How to renovate to satisfy new consumer generations

University Nevada Reno

nevada reno steampunk


Sales and satisfaction figures declined as Millennial students bypassed the Northside Café at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) on their way to other campus venues.


A complete renovation—going beyond a simple refresh of the menu—to better meet the needs of new diners. It started with extensive research into what customers wanted and what the operation could handle in the space and then translating that into a space that spoke to those consumer values.

How it’s done

Russ Meyer, associate director of housing operations and dining services, and his team organized focus groups to understand just what the young students were looking for in a campus dining operation. “The takeaways were clear,” says Susan Wilkie, vice president of Webb Culinary Design, one of the firms that partnered with UNR on the renovation. “Students wanted a comfortable and inviting space in a centralized location for meeting up with friends. They also wanted an environment that was genuine, unique in feel and appearance, compared to existing units on campus. The optimal space would evoke a personal connection from students by being the place they most want to eat and be seen eating.”

In addition, to analyzing the unit location to better understand lunchtime population figures, its proximity to other campus outlets, traffic flow, and points and speed of service, the team also compiled research to learn more about the demographics of these Millennial students. Aged 17 to 34 years old, they are multitaskers, accepting of all heritages and open-minded when it comes to controversial topics. Restaurants that appeal to them tell a story, have a social media connection with them, serve fresh food custom-made to their liking, and offer great service and value pricing.

Next, the team studied commercial restaurant food and flavor trends, finding that convenience, health, chef-driven and street-food inspired concepts, snacking opportunities, and ethnic flavors in menu items and condiments continue to appeal to consumers, especially Millennials.

Meyer says the goal of the new location was to deliver “an over-the-top, outrageous, incredibly fun and totally different restaurant like none ever built on a university campus.” Inspired by this research, the concept’s location on campus and the history of the university, the team selected a Steampunk theme. Steampunk is defined as a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” The theme, which is carried throughout the renovated location, from flooring to lighting fixtures and employee uniforms and marketing efforts, is especially relevant to UNR students. UNR is well known for its mining and metallurgical engineering program.

“’Where do you think the gold comes from in your iPhone? We are only one of 13 mining programs in the U.S. and our graduates are at an all-time high demand,’” Wilkie recalls Meyer asking.

Like the Steampunk theme, menu ideation for the unit’s two stations was out-of-the-box as well. “The Works [station] is home to two themed and interactive service-style concepts,” Wilkie explains. “Waffler and Forklift Burritos & Bowls [have been] designed with a unique and experiential service delivery by the Steam Crew and Chef. Waffler exploits the popular food truck and restaurant sandwich trend, waffles as bread.” Sweet and savory waffle options are available featuring chef-driven housemade recipes, including bacon candy, and each waffle is pressed with an “N” and “WolfPack” logo in the spirit of the university.

Similar to Chipotle, the menu at the Forklift Burritos & Bowls station was “built with chef-driven and authentic recipes to deliver customized and fast burritos on freshly steamed 12-inch tortillas, salad bowls with organic local greens and rice bowls with freshly steamed cilantro white or brown rice [to create] a custom experience for both healthy and hearty choices,” Wilkie describes.

Keeping student in the loop was vital to the renovation’s success, Meyers adds. “Including the students in the final decision about the project and keeping them informed about its progress were important parts of the process,” he says. “By meeting with the student government and our dining committees throughout the planning and construction processes we were able to generate excitement that resulted in heavy traffic as soon as we opened.”

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