Establishing a new self-brand can be tricky; trying to develop something familiar, but that still stands out. FSD spoke with two operators who walked the tightrope and lived to tell a profitable tale.
University of San Diego: With the opening of 7,868-student University of San Diego’s new Student Life Pavilion this past fall, USD’s Dining Services had the chance to create distinctive new self-branded concepts including a grocery store, which was a first for the department. Carol Norman, director of Dining Services, says when the department first started looking at creating a grocery store, called Tu Mercado, it wanted to emulate Whole Foods.
“It went from the Whole Foods concept to a more organic concept and then when André [Mallié, executive director] came on, he added some of the other features plus incorporated the bookstore,” Norman says.
Tu Mercado includes lots of vegan, vegetarian, all-natural and organic products, similar to what you’d find in Whole Foods, says Loryn Johnson, director of marketing for Auxiliary Services. A partnership with United Natural Foods helped the store find its product mix. Inside Tu Mercado there is L’Atelier, a coffee bar/sandwich shop that also serves gelato, smoothies and pastries. Johnson says developing the brands of Tu Mercado, L’Atelier and all the other brands inside the Pavilion Dining Center started four years ago.
“We knew when we had the opportunity to build in this building that we wanted to do something that was much more modern and something that would be flexible,” Johnson says. “We also knew, based on what this generation is looking for, that the students wanted something that would look like a real restaurant. We knew we had to have individualized concepts, which had their own name, logo and look.”
The brands in the Pavilion Dining area include: Tapenade (Mediterranean and comfort food), Maiz (Mexican/ Spanish including fish tacos, carnitas and tamales), Nori Now (housemade sushi), Lemon Grass (Pho soups and curries), Heirloom Cucina (wood-fired pizzas and pastas) and Secret Ingredient (a live action station). Johnson says she did a lot of research through surveys, focus groups and involvement in NACUFS to determine which concepts would be included.
“We tried to visit other schools in our area to see what people were doing,” Johnson says. “We worked with the university marketing department to develop the final logos. Andre worked closely with The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone to develop the menus for each concept.”
Deciding to go for a self-branded approach was an easy decision, according to Norman.
“We like the freedom of being able to change things,” Norman says. “A lot of the success comes from having chefs who can think out of the box.”
Johnson says creating a brand starts with research and ends with execution.
“I think it’s really important to go visit other places,” Johnson says. “Even if you can’t get out of your city, go out to other restaurants and different places to see what works. Figure out how you can do it better.”
Program-wide brand: At 10,000-student Wayzata (Minn.) School District, Mary Anderson, directory of Culinary Express, leads a department that has been branded as Culinary Express, with the tagline “A Celebration of Food and Friends.” Anderson says the department worked with a marketing agency to come up with a marketing plan and the tagline. The idea for the branding came about when the district built a new high school and rearranged the grades in each school.
“‘Culinary Express: A Celebration of Food and Friends’ is our identifier throughout the district,” Anderson says. “It seemed like a good time to find a unifier for the department. To drive it down, anything we do whether it’s posters or e-mail greetings, we always have the logo and the tagline.”
Anderson says her department develops a yearly marketing plan to keep the brand fresh. For example, this year one focus has been on a program called Global Neighborhood.
“We took a look at the demographics of the families in our district and then we created Global Neighborhood as a way to feature meals from the areas our families are from,” Anderson says. “We’ve done Mexico, Russia, Somalia and next we’re going to Laos.”
Anderson believes to develop a successful brand, operators should have a clear idea of their end goals.
“I think the biggest thing is to determine who you are,” Anderson says. “That may require working with someone from the outside like a marketing agency. I think that was very wise because they were able to be objective. They could ask those questions that we might not have wanted to ask. I think for a brand to be successful you must be consistent.”
Building A Brand
A new residential dining philosophy has improved MU’s brand portfolio.
At 31,314-student University of Missouri in Columbia, a renewed focus on branding this year has brought about a real change in how the department looks at its residential dining locations, says Steve Simpson, associate director of Campus Dining Services. He says the department has always done a good job branding its retail locations, but this year the focus has been on trying to make traditional all-you-care-to-eat facilities have the same kind of branding as retail.
“We have made it a department-wide strategic goal this year to review each of our operations to acknowledge and strengthen the brand recognition for each of our restaurants,” Simpson says. “In terms of menus, our dining centers have made a commitment to avoid trying to be ‘all things to all people.’ This is accomplished in part by narrowing selection and variety at the unit level. By offering a limited menu, the production staff can focus on creating quality offerings, resulting in high levels of satisfaction. Variety still exists but is accomplished through multiple branded restaurant concepts offering different ethnic foods. In addition to menus, our brands are easily identified by their professional names, logos and appearances, which are all designed to create the brand culture.”
One example of this new strategy is the department’s new Baja Grill concept.
“For Baja, at one end of the spectrum we had Taco Bell as an example of a well-known Mexican brand and at the other end we had Chipotle or even a sit-down service restaurant,” Simpson says. “So if you put those menu concepts on a continuum, where did we want ours to fall? We decided to make ours more toward higher end, something that more closely resembled the Chipotle concept. We went out and looked at other brands. We try to steal from the best. Some signature menu item include fish tacos made from freshly grilled tilapia served with marinated red onions or a pressed Cuban sandwich.”
Another location that is undergoing a brand transformation is Eva J’s, which has traditionally been an all-you-care-to-eat facility.
“Eva J’s was one that tried to be all things to all students,” Simpson says. “We decided to really focus on what kind of restaurant we wanted it to be, and we determined it would be where our students would go for Asian cuisine. We identified 10 or 12 really popular Asian dishes, made them our signature dishes and started phasing out the other stations. We’re still in the process of that, but we’ve already identified what the menu is going to be and started paring back the other stations. Our Asian consumption has doubled if not tripled since the changes began. The more we take away the other food, which is available elsewhere on campus, the higher the acceptability is and the better we do at serving them. We brought in some specialized Asian china to serve on, and we dress our staff in an Asian style chef’s coat.”
Simpson says the key to branding is to hold your brands to the same standards that national brands hold theirs to.
“Our litmus test for success is, we ask ourselves ‘could we go out and sell 100 franchises of this concept across the nation?’” Simpson says. “If we don’t answer our own question with a resounding, yes, it’s back to the drawing board. You can’t really vary from one day to the next; your brand needs to be consistent. You need to make customers think it is some private company running it, so they stop thinking of it as dorm food. I really think that’s the secret of branding.”