Refining the Retail Experience

Retail operations make up a significant portion of the foodservice business on many college campuses. Three veteran foodservice directors offer advice on how to make retail more profitable.

As college dining operations face increased pressure to produce profits while simultaneously cutting costs, more foodservice directors are turning to the retail segment to more efficiently achieve those goals. On some campuses, retail is evolving and growing enough to rival traditional residential dining.

“We must meet and exceed the expectations of our guests,” said Dean Wright, dining services director at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “To do that we have to determine exactly what they want, but those expectations constantly vary.”

So what are some steps they take when attempting to build successful retail operations? Wright, who oversees 22 different retail outlets at BYU, said there are several rules he follows.

“The first step is to understand your customer and the next is to understand the limitations a location may place on you,” he noted. “You must also be creative; understand the flavors and atmospheres that enhance an experience. We always say that the customer doesn’t want to eat in a surgical suite. They don’t like sterile environments; they want fabrics and wall coverings that add a sense of excitement and purpose. Lastly, make sure all of the marketing, merchandising and promotions are tied together so there is continuity and a sense of purpose tied to the location.”

For Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., it is important to maintain authenticity when creating an in-house brand, but at the same time it must be able to compete with any national brand.

“It definitely has to look and feel like a national brand,” she said. “Identifying the brand or image and staying true to it is key. You have to ask yourself what it is going to be as you develop the menu, the look of the restaurant and the type of service it will have. It’s really important to clarify that. Then, create and deliver on it.”

Kiehn, who supervises 15 retail stores and 6 residential dining facilities, identified customer satisfaction as the most important factor for success, but also suggested employing a little individuality, too.

“They want what they want when they want it,” she said, “but one thing we’ve learned is less is more. Give them more of what they want. Give them the items they really like more often and try less to be everything to everybody. Rather than providing a wide variety of the same thing in six different locations, narrow specific identities instead of offering cookie-cutter versions of each other.”

At Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., Dining Services Director Jon Lewis said it is most important to provide a retail operation that fits with the equipment you have available and also not to get caught up in political causes, something that’s easy to do on a college campus.

“Each operation requires different equipment and that often dictates what you can and cannot carry,” he said. “If you don’t have the right equipment to make a sandwich or [implement] a prepared-to-order station, then you can’t provide that kind of stuff. At the same time, it’s also important to carry what the customer wants as opposed to what you think they want. It’s easy to get sidetracked by causes, like cage-free eggs, but if customers don’t want it, it’s just not worth doing.”