Gourmet Dining Keeps Retail Innovative

Visits to two Gourmet Dining colleges show two different approaches to retail.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

The Cougar's Den at Kean University features
healthy student favorites.

MADISON, N.J.—Gourmet Dining, a regional foodservice management company, believes in working closely with customers to customize each unit to that location’s needs. With 17 accounts, mostly in college dining, each Gourmet Dining location offers something distinctive in terms of retail. FSD recently visited two of the company’s accounts and found two very different approaches to retail locations.

Kean University, Union, N.J.: The Cougar’s Den, a healthy and sustainable-focused retail location at this 15,900-student university, opened in 2010 and has been a great success, says Mark D’Abundo, executive chef for Gourmet Dining at the account.

“The Cougar’s Den was originally a ’50s diner-type location that served burgers and a lot of fried food,” D’Abundo says. “The idea to change it came from the president of the university. He wanted to do something that was healthier for the students. So we did a full renovation and added an atrium to the building.”

For the menu, D’Abundo wanted to take items that would be recognizable to students and make them healthier.

“Let’s take pasta for an example,” D’Abundo says. “Instead of a traditional heavy meat sauce, we have a whole-wheat penne pasta with a turkey Bolognese. Another good example is our eggplant Parmigiana. Instead of a traditional eggplant parm that is breaded and fried, ours is cooked on a flat top with some olive oil and topped with a fresh tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. We got away from frying. Instead of being served on a hero the eggplant parm is served on a ciabatta roll. We also introduced some more salads than we previously had. The most important distinction is all of our items are all natural and fresh—nothing comes in frozen.”

One of the most popular items, according to D’Abundo, is a Mediterranean chicken sandwich, which features pan-seared all-natural chicken breast topped with roasted red peppers, provolone cheese and a garlic aïoli served on a tomato focaccia. Other highlights of the menu include tilapia tacos, a grilled salmon club, sweet potato fries and a vegetable frittata. The Cougar’s Den also serves Starbucks coffee, a variety of teas, all-natural soda and juices. D’Abundo says another big seller for the café is smoothies, which the department makes from scratch with fresh fruit purées, yogurt and local honey.

“There are plenty of companies that sell a smoothie program but making them from scratch really brings a restaurant-type quality to the place,” D’Abundo says. “[Overall for the menu] we didn’t want to completely deny our students the items they loved. We just really try to create items that they identify with and use as much locally sourced produce and meats as possible.”

As for the space itself, D’Abundo says the department hoped to create an area that was more relaxed than some of the other locations on campus.

“What we created was a look that complemented the food,” D’Abundo says. “It is a bright and vibrant place, and I think that’s reflected in the colors like soft yellows and greens and the warm wood floors that were used. There was little natural light, so we created the atrium to open it up to bring in some brightness. There is also a little stage where the university brings in live music and hosts readings and things like that. It’s just a very relaxed place.”

D’Abundo says one of the challenges the department faced when was setting the prices. Originally the concept was going to be an all-organic café, which created pricing challenges.

“Pricing the location when it was going to be all organic made it more expensive than the students could handle,” D’Abundo says. “We are in an area where people are used to paying a certain price. We didn’t want it to be a place where they only came for special occasions. We wanted them to come in every day and see that there is value there. Switching the concept to an all-natural concept made pricing easier. When things are in season, that’s when they are the best price. If things are not available, then we can switch the menu around. The prices are a little bit higher than what we would charge in the cafeteria, but I think the portions are good and people feel it’s a value when they leave.” Currently prices range from $4.95 to $7.25.

D’Abundo advises other operators to source as much local product as possible.

“Take your menu ideas and look at which ones you think could fit with this concept,” D’Abundo says. “Take things that are breaded and fried and have chefs figure out a way to lighten them up and make them healthier by using as much local product as possible. I think by doing it that way you can approach your university with the idea and it will be showcased in a better way.”

New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, N.J.: At NJIT Peter Fischbach, director of food service, says his department’s retail strategy revolves around figuring out what is missing in its program and trying to fill it with innovative concepts.

“Our strategy is to see what our clientele is and see what we are lacking in our program and figuring out how we can marry that with what the up-and-coming trends are,” Fischbach says. “We are looking for fresh new ideas that fit our client base. One example is our new Café Spice, which features primarily southern Indian cuisine such as chicken tikka masala and samosas. Indian food is on the upswing so we put together a shop that is primarily Indian cuisine that is also going to be enhanced with some Southeast Asian items because they all have very similar ingredients, yet they all taste very different.”

Café Spice opened in 2010, and Fischbach says they are planning to offer bahn mi sandwiches and noodle or rice bowls. In creating the concept, Fischbach says the aim was to create an environment that was laid back, comfortable and casual.

“We are in the process of adding some new lighting because it’s a little dark in that area,” Fischbach says. “We’re going to put in some lounge music so it will be a trendy little area to escape to. We also are looking to put in some different types of seating in our small seating area. We want it to be a place where students can come in, sit down, relax and grab a bite to eat while they are studying.”

Café Spice is part of several retail units that make up the Retail Boutique Shops in NJIT’s campus center. The most popular retail outlet, according to Fischbach, is Leafs and Grains, which is a sandwich/salad concept that features premade and make-your-own options. Menu highlights include The Cypress, a sandwich with breaded or grilled chicken cutlet, romaine lettuce, grated Parmesan and Caesar dressing; the Thai Wrap featuring chicken satay with crisp cabbage, carrots, red peppers, red onion, scallions and rice noodles with a tangy peanut dressing; and a chopped barbecue chicken
salad with crisp hearts of romaine, grilled chicken in barbecue sauce, roasted corn, chopped tomatoes, jicama, cheddar and housemade tortilla strips with citrus chipotle dressing.

[With Leafs and Grains] we wanted the feeling to be light and healthy when you walk in,” Fischbach says. “We want that station to be bright and cheery. It’s substantially brighter than some of the other retail areas. We wanted to be able to promote healthy eating. We wanted to have a large variety in that area as well. I would say Leafs and Grains is the No. 1 retail location on campus just because it has so much variety that
appeals to a broader student population. It’s the heart of our retail locations.”

Other retail units include a Taco Bell; a grill; a pizzeria; The Pub; the University Club, a sit-down restaurant for faculty; and a We Proudly Brew Starbucks. Fischbach says one challenge with the retail locations is striking a balance between offering similar items to what are offered in the dining hall, but still offering different items for those who want a break.

“We want to give some familiarity with the meal plan but still give something different for our resident students,” Fischbach says. “So basically what we look to do is to offer a standard item like a burger but offer a different type of burger in the retail locations. For example, at The Pub, we serve our standard burger, but all beef in that location is certified-Angus beef.”

The biggest challenge Fischbach says the department encounters in retail is trying to get high-quality products and offer a wide variety in a small space, while also keeping pricing reasonable.

“We try to offer as many local and sustainable products as we can or environmentally friendly products but there is a cost associated with that,” Fischbach says. “We, as a foodservice provider, can absorb the cost as much as possible so the user won’t get whacked over the head with the prices. I think the best advice I can give is to keep retail fresh, new and exciting. Things get boring fast. We are always looking for new things to bring to our locations. For example, for the Leafs and Grains concept we are working out how to put out limited time offers just like you would at a franchise. This way it keeps the concept fresh and exciting.”

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