in order to avoid a lapse in services at the Salt Palace and exposition center.

“We plan to issue [the RFP] in the fall and have it awarded and a contract in place early next year,” he said.

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