The Third Place

Customers are always looking for places beyond home and work where they can go to escape or socialize—the so-called “third place.” Retail venues such as restaurants and coffee concepts satisfy for the “third place” in many non-commercial operations. FSD takes a look at several successful examples of restaurants and coffee shops.


Operations, The Third Place, University of Kansas, Impomptu CafeKU Dining at 30,100-student University of Kansas in Lawrence took advantage of a commercial restaurant moving out of the Kansas Union to get back in the “restaurant” business.

“When the restaurant decided not to come back, we weren’t expected to fill the space, but we felt it was necessary,” Alecia Stultz, assistant director of retail, says. “Spring is when a lot of instructor candidates come on campus. We felt they should have somewhere professors could take a candidate to talk without having to  leave campus. So we started thinking about it, came back from winter break and in about a month we opened a restaurant, hence the name Impromptu Café.”

Impromptu Café has 44 seats and features artwork by a local artist. Stultz says the concept is a casual dining experience that focuses on local produce, including herbs from the Union’s rooftop herb garden.

“Lately we’ve featured a lot of local products, especially produce like tomatoes, green peppers and jalapeño peppers,” Stultz says. “Impromptu’s menu was developed completely by our executive chef. We have small plates such as a chipotle chicken cheese dip with tortilla chips, sandwiches such as a triple-decker club named after our campanile, salads and entrée-type items such as Caribbean chicken with mango-pineapple salsa. Then we have daily specials, which are usually the items that feature the local produce.”

Stultz says the café is only open for lunch, but it’s proved to be very popular with students, faculty and staff. Stultz says it was important to keep the price point down so the café would continue to attract students.

“We always try to bundle items and keep the feature of the day as a pretty good value,” Stultz says. “You’re able to go in, have a good meal and still get out of there spending $7 or $8.”

Several of the KU Dining team came from restaurant backgrounds, which helped with the restaurant’s quick turnaround.

“We were very lucky to have experience,” Stultz says. “I come from a restaurant background, as did our executive chef, so we had an idea of what it was going to take. We knew we wanted to keep it small, but we wanted to make it diverse. As for advice I would say start small. Figure out who you’re going to target.’”

Pub grub: At 4,200-student University of Richmond, dining services runs a successful pub called The Cellar, complete with table service, wine and beer. Dee Hardy, director of food and auxiliary services, says it was created to give students a late-night social space.

“We’ve had The Cellar for about 10 years, and when we first opened it was contrary to the trends to open a pub,” Hardy says. “We serve pizza, gourmet burgers, sliders, wraps, paninis and pasta—all made to order. We are very residential and the majority of our students live on campus. Primarily 80% of our business is tied into the board plans, which are excepted at The Cellar. We also have a debit card on campus where the funds are not restricted to foodservice, they can be used anywhere, so we take that also.”

Hardy says all on-campus retail venues, including The Cellar, run weekly promotions geared toward demonstrating value to students. Hardy says she has noticed a change in spending in the past year.

“I really think families are saying, ‘you have this plan, you need to use it,’” Hardy says. “I’ve had calls in the last year that I’ve never had before— parents who are asking when and where we serve breakfast and where we are located compared to such and such because their son says it’s too far to walk to breakfast. We’ve got consumers who are very concerned with value.”

What’s old is new again: Value is also a huge component of the new Café 4 at 329-bed St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh.  Chris Vitsas, general manager for Cura Hospitality at the account, says keeping prices down was very important because the café was replacing a diner/snack shop that was known for its cheap meals.

“We had the old diner style in the past so [Café 4] is definitely modernized and updated,” Vitsas says. “We have received a lot of great compliments from our external customers. Every weekend, the old snack shop was full of people from the community that just came for breakfast, and we still get a lot of those customers. The bottom line is we have a soup and half sandwich combo for $3.69. Where can you get that anywhere? Our pricing itself is what drives a lot of our sales.”

Café 4 is right off the main entry of the hospital and Vitsas says it was designed to be place where hospital visitors could relax or get some work done while waiting for friends or family.

“The thought was this could be a place where someone could say, ‘I have to come take my mother for a test so I can drop her off and grab a cup of coffee,’” Vitsas says. “We have a soft seating area with a Wi-Fi connection available, so they can get some work done.”

The new café, which seats 32 and has an outside patio, features made-to-order options.

“The concept is everything fresh and made to order in front of you,” Vitsas says. “If you go to the ‘Salad by Design’ area we have 27 salad toppings. You tell us what greens you want, whether its iceberg, mixed greens or romaine. Then from that point, you pick your own toppings and dressing and we put everything together for you. We also have a few pre-designed salads you can choose from. Then we have our fresh, housemade stock soups that rotate every day. We also have a deli sandwich area that features a few predesigned sandwiches such as a classic New York corn beef sandwich or a hot Italian panini. Or you can create your own sandwich from our fresh-baked bread, five different meat choices, cheese, condiments and choose whether you want it served hot or cold. It’s a really nice area, and for people like me who might be a little picky, you can make my your own soup and salad or soup and half sandwich combos. We also serve pastries and breakfast sandwiches in the morning.”

Operations, The Third Place, University of Southern California, URBNMARKTURBNMRKT: At  the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the last few years have seen major devel­opments in restaurant options for the 33,000-student campus and the larger USC downtown community. The newest addition to USC’s portfolio of restaurants, URBNMRKT, just opened this fall in a building a few blocks from the main campus. Kris Klinger, director of USC Hospitality, says despite the tough economy, the department decided to go ahead with the opening.

“URBNMRKT is basically sandwiches, salads, hot items and breakfast in a really unique space,” Klinger says. “In light of the economy we still decided to move forward with the space and it’s doing very well. You walk through and order your food and sit down. All items are made fresh to order. It has seating as well as being equipped for grab and go.”

Some sample composed menu items from URBNMRKT include: an Asian noodle salad with stir-fried vegetables; a leafy greens salad with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozza­rella; barbecue pork shoulder with crunchy slaw, mustard-glazed salmon with quinoa pilaf and herb salad; and a grilled vegetable wrap with sweet peppers and hummus. Klinger says his department hasn’t been able to judge how the economy has affected its restaurants because they are all so new. However, the university  recently had its first football game where all restaurants were open and Klinger says they had a successful day.

URBNMRKT is the newest in several successful restaurants USC has opened. The university’s Restaurant Row consists of three restaurants in an area adjacent to campus [for more on restaurant row, see FSD of the Month, June 2009].

“We think one of the most important pieces of developing a restaurant is to really utilize the brand to help maintain those concepts and execute them at the highest level,” Klinger says. “I think sometimes we forget to do that and then we see things drop off after a few months and we’re not sure why. In this type of economy, it’s critical that the brand is executed to the best of our ability. With retail, you really want to be aware about what’s available to the students while they are at home. You want to provide something that they’re familiar with but then also create signature items at each venue that folks will want to come back for. That’s something we’re trying to do with all our venues here.”

Coffee is king: Even though high school students may have limited funds, students at 8,300-student Canyon (Texas) Independent School District still regard coffee has a necessary indulgence, according to Ken Robinson, foodservice director for Aramark at the district. A reality that the district’s two high schools’ Java City—Aramark’s coffee concept—locations are happy to cater to.

“Most customers live within an allowance or budget, but they’re going to be here every day and they’re going to still have their favorites,” Robinson says. “When you talk about the economy being in a downturn, it’s the big purchases where you see a difference. We haven’t seen drop off because of the economy, but we have experienced challenges because of Texas’s stance on nutrition. Now our pastries are nonfat and we’ve implemented smaller portion sizes, which economically is an advantage to the customers.”

The high schools’ Java City locations function as full-service coffee shops. The menu includes hot and cold espresso beverages, fruit smoothies and pastries. During the meal hours, they offer salads, sandwiches, wraps and fruit parfaits.

“We took a section of our operation that was not being used and implemented a full-service coffee shop,” Robinson says. “We turned it into another access point to serve our customers during high-volume times. It’s been a great service for our customers. When implementing these locations, administrators and parents welcomed us with open arms because we educated everyone up front about how this was something the students wanted. Outside of school, students are hanging out at coffee shops, so having one at school is a cool thing for them.”

Robinson says the two locations offer some value-based promotions to attract custo­mers, such as a coffee punch card where if a student buys 10 items he or she get the 11th item for free. The locations also offer gift certificates for students or parents to buy if they want to give a special thank you to a teacher. Also, Java City often offers specialty drinks such as a cinnamon roll latte or a pumpkin latte.

“The biggest challenge for us is nutrition guidelines,” Robinson says. “In Texas, they are getting tighter and tighter with how many grams of sugar per 100 calories they’ll allow. We also have restrictions during the school service day that after the bell rings, we can only serve certain sizes of beverages. That’s not as much of a problem because we have the short size, which is 12 ounces or less. The students only want to purchase the short during the school day anyway because it’s hard to consume 16 ounces or more when you’re trying to get to class.”

Dare to drip: At 1,900-student Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Beth Gentry, general manager for Bon Appétit, says the campus’ Colorado Coffee location noticed students were favoring regular coffee rather than espresso-based drinks, so they decided to start stocking a greater variety of drip coffees.

“I think it was more a drop off in customers that were faculty and staff,” Gentry says. “The students still line up in the morning. I think they are going more for drip coffee. I’ve heard from people who say, ‘I love my lattes, but now I only get it on Fridays as my treat.’ So we’re bringing in different kinds of drip coffee. We started seeing the move toward drip coffee in March so we expanded the kinds we had available from two or three to five. We try to use the place as an education tool to teach people about coffee and what happens in the coffee business.”

Colorado Coffee sells coffee from a local roaster by the same name. The concept also features fruit smoothies and grab-and-go food options that change throughout the day.

“I think one of the things that has really made that location successful for us is the focus on coffee in the morning but also transitioning dur­ing the day,” Gentry says. “Offering grab and go at a coffee location, you really need to know that timing is of the essence. In the morning, you have to have enough people to make coffee as quickly as possible and then at lunch it’s more focused on sandwiches and salads. Being very time- of-day conscious is important.”

Perks that work: At 4,200-student Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., Sodexo’s Jazzman’s Café offers a Jazzman’s perks card for frequent customers that offers discounts and surprise treats for guests.

“To be eligible for a frequent customer card, you have to buy one of our combos such as a coffee and a specialty muffin,” Mike Nagorka, general manager for Sodexo at the university, says. “We feature a variety of different perks. We’ll offer things like a free drink when you join, free syrups in your drinks, 50-cent refills or a free beverage if you buy ground or whole-bean coffee to take home. We just started this promotion this year so we currently have about 60 customers. One other thing we offer as a promotion is we have an improv creations board, where the baristas post their favorite beverages for that week as well as student-inspired drinks. We offer discounts on those items to push them, especially the barista favorites because they might be uncommon.”

The Lee University Jazzman’s Café is set up like an Internet café with Wi-Fi, eight computers and a printing service. The menu features the standard hot and cold beverages, smoothies, Chai teas and hot chocolate and freshly baked pastries such as muffins, scones and turnovers. There is also a deli case that offers freshly prewrapped sandwiches, salads, wraps, parfaits and, in the morning, an assortment of breakfast sandwiches, which are made fresh daily.

Operations, The Third Place, University of Kansas, PulseCoffee as art: At Pulse, the coffee concept at the University of Kansas, Stultz says they are always trying to come up with innovative promotions.

“We do a lot of things for Pulse,” Stultz says. “We do a lot of buy a coffee, get a half-price pastry or vice versa. One cool thing we started was latte art. We had people asking if we could do foam art but it’s hard to do a Jayhawk in foam. So we made a stencil of a Jayhawk head and our official KU logo. We use the stencils to make the either design with cinnamon or cocoa powder on the latte’s foam. We have special events where between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m., every cup that comes out has latte art.”

Stultz says they are also considering starting a coffee club where anyone could join and they would offer specials, but also use it as a way to gain feedback. Pulse has four locations on campus, all serving coffee from a local roaster made especially for Pulse.

“We did a cupping and engineered it ourselves,” Stultz says. “We’ve tweaked it a lot. We’ve ended up with a pretty good medium roast, but it’s not your average mass-produced coffee.”

Another new initiative is a mini-catering program called Pick Me Ups.

“We were trying to answer a hole in our service for people who wanted catered items but didn’t necessarily want all the bells and whistles associated with full catering,” Stultz says. “So we decided to offer small catered items out of our Pulse locations. We offer things like a dozen bagels and cream cheese, coffee, muffins, etc. We started it last winter and it’s been pretty successful.”