Sparty's: Michigan State's rebranded convenience stores

Published in FSD Update

Culinary Services at MSU has injected new life into a two-decades-old concept with a tiered approach.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Most university foodservice directors, especially those at large state schools, know how valuable convenience stores can be for their departments. Even students who eat often in a university’s main dining halls appreciate the ability to impulse shop for snacks or sundries for which they might otherwise have to find off campus.

The challenge on a college campus, of course, is two-fold: trying to satisfy the needs of a wide range of students and encouraging the “cross-pollination” of the campus—getting students to stray from the comfort zone of the housing area in which they live.

Michigan State University, in East Lansing, is perhaps one of the most successful schools in this regard. With its “Sparty’s” line, Culinary Services has managed to meet both goals with a trifecta of shops.

We had the opportunity to see Sparty’s last week when we ventured to central Michigan. After a visit to the offices of the National Association of College and University Food Services, Publisher Bill Anderson, Editor Becky Schilling and I spent the day touring the MSU campus and meeting with Culinary Services Director Guy Procopio and members of his team. We got to see the MSU “neighborhood” concept of housing, in which the department of Residential and Hospitality Services has bundled a variety of services in each residence complex. Students can find virtually everything they need, from dining to medical to counseling, mere steps from their dorm rooms.

Sparty’s has an essential role to play in these neighborhoods. In the spirit of fostering variety, Procopio’s team has created three different Sparty’s concept’s, from the basic to the deluxe, which combine to help generate about $10 million in retail revenue each year.

The Sparty’s program has been around for more than 20 years, but the department began to rebrand the concept in 2010, as part of its goal of providing more dining variety.

“We want each of our locations to offer something a little different,” says Procopio. “We don’t want them to get bored, and we want to make each of our neighborhoods unique.”

Culinary Services took the c-store idea and created two variations on it. The basic unit, of which there are now seven, is called Sparty’s Express. It offers Spartan Spirit coffee along with a variety of c-store items such as snacks and sundries.

A step up from that is Sparty’s Refresh, which currently has 11 locations. The Refresh concept adds hot and cold specialty drinks to the menu. Sparty’s Café is the top-of-the-line version, with made-to-order food accentuating the line-up. Sparty’s Cafes are located in three of the 11 dining halls: Brody, Case and Hubbard.

The food menu includes sandwiches, pizza and, in one location, grilled and fried items such as burgers, chicken and fries. In addition to the expanded menus, Sparty’s Café is the only one of the three concepts with seating. Each has between 50 to 75 seats.

Meal plan students—MSU’s dining plan is unlimited access—are encouraged to use these retail outlets through a Combo-X-Change option. Monday through Friday, students can use the Combo plan to “purchase” a beverage, entrée and snack item.

Sparty’s was just one example of how MSU Culinary Services has managed to keep its dining program fresh and varied. Part of the proof lies in the number of tours Procopio and Bruce Haskell, associate director for residential dining, have given to directors from other universities—even from as far away as China. Our visit was well worth the time spent.