By JAMES BARRON
Published: March 6, 2013
“This has all the makings of a tempest in a Nutella jar, which may not be as appealing as a Nutella milkshake, Nutella fudge or Nutella-stuffed French toast. Or stolen Nutella, which, apparently, has mouthwatering appeal at Columbia University.
Last month one of Columbia’s undergraduate dining halls began serving Nutella every day, not just in crepes on weekends. For the uninitiated, Nutella is a creamier-than-peanut-butter, chocolate hazelnut spread from Italy that a college student might eat a whole jar of in a single sitting when the pressure is on.
The problem was that the Columbia students went through jars and jars of Nutella — at least 100 pounds a day, according to a freshman member of the Columbia College Student Council who had urged the university’s Dining Services operation to provide it in the first place. Apparently they were not just eating it in the dining hall. They were spiriting it away in soup containers and other receptacles, to be eaten later.
For Dining Services, the unexpected demand was an unexpected expense. And before you could say chocolate-covered Nutella marshmallow cookies, the council member, Peter Bailinson, heard from Vicki Dunn, the executive director of Dining Services. The subject was how much Nutella students were taking back to their dorms, or wherever they were taking it, and how much all that Nutella was costing.
“People take silverware, cups and plates, and that adds up over the course of a year to a lot of money,” he said. “With Nutella, it added up much more quickly. Where Dining might have to spend $50,000 to replace silverware and cups, they were spending thousands of dollars on Nutella in one week.”
Ms. Dunn “told me it was close to $5,000 in that first week,” he said. As for the amount of Nutella that Columbia students were consuming, or at least loading up on and walking away with, he said, “I was told it was more than 100 pounds per day.”
How much more? “That was all I got,” he said.
Before hanging up on a reporter who called on Wednesday, Ms. Dunn said: “I’m not allowed to comment on anything. You have to go through university communications.”
A spokeswoman declined to comment on the Nutella situation at Columbia. She said that numbers quoted in The Columbia Daily Spectator — and repeated by Mr. Bailinson in a telephone interview on Wednesday — were “speculative and inaccurate” and that the cost figures were “roughly 10 times greater than the actual figures.”
Nutella is widely available on school campuses, though precise figures could not be obtained. It was also unclear whether Nutella hoarding had become a financial concern on other campuses.
It was clear that Nutella was not the only thing that was disappearing from the dining halls at Columbia. Of 11 students questioned on the campus on Wednesday, all confessed to having spirited away loaves of bread and bottles of ketchup, not to mention containers of milk and pieces of fruit. But while those 11 said they had never walked out with extra Nutella, others had firsthand stories from the Nutella wars up close. Kathryn Thayer, a senior, said her time as a resident assistant in a dorm had included women “complaining about their roommates’ finishing their Nutella jars.”
And Jeff Desroches, a junior, said he had made off with Nutella — enough to last all day — when he was stressed out before final exams.
“Usually,” he said, “people apply peanut butter on one slice of the bread and Nutella on the other slice, but I apply thick layers of Nutella to both slices of the bread.”
The brouhaha went public on Feb. 22, when Mr. Bailinson wrote a message on a Facebook page for Columbia freshmen.
“I posted it trying to get people to be aware of why Dining charges as much as it charges for things,” he said. “I was saying that when people take more than they’re eating for that one meal, that takes away money Dining could spend on improving the dining experience. My original post said please don’t take more than you need at one meal or we’re not going to get more of these cool products. That got interpreted as Dining is going to take away Nutella because we’re using it so much.”
Soon freshmen who were fast with figures were complaining that Nutella from a discount store like Costco would cost less than Columbia was paying for it. “They took the 100 pounds and used it as a hard fact” in doing math on the Facebook page, Mr. Bailinson said. “I quickly commented, ‘More than 100 pounds was a rough guess, I don’t have the hard figures.’ ”
Mr. Bailinson, who said he liked to spread Nutella on sandwiches, had his own explanation for why the Nutella issue had caught on.
“It combines three things people at Columbia love: People love Nutella, people love complaining about the dining halls and people feel there’s a problem with how the administration handles things,” he said. “This Nutella situation is a perfect storm of all these interests coming together.”
Priyanka Borpujari and Morgan M. Davis contributed reporting.