Pardon their French, they feed the Marines

Contract: Sodexho Inc., under contract to feed U.S. Marines, is under attack for its French connection, but the Marines at Camp Lejeune keep right on lining up for chow.

April 13, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — It's barely 8:30 a.m. in Mess Hall 455 at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and 240 pounds of lightly breaded legs, thighs and breasts are already sizzling and popping in two deep vats of oil in the galley.

Retired Marine David French is about to toss 105 pounds of cubed potatoes into the deep fry. Steps away, Philippines-born Evelyn Edwards is busy stirring 20 pounds of ziti, Creole sauce and gravy in three 60-gallon kettles. And Gloria Crawford, a former Marine who hails from South Carolina, is at the grill flipping slabs of liver smothered in onions and sauteed with salt, pepper and a palm-full of garlic.

Together, the three chefs and one baker will produce an impressive spread for 1,250 hungry Marines and sailors for the lunch feeding that starts at 11 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. It's a massive production, one that is timed and prepped for well in advance, from the meat thawed three days ahead of menu down to the last shred of lettuce on the salad bar.

It's American precision.

Or is that French, pardonne-moi?

Sodexho Inc., the Gaithersburg, Md.-based employer of French, Edwards, Crawford and tens of thousands more like them, is owned by a French food service corporation, Sodexho Alliance SA. That's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to fine fare. But as Washington-Paris relations remain strained over the war in Iraq, the French connection has drawn into the dispute one very American company with headquarters not far from the nation's capital.

"They call me Frenchy, but I don't have a drop of French blood in me," said French, who joined Sodexho in December. "I don't like to mix politics with food, but if you ask me, I think the whole thing is just ridiculous."

It started with Freedom Fries and then, Freedom Toast.

But when that didn't seem enough, several Washington lawmakers decided to punish France for opposing the war effort. American dollars should no longer support French firms, they said. So they launched a petition demanding that the Department of Defense kill Sodexho's $881 million, eight-year contract to feed U.S. Marines at 55 facilities, from California to North Carolina.

"My colleagues and I abhor the idea of continuing to pour American dollars into a French-based firm when those dollars could be feeding our wartime economy," Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, wrote in his petition. "Additionally, termination of the relationship between Sodexho and the U.S. military will send a tangible signal to the French government that there are economic consequences associated with their international policies."

The petition has gained little ground.

In fact, many of the anti-France movements have barely caused a ripple. Sales of French wines aren't suffering even though some bottles have been dumped down the drain. And while some state legislatures threatened to boycott French-owned businesses, it lasted about as long as it took them to discover that French-owned companies in their own back yard provide thousands of jobs and products for their residents.

But the shock waves from the Sodexho threat sent shares of its parent tumbling on the Paris exchange. It caused thousands of concerned U.S. Sodexho workers to write their members of Congress. This month as the food services firm lowered sales targets for the fourth time in 12 months, Sodexho Alliance said it was missing out on lucrative contracts to supply the U.S. and British forces in the Persian Gulf because of France's diplomatic opposition to the war.

'Hey, we're American'

The turmoil has spurred the U.S. subsidiary to express polite indignation with the company's mantra: Hey, we're American. We employ Americans. We're Americans serving Americans.

"In this case, it's Americans serving Marines," said Ike Johnson, a gruff former Marine who is Sodexho's vice president of operations overseeing the East Coast Marine Corps contract. "We've got folks who are related to soldiers on the front lines. Many of us, we've given all of our adult lives to the Marine Corps. So the idea that we're French doesn't come into play at all in my mind.

"Everything we do is American," said Johnson, whose duties ranged from drill instructor to food service officer during his 27-year military career. "Anyone who disputes that doesn't know this company. So you may be aiming at the French, but by attacking this contract, you're attacking Americans."

Sodexho began in March 1998, when Bethesda-based Marriott International spun off Marriott Management Services Inc., which merged with Sodexho Alliance's North American operations. A little over three years later, Sodexho Alliance bought full control of the business for $1.08 billion in cash.


Sodexho's headquarters remain in Maryland, where about 500 work. Sodexho's chief executive and president, Michel Landel, is undoubtedly French. But the 49-year-old has lived here for 14 years and most members of his executive committee are USA born and bred.

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