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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch John Mandt, Jr., fourth generation owner of Stewarts Original Hot Dogs on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON - While Del. John Mandt, R-Cabell, owner of Stewarts Original Hot Dogs, says he appreciates the support of those who signed a new petition asking Marshall University to reinstate the local business back into concession stands, any such offer would be hard to take because of a lack of trust after several incidents, including Sodexo claiming his company owes them money.

Sodexo, the company Marshall contracts to provide food services on campus, and Mandt officially ended their 30-year partnership Thursday, according to a certified letter sent to Mandt from the senior vice president of universities for Sodexo, Cal Thetford.

Sodexo and Mandt met in late August to discuss their contract and were unable to come to an agreement on new pricing and the number of stands Stewarts would have in the stadium.

According to Mandt, Sodexo officials said they had "political and contractual" differences, and offered him a deal he could not feasibly accept.

In a letter obtained by The Herald-Dispatch from Sodexo campus general manager Cheryl King to Mandt dated May 31, Sodexo alleges Stewarts owes the company an unspecified amount of money for inaccurate billing rates.

The inaccuracies were discovered during an audit of vendor and subcontractor contracts by the Sodexo legal department after renewing a 10-year contract with Marshall.

The last signed contract between Sodexo and Stewarts, dated Aug. 16, 1998, stipulates Stewarts will provide hot dogs for resale in concession stands. The cost to Sodexo would be 74 cents for all hot dogs sold, 35 cents for all hot dogs prepared in a bun with sauce but unsold, and 20 cents for all unsold cooked hot dogs.

In the May letter, Sodexo said a recent invoice charged $1.20 for all hot dogs sold, 50 cents for hot dogs in buns with sauce unsold, and 35 cents for all unsold hot dogs.

Mandt said Thursday he could not discuss the issue at length due to litigation, but said he does not owe Sodexo money.

"We do not owe Sodexo a dime," Mandt said. "I just got another check from them. It takes them a month to pay up. Even after we had our meeting, they are still sending me checks for invoices I submitted on the price we mutually agreed upon. It's just a bully tactic."

A spokesperson for Sodexo said Thursday the company would not provide additional details on negotiations with Stewarts, but confirmed they did cut ties.

Mandt said over the years, there had been several amendments made to the 1998 contract and several price changes, even having a sliding pay scale at one point where Sodexo was charged less the more hot dogs that were sold.

The contract stipulates the prices, product quantities, locations, staffing levels and hours of operation will be mutually agreed upon in writing.

"This is how it works," Mandt said. "I submit our invoice to the campus manager. The campus manager reviews it and then sends it to corporate. We don't send it to corporate. For all those years, how can they say that I owe them money?"

Mandt said it is a case of a big corporation going after a family-run business.

"I won't roll over," he said.

Mandt said the August meeting was the first time he had met with Sodexo without a representative from the Marshall University Athletic Department.

"Several times Sodexo had to rebid with Marshall for the contract," Mandt said. "They were always told to work out a deal with Stewarts. Always."

Mandt said he knows without a shadow of a doubt if Marshall wanted Stewarts in the concession stands, they would be there.

"Had I not been in the Legislature, we would be in Marshall right now," he said.

'Political differences'

Mandt is in his first term serving as a delegate in the West Virginia Legislature and has received some criticism for a few matters from people within his district, which includes Marshall.

As the House faced cross-over day in February, both sides of the aisle made moves to discharge a handful of bills from committees, meaning the full House could proceed with votes. One of those bills was House Bill 2733, which would have added "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the state Human Rights Act.

Mandt voted against discharging the bill from committee. And though he said he voted against discharging some Republican-backed bills as well, the vote was seen as a vote against the LGBTQ community as it killed the bill.

This led to a group of Huntington residents protesting outside of Stewarts' 5th Avenue location. Mandt has also chosen not to join the city of Huntington's Open to All program, which he says has caused divisiveness in the community. He said he is open to all regardless of a sticker.

"If you are going to choose who you will serve and won't serve, you won't be in business very long," he said.

Sodexo joined the program in April.

The second protest - which came in the form of a petition asking Sodexo and Marshall to end its contract with Stewarts - came in March following remarks Mandt made on Facebook after declining to attend a vigil at the Huntington mosque honoring the victims in a mass shooting incident targeting Muslims in New Zealand.

In the post, Mandt said he chose to distance himself from the vigil because "anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats."

Mandt later said the Facebook post was a misunderstanding, and he was not referencing the vigil but rather House Democrats who at the time had invited the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to the Statehouse following the display of what critics considered an Islamophobic sign in the Capitol rotunda on "GOP Day" during the legislative session. CAIR has been accused of funding terrorism, though that has never been proven.

The petition delivered to Marshall and Sodexo also cited another post by Mandt, which questioned using "tax dollars" to fund a Unity Month program on drag at Marshall. That program would not have been funded with taxpayer dollars, but student fees.

Even before the petition, which had about 700 signatures, was delivered, Marshall President Jerome Gilbert had begun to receive emails from concerned students and alumni about the Stewarts contract, citing his LGBTQ vote initially and eventually the Muslim comments.

Emails obtained by The Herald-Dispatch show Gilbert was initially confused, unaware of the details of a contract with Stewarts. Gilbert eventually emailed Mandt, alerting him to the messages he was receiving and telling him he may want to reconsider his position on LGBTQ issues, as well as allowing people to carry guns on campus. (Mandt voted for the measure, commonly known as campus carry, in committee but voted against it on the floor.)

Mandt said he took the email from Gilbert as a threat, wondering what would happen if he did not change his position.

"During his tenure, President Gilbert has been upfront regarding his views about the university's responsibility to always promote civility, pluralism and social consciousness, and about his position (and our board of governors's position) on campus carry. The opinions and concerns he expressed in the emails are consistent with those views, and, taken in context, are in response to multiple constituent contacts he had about Mr. Mandt and Stewarts Hot Dogs," a university spokesperson said Thursday.

A new petition was delivered to Marshall on Tuesday and forwarded to Sodexo. The online-only petition, organized by Steven Davis, who runs the "Concerned Citizens of Huntington" Facebook page, and blogger Mark Caserta, has 4,500 signatures and asks the university to reinstate Stewarts for all sporting events.

"We fully understand contractual obligations and the price of doing business," the letter reads. "However, clearly the increase of Hot Dogs at the last two home games prove that there is room for a better product at a better price."

According to the university, $93,826 in concession sales were made during the first home football game this year and $99,168 at the second, compared to $79,185 at the first game of 2018. Sodexo now sells "all-beef hot dogs" for $3 at games.

Mandt said the issues have not hurt his business, but he thinks it has hurt Marshall. He said he appreciates the community's loyalty and will continue to sell Thunder Dogs at his two locations and at a tailgate, which supports Veterans Helping Veterans.

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