When Dining Services' Mexican concept at the University of California, Riverside, just wasn't delivering how the department wanted it to, Cheryl Garner, executive director of Dining Services, decided to spice things up. Enter Habanero's, which offers students the opportunity to create their own Mexican menu items from a seemingly endless amount of possibilities.
Garner says the missing ingredient from the previous Latin concept in the location was the opportunity to customize the product.
"There is just such a trend toward customization," Garner says. "People want to go in and make it their own. It also allows the menu to be much more expansive. Once you add the customization, you suddenly open up a whole new world of opportunity."
The team saw that service wasn't fast enough and sales had leveled off. So during holiday break the department went in and gave the location a makeover.
"We made it much more vivid and warm and made it a build-your-own location where you follow your product along, similar to Chipotle. You decide what type of rice, beans, protein, salsas that you want so you can truly make each of the orders your own."
Habanero's is located in a food court, which also features an Italian concept, sushi and a Panda Express. Students approach the counter and make their order.
"We have electronic menu boards that walk [customers] through the process," Garner says. "It actually spins around and tells you to select your item, protein and then walks you through the different options just as a visual cue. The staff is going to do it verbaly too, but this way while you are waiting you can make some of those decisions ahead of time."
The menu offers many different choices. As a base item, Habanero's offers burritos, tacos, bowls, nachos and salads. Protein options include carne asada, barbacoa, carnitas, chicken, soy chicken, halal chicken, and a pepper and onion veggie mixture. Customers have their choice of refried or black beans and cilantro lime rice or traditional rice. Garner says there is always a choice of one of four different salsas as well as a number of different dressings for items such as a chipotle ranch. Customers can also top their items with things like crispy tortillas strips or chilies.
Garner says the design of the space was intended to create a bright and energetic location.
"We used a lot of gold, red and orange tones," Garner says. "It was very staid in the past. It was a moss green, very dark and just didn’t have a good sense of place. What we’ve done with the electronic menu boards provides some action. They also allow us to feature a limited time offering. For example we featured shrimp as our special ingredient, so you could, for a limited time, get any of our options made with a shrimp product."
Burritos are definitely the most popular items on the menu at Habanero's, according to Garner, espeically the carne asada burrito.
"Beef rules. The hottest seller is the carne asada burrito and bowl," Garner says. "Then I'd say chicken. Surprisingly we do a really good amount of soy chicken. It’s tender and juicy and we sample it so once the students try it, they are really surprised how much they like it."
Since the location opened in January, Garner says her team has been pleasantly surprised with how well the location has done.
"We looked at February as our first clean month of sales and we saw about a 97% increase in revenue," Garner says. "We went from about 5,200 customers per month to about 9,340 customers per month. We didn’t really increase guest check because we weren’t trying to increase the cost of food, if anything we provided a little bit more price tiering. You can get a couple of tacos for $5 or you could move all the way up to a grande nachos for $8. We also added an expanded breakfast. We always had a little bit of breakfast built around a breakfast burrito, which is still the most popular breakfast item that we have, but we also added your basic large breakfast with pancakes, eggs, potatoes, proteins as well as breakfast nachos and those have been hugely popular."