Retail gets a makeover

Like a lot of dining programs at colleges and universities, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., wanted to beat the competition from outside restaurants by having them join the dining lineup. But the school’s contracted foodservice manager decided to reach beyond the brands that make up any town’s fast-food row and plucked a top finisher from the local “Zagat” guide instead. The suburban Chicago institution arranged to open a variation on chef Rick Bayless’ famed downtown Frontera Grill.

Now the restaurant, which opened in 2013, is part of the campus tour for prospective applicants and their families. “They hear the name Rick Bayless and it’s kind of a ‘wow’ moment for everyone,” says Jason Sophian, marketing manager for the Sodexo-run operations at Northwestern. “When we wanted to increase that value and perception [of dining services], in the short time it’s been here, it’s definitely served us well.”

More and more, college foodservice operators are looking closer to home—theirs and their students’—for retail dining options. Big-name national and proprietary brands still have a firm footing on campus, but foodservice directors are capitalizing on the recognition and perception of regional and local favorites, regardless of whether the brand has ever played in the non-commercial space. Places with a strong following not only satisfy the increasingly food savvy student population but offer an element of differentiation for the campus. It doesn’t hurt that the sales of a familiar, much-loved local or regional brand can be significantly stronger as well.

“We have three Starbucks on the campus, we have Chipotle, we’ve got Qdoba and we’ve got a McDonald’s,” says Pam Lampitt, director of business services for hospitality services at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. “[But] we wanted something that had a ‘wow’ factor, that would be unique, that would get our students excited.”

It’s not always a matter of geography. Chicago is a long way from Philadelphia, but familiarity with Rick Bayless is strong among the university’s population, even though the TV star and best-selling author has no restaurants in the area. Now students who might yawn at a burrito from Qdoba or Chipotle can indulge in Mexican food from Bayless’ Tortas Frontera, a local brand unfamiliar to the region but not to grads and undergrads.

The survey says

Today’s college crowd is smart when it comes to brands and to food. Quick-serve and fast-casual street brands have pretty much always been available to them, and with more ethnic and global options than ever, comfort food for this group runs the gamut from burritos to wontons. Offering variety and unique food options is merely a means of meeting student expectation.

“For our students who have grown up with this dining experience where they’re very brand and franchise oriented, they are coming to campuses demanding—frankly expecting—that they’re going to see those same kinds of experiences on their campus,” observes Mary Anne Nagy, vice president for student life and leadership engagement at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.

And at Monmouth, an experience they will get. Until the 2013 fall semester, the college didn’t offer any retail street brands within its residential dining program, which is managed by Aramark. The team recognized the need to up its street cred among students. When the opportunity arose to update the food court with more recognizable brands, rather than seeking out the big brand names, the dining services team looked down the street.

Jersey Mike’s started stacking its signature sub sandwiches in Point Pleasant, N.J., less than 25 miles from campus more than 50 years ago. The first college unit for Jersey Mike’s, the Monmouth outlet offers a broad variety of its signature and customizable sandwich options, providing students with the opportunity for a different meal experience each time they visit. “You could literally go to Jersey Mike’s [the] five or six days a week that we’re in operation and you can have a different sandwich or experience every day,” Nagy says.

After just one year, the outlet has exceeded expectations. It has become a student favorite and is consistently ranked No. 1 in satisfaction surveys.

With so many college options at their fingertips, today current and prospective university students base their school choice on perks well beyond average class size or the number of internship opportunities. “Students are making choices today by amenities,” observes David Gingher, director of retail operations at Pennsylvania State University, in State College. “It used to be the curriculum and what each school had, and now it’s a balance of both. If you don’t have what they’re used to having every day, they’re going to find it somewhere else.” Gingher is trying to meet those elevated student demands by adding the first Pennsylvania McAlister’s Deli unit to his campus.

But beware. If you don’t meet expectations, get ready to hear about it. Such was the case at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. With an established mix of national and proprietary branded options, students wanted more. Through surveys and focus groups, students pushed for the opening of the first non-commercial unit of Fazoli’s, the Italian fast-casual brand headquartered in Lexington, Ky. While not a local franchise, few outlets were available to students, and Fazoli’s was a brand that filled a campus need.

Slated to open this fall, the Fazoli’s campus unit will be a modified version of a street-side operation, offering a smaller menu. Though freestanding units exist off campus, Kirk Rodriguez, director of hospitality services, looks forward to working with those operations to build the campus brand and taking advantage of student awareness for the unit’s success.

Much like Tech, Northwestern’s students were “clamoring for restaurant-type style places on campus,” according to Sophian. The addition of Frontera Fresco fit the bill. “One of the benefits is that we are able to offer students something that they are more familiar with, that they’ve grown up with possibly, and it’s an opportunity to give them, in many ways, a taste of home,” Sophian says.

Unique to you

As an added bonus to satisfying students, unique retail brands also do a good job of making a building or section of campus a draw for students—and for the community.

Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, is adding a smaller footprint of the popular hometown comfort food outlet, Melt Bar & Grilled, called Melt University. Melt University, alongside proprietary brands, will anchor a new multimillion-dollar build out of the campus’s first student union. A state-of-the-art facility in the heart of campus, “We really wanted to reflect the nature of the facility with the dining concepts,” Dick Jamieson, vice president for campus services, explains of the new union.

Spearheaded by foodservice contractor Bon Appétit, the addition of the brand’s first non-commercial unit is slated to open later this month offering an amended version of its full-service menu, sans alcohol. “Students know Melt, they know the concept; it’s not your run-of-the-mill foodservice-type option and they’re really excited,” Jamieson says.

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