From a fresh-baked cookie to citrus-infused water, offering up a snack or drink can instantly make visitors feel welcome. Get them to stay for a meal, and they’ll feel downright at home. But how much should those guests be expected to pay? That answer depends on the overall goal. Read on to see how three operations approach guest meals.
1. Boost retention
The strategy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: Feed them for free. Since 2005, parents of students on a meal plan have been able to eat with them in a dining hall anytime, on the house. The university serves 6 million meals per year, and comp meals represent 1% of that total.
The roughly $180,000 dedicated to those meals yearly is accounted for in the annual budget—and pays dividends in the school’s meal-plan retention rate, according to Executive Director of Auxiliary Services Ken Toong. His philosophy is that while students are the customer, parents are the bank.
UMass Amherst boasts a four-year meal plan retention rate over 80%, and maintaining that is key to the program’s $120 million in annual revenue, Toong says.
“They say you’ve got to spend money to make money,” Toong says. “In higher education, we are not in the business of making money—we are self-supporting—but we have to find a way to build our business and invest. When you have more students on the meal plan, you can spread out your fixed cost. The cost to us is so minimal compared to the revenue and goodwill we are able to generate.”
2. Be welcoming
In Illinois, where budget battles have raged in the past two years, offering complimentary meals isn’t possible at the state’s flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But the university still puts prospective students and families at ease with a reduced-rate meal, says Dawn Aubrey, associate director of housing for Dining Services. “We want them to feel very welcome and included,” she says. “I like to call it ‘the hearty hello.’”
3. Give an inside view
Greeters are hired for prospective-student events to share how food and academics tie together—like in U of I’s Food Pilot Lab, where student-cultivated wheat is ground for breads, cookies and pizza dough. Prospectives receive a free meal, and in the summer, one accompanying family member does, too. Others are given a reduced rate of $9, down from the regular $11.95. More than 66,000 meals are served to visitors at the reduced rate annually, Aubrey says.
Making meals special can also encourage families to visit at other times. At The GreenFields, a 158-resident senior living residence in Lancaster, N.Y., dining center The Manor is styled like a restaurant, with lunches served at a regular rate of $6 and dinners at $12. Guests can make reservations to eat with residents, and around a dozen do so each day, says Dietary Supervisor Dan Kunes.
4. Spread happiness
Also a hit at The GreenFields are complimentary Friday happy hours, which include an open wine and beer bar, appetizers and music. Around one-third of the nearly 70 people who attend each week are visitors, Kunes says—and many stay for dinner, too. “People love seeing their parents happy,” he says.