College Operators Turn to Quick Service/Fast Casual for Inspiration

C&U operators seek new ideas from their commercial counterparts to satisfy customers.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Ball State University's Caliente concept was inspired by
Chipotle.

We at FoodService Director have long been committed to providing operators with ideas to do their jobs better, often by sharing ideas from within the industry. But we decided it was time to expand our horizons, and so we spoke to college and university operators about where they go when they are looking for actionable innovation outside of their operations.

QUICK-SERVICE/FAST CASUAL
By far the commercial segment that is having the biggest impact on the non-commercial industry is the quick-serve/fast-casual industry, according to operators. Dean Wright, director of dining services at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says he has a long-held belief that foodservice directors must be like academics; only instead of “publish or perish” they must “travel or perish.”

“What I mean by travel is you must leave your operation’s confines and regularly go out to eat,” Wright says. “We like to do a strategy planning where we benchmark against what is already out there. We will visit places that do a particular item very well. For example, with burgers we went to In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, Wendy’s and Smashburger to try them out. Those are all totally different routes to go with burgers. But we made a field trip to all those and then we would sit down and decide which route we wanted to take. We don’t want to necessarily just copy them. We want to see how we can put our own stamp on things.”

These trips don’t only provide ideas for food. For example, In-N-Out Burger’s cleanliness and staff training also inspired Wright. “They have somehow developed a training program or their pay is right, that when you go in there everyone has a smile on their face even when they are very busy,” Wright says. “That is so rare. We can certainly learn from that.”

Larry Gates, director of dining services at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, also turned to Five Guys for inspiration when planning his campus burger concept.

“We used to have a franchise burger palace on campus, but we asked the students if they’d be satisfied if we made our own concept based on the Five Guys model, where you walk in, order your burger and they cook it for you on the spot,” Gates says. “We started using that concept, and now we have a very successful burger program in place of a franchised location.”

Industrywide, the operational structures of places like Five Guys are easily adaptable models for many non-commercial operations. Perhaps the most popular and ubiquitous of these service models is the Chipotle/Subway model. Jon Lewis, director of Campus Dining Services at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., says the idea of moving down an assembly line with your food has definitely become the norm for his department.

“For our in-house Mexican restaurant, Caliente, we modeled it after Chipotle,” Lewis says. “We’ve also simply copied Subway, which is the same kind of model, following the sandwich down the line. [That model] gives a sense that the line is moving. I still think the commercial industry is better at executing the model than we are, but it’s something we are working on.”

Deon Lategan, director of dining services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, also modeled a Mexican concept on a cross between Chipotle and a local concept called Big City Burrito.

“The first thing I do is look at our customers,” Lategan says. “What is it that will appeal to them? What appeals to a 19-year-old doesn’t necessarily appeal to my management team or me. Burrito concepts are big here. What struck me about one local concept, Big City Burrito, [which has a service style similar to Chipotle’s] was that there was a line around the block at 9 on a Sunday morning, which is unheard of in a college town. Kids were lining up to get breakfast burritos. So I saw how popular burritos had become and said we needed to do our own burrito concept on campus.”

Lategan’s team is in the middle of a renovation where it will be adding a similar concept for noodles, which is modeled after Noodles & Co. and a local place called Tokyo Joe. This new location will use the same assembly line process applied to Asian and Italian noodle dishes. Lategan says his first success with this type of service model, a Mongolian Grill, taught him how important it was to be flexible in adopting these concepts.

“My original idea for [the Mongolian grill] was Fire & Ice in Boston,” Lategan says. “However, the Mongolian grill’s problem is if you have to feed a large group of people. We can turn one customer every 40 seconds, which is pretty good unless you are the 40th person in line.” Students are given a choice. They can either wait in line, pick their ingredients and dining services will cook it for them in 40 seconds, or they can select a prepared stir-fry and skip the line.

Ball State’s Lewis says his team also gets idea from specials that fast food outlets are running, such as a recent Philly cheesesteak promo from Jack in the Box. The university’s chefs created their own version and students liked it.  

[For more on where operators from all market segments look for inspiration, check out the March cover story in print and online]