‘Last Drop’ Brings Retro Back to Life

Pop art-influence design gives new coffee shop old school feel.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Vanderbilt University's Last Drop Coffee Shop.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Coffee shops on college campuses are now a well-known entity. The aesthetics are usually of the Starbucks-inspired variety—warm colors, comfy seating and dim lighting. Not the case with 12,700-student Vanderbilt University’s year-old Last Drop Coffee Shop, located in the Sarratt Student Center. Camp Howard, director of dining, says he wanted to create a distinctly different experience with the location.

“We were looking for something to replace a frozen yogurt concept that was underperforming,” Howard says. “It just so happened that we worked very closely with the director of student centers and he had some ideas on repurposing some of the space. That department created an area where students could watch radio and TV interviews [that were being conducted] through glass. That inspired us to do something a little different with our space.”

Design inspiration: Howard says for the location’s design piece he turned to a local design firm.

“I worked closely with a local design firm to come up with something that was unique and that kind of fit the motif of the building when it was built back in the 1950s,” Howard says. “So we came up with this Googie-style of architecture. Think of your typical coffee shop in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. We went with this style, but we souped it up a little bit with super clean counters, all white paint with lime green accents and starburst decals on the walls. Just think of that classic ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign, which is a classic example of Googie architecture. When I went to the design firm I didn’t know the name of the style of design, but I knew what I wanted it to be. The firm definitely helped us bring that style together.”

Howard says the location was designed with a different entrance and exit so “the queuing is instinctual.”

Electronic ordering: Customers place an order at the order station and then walk four or five feet to where orders are handed out. The location makes use of electronic ordering kiosks, of which Howard is a fan. The department has used electronic ordering at a previous location, and Howard says he thinks it works well on a college campus for several reasons.

“One reason is we have repeat customers, so it’s not like we have to train new people every day,” Howard says. “Number two, these kids are very tech savvy so they can figure out how to work the touch screens really quickly. Additionally, there are no cash transactions at this location—the students just use their meal plans. Plus, [the electronic ordering] is fun. We designed the touch screen’s menu so it’s also done in the Googie style. Another benefit to the electronic ordering is it allows you to staff the location with as few people as possible. We have three FTEs and four students who work there. The location is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday.”

Julie Crider, communications manager for Vanderbilt Dining, says the electronic ordering creates an interesting dynamic between the customers and the students working behind the counter.

“I’ve been down there tons of times when a student places the order electronically and it actually gives them more time to talk to the employees because they are repeat customers so they get to have that banter,” Crider says. “You get to hear our customers and employees have dialogue. They aren’t worried about taking an order, it’s just a printout, so while they are filling the order the employees get to talk to students. It gives it that personal touch.”

One challenge with the design of the space, Howard says, was designing the flow and the space for the employees to do their work.

“We wanted to do both and still keep the fresh and open-air feel of the space,” Howard says. “We accomplished that a few different ways. One was by using a lot of white paint and using a lot of glass at the entrance. Another challenge was with the partnership with the director of student centers. The goal collectively was to drive more folks into the area, not just to sell yogurt and coffee but getting students to use the lounge area. We’ve accomplished that. We’ve done some music and late-night things. We’ve done free coffee on the day before exams. The students love it. Not only do they love the coffee shop, but now they also love the lounge space. It was win-win.”

Menu matters: The food itself, Howard says, is understated but “delicious.” The location offers pastries, muffins, fresh fruit and bagels, a panini and wrap special for lunch, two daily soups, side salads, tart frozen yogurt with assorted toppings, smoothies, tea and Starbucks coffee. This is the only location on campus where Starbucks is served.

“I think one of the areas where many of us in college foodservice make mistakes is we often over-complicate our menus because we want to give the students so much variety,” Howard says. “This one is very simple. We do a panini of the day, a wrap of the day and they can get little salads to go with either of those. And soup. It’s pretty bare bones. That has actually been a big positive. We’ve doubled our sales compared to the concept that was in that location previously.”

Another challenge Howard says his team encountered with the concept was coming up with a name.

“Normally we are pretty good at coming up with names, but this one had us stumped,” Howard says. “So we opened it up to as a student naming contest and gave away an iPod Nano. We got all kinds of interesting names and we finally landed on Last Drop Coffee Shop. We liked it because it works well with the genre. The naming contest was also a great way to build buzz about the place in terms of marketing. We alerted the community by saying, ‘We have this really cool place on campus, please help us name it.’”

Howard says another aspect of the location’s marketing program is that it is one of the locations that has information available on the department’s iPhone app, which launched three months ago. Howard’s advice for creating unique retail experiences is be willing to take a risk.

“Think outside of the box and do something different,” Howard says. “Talk to the students on your campus. We met with the students to find out what type of food they would like. Then create a menu around that but hold back on design decisions until you can understand fully what the menu is.”