Politics & Government

Local ferry food vendor seeks governor’s help to stay in business

Tugboats bring the M/V Tacoma to dock after it lost power traveling from Seattle to Bainbridge Island in 2014.
Tugboats bring the M/V Tacoma to dock after it lost power traveling from Seattle to Bainbridge Island in 2014. The Associated Press

A Bremerton company that serves food on Washington ferries is imploring Gov. Jay Inslee to stop a large multinational corporation from replacing them after an unsuccessful attempt to block the switch in court.

Olympic Cascade Services has been the largest vendor on state ferries since 2005, but was outbid for a new contract earlier this year by Centerplate, which caters in Washington at the Tacoma Dome and Safeco Field in Seattle.

Nove Meyers, president of Olympic Cascade, maintains the bidding process with Washington State Ferries was unfair and has sued in an effort to force a redo.

But a panel of judges in Washington’s Court of Appeals delivered a big blow to Olympic Cascade’s chances Monday by not continuing an injunction barring WSF from signing a contract with the Connecticut-based Centerplate.

If the ferries sign with Centerplate, “we really lose all our remedies,” Meyers said.

With the injunction set to expire Wednesday, Meyers is mulling an appeal to the Supreme Court for a new injunction and hoping for an unlikely intervention by Inslee.

“I really think at this point the decision is up to the governor,” Meyers said.

New vendor contract

The family-owned Olympic Cascade Services was one of eight companies to bid on the opportunity to sell food on ferries after Meyers’ original contract ran out last year, according to the state Department of Transportation.

State ferry contracts expire every decade to create competition that aims to get taxpayers “the best value for their dollar and also to provide passengers with the best quality food possible,” said Ian Sterling, a spokesman for Washington State Ferries.

At the end of process, Sterling said, DOT chose Centerplate because it offered higher-quality food, more selection and would pay the state more for the contract. Sterling didn’t immediately release details of the two bids because of the pending court action, but said Olympic Cascades paid the state just under $1 million for its concession contracts last year.

Meyers contends Centerplate’s application was misleading.

The large company left out details of past business ventures, such as a canceled deal with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, according to Olympic Cascade. Meyers said WSF didn’t look close enough at reports of labor lawsuits and health violations involving Centerplate, such as when Centerplate’s food made 216 people sick at a 2014 conference in Baltimore.

Meyers added Centerplate was misrepresenting its financial offer.

Officials at the ferry system think otherwise. Sterling said the state has carefully examined Centerplate’s offer and doesn’t think Centerplate was being deceptive to win the bid. Courts have issued rulings in the state’s favor so far, which Sterling said backs up their decision.

As for the health and labor concerns raised by Olympic Cascade, Sterling said “sometimes you have some negative things that happen” with an organization as big as Centerplate. He said WSF has “glowing recommendations” from companies that have hired Centerplate.

Centerplate spokeswoman Diana Evans couldn’t be reached on the phone for comment, but said in an email they have served food in Washington for more than 20 years and employ more than 1,300 in the state annually.

The company serves more than 300 event venues in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, according to its website.

“We’re confident we’ve done the right thing,” Sterling said. “Really we’re trying to look out for our passengers.”

Local company

But beyond disputes of the bid details, Meyers’ pitch to Inslee is about the principle of choosing local.

The Bremerton company, which employs around 100 people, would go under without the WSF contract, unlike Centerplate, Meyers said.

Meyers delivered his elevator speech to Inslee after a fundraising event in Bremerton last week. Olympic Cascade also delivered a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to his office, urging Inslee to “keep ferry food local.”

Though the state is required to buy its ferries from Washington companies, it doesn’t have to use local organizations for its vending contracts. Instead, WSF looks for the “best value for taxpayers,” Sterling said.

About a dozen state lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes of Brainbridge Island and Republican Sen. Jan Angel of Port Orchard, have signed letters to the state or offered support for Olympic Cascade.

Most are from areas serviced by ferries.

Rolfes said she wanted to make sure Olympic Cascade was treated fairly and had concerns about “awarding a state contract to a huge national company and putting the smaller locally based business out of business.”

She said more discussion of giving local companies preference in state contracting is necessary in the future.

Angel asked Inslee to “review all of the information to make sure (WSF) made the right decision,” she said in a statement to The News Tribune.

So far, Inslee has “no plans to weigh in,” according to spokeswoman Jaime Smith, who said the governor’s office isn’t involved in the bidding process.

Smith said Centerplate sounds “very committed” to serving local food and drinks, a point Sterling and Centerplate have touted.

“At this point (the Department of Transportation) has been following their standard procurement process as far as we know,” she said, later adding “It looks like the courts are essentially asserting as well that DOT is doing their due diligence on this.”

Though his options appear slim, Meyers is holding out hope for a re-bid.

“I think we’ve demonstrated there’s enough concerns the state should really take a look at this,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein