C-stores Beef up Food Options

Self-branded options, sushi bars and 17-foot produce displays are some tactics college operators use in hybrid c-stores.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

By 
Steven Johnson, Associate Editor

Drexel University's Market 16.

The role of campus convenience stores is evolving to be more than just a place to grab a bag of chips and a soda. An increasing number of these locations are expanding their food options to include fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as a larger variety, and a higher quality, of prepared meals. FSD takes a look at some of the stores at the forefront of this growing trend.

Drexel University - Market 16 and Noodle Bar

“Drexel is right in the center of Philadelphia, so we are an urban campus,” says Rita LaRue, senior associate vice president of business services at Drexel University. “As such, it has a true retail presence. It does more than just supplement our resident dining plans. It really reaches the community.”

Since opening last September, attracting non-student customers has been a part of the store’s marketing strategy, according to LaRue, which helps to explain why Market 16 carries such a wide array of food and beverage items.

“The initial idea was to go head-to-head with the 7-Elevens and the Wawas in the neighborhood,” LaRue says. “People can pick up Pop-Tarts and Rice Krispies if they want to and also get imported food items, as well as gluten-free and organic foods.”

One thing that separates Market 16 from other campus convenience stores is the inclusion of a fresh noodle bowl and sushi station where customers can get made-to-order food or grab prepackaged items.

“When we looked at the space and we looked at our growing population of students coming from Korea, India and China, we realized that we didn’t have a location on campus that really addressed that global flavor profile,” LaRue says. “Market 16 appeals to international students, but it also very much appeals to the millennials, who are the bulk of our undergraduate population.”

Despite the high demand for the items offered at Market 16, LaRue says one of the first challenges she faced with the store was determining the amount to charge for a menu that features handmade sushi rolls and custom-made noodle and rice bowls. The problem, she says, came in finding a price point that struck the right balance between meeting labor costs of union employees, while staying competitive with restaurants and food trucks.

“I have to say that we opened up probably a little too high, and the noddle bowl was probably a little too small,” LaRue acknowledges. “But we adjusted very quickly and the response has been great.”

Oregon State University – Cascadia Market

Creating a Whole Foods-type of atmosphere within a campus setting was the idea behind Oregon State’s Cascadia Market and Deli, according to Housing and Dining Services Manager Jim Hoffman. This led to opening a convenience store where customers can find a range of menu items, from made-to-order sandwiches to a full-service deli and a fresh produce section that could rival a number of full-service grocery stores.

“The university recognized there was a need for an additional food venue that didn’t require keeping an entire dining center open,” Hoffman says. “So we’re able to offer a variety of meal choices without employing 20 people to fix them, do the dishes and stock shelves.”

Now in its second year of operation, Cascadia features a wide variety of prepared food items spanning many different cuisines, which Hoffman says reflects the growing diversity among the student body.

“We’re in an environment where a lot of international students are living,” Hoffman says. “So there are many foods that are somewhat international in scope, such as rice, that are very popular.”

Customers can find an array of prepared items Hoffman described as “comfort foods,” as well as shop for fresh produce from a 17-foot display, which he says has become increasingly popular among students.

“For the longest time we were able to provide Snickers and ice cream bars and that was enough,” Hoffman says. “There seems to be so much awareness of food now, at least by the students of Oregon State. By creating a shopping experience, we’re able to capture more business and capture more dining dollars.”

Part of creating that shopping experience, Hoffman says, was to learn and then provide customers with the food options that they wanted, which caused him to dispel preconceived notions he had regarding the eating habits of college students.

“Most people had no idea that students were going to be that interested in buying fresh produce,” Hoffman says. “That’s not something that you would find in most campus c-stores. You could maybe find a five- or six-foot produce section, but we have 17 feet of produce.”

University of California, San Diego – Sunshine Market

Located next to the campus bookstore in a center that houses such popular eateries as Subway and Burger King, UCSD’s Sunshine Market has made a name for itself by taking a page out these QSR playbooks when it comes to establishing a brand.

“I partnered with Colorado Nut Company where I have a line of snack foods that are everything from chocolate-covered pretzels to dried apricots,” Store Manager John Poggemeyer says. “And what [the company] actually does is put my Sunshine Market logo and name on that bag, and that creates a lot of return customers and brand loyalty.”
In addition to Sunshine snack foods, Poggemeyer also has attached his store’s logo to a line of bottled spring water, which he says has been very successful with customers.

“It’s recycled plastic and local spring water,” Poggemeyer says. “I can sell it for 99 cents retail and make a tremendous margin on it.”

Like some other college convenience stores, Sunshine carries a wide variety of fresh food, including fruits and vegetables, gluten-free and vegan options and prepared sandwiches and meals the store purchases from a neighboring restaurant.

What sets Sunshine apart from similar stores, Poggemeyer feels, is in the relationship the market has been able to cultivate with its customers, who he says have become loyal followers of the brand.

“It may be the same chocolate pretzels they could get at a Safeway down the street,” Poggemeyer says. “But they see the Sunshine Market name, and they know Sunshine Market is the only place where I get this product and they come back.”  

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