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Retail gets a makeover

Like a lot of dining programs at colleges and universities, Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., wanted to beat the competition from outside restaurants by having them join the dining lineup. But the school’s contracted foodservice manager decided to reach beyond the brands that make up any town’s fast-food row and plucked a top finisher from the local “Zagat” guide instead. The suburban Chicago institution arranged to open a variation on chef Rick Bayless’ famed downtown Frontera Grill. Chef Rick Bayless at University of Pennsylvania

Now the restaurant, which opened in 2013, is part of the campus tour for prospective applicants and their families. “They hear the name Rick Bayless and it’s kind of a ‘wow’ moment for everyone,” says Jason Sophian, marketing manager for the Sodexo-run operations at Northwestern. “When we wanted to increase that value and perception [of dining services], in the short time it’s been here, it’s definitely served us well.”

More and more, college foodservice operators are looking closer to home—theirs and their students’—for retail dining options. Big-name national and proprietary brands still have a firm footing on campus, but foodservice directors are capitalizing on the recognition and perception of regional and local favorites, regardless of whether the brand has ever played in the non-commercial space. Places with a strong following not only satisfy the increasingly food savvy student population but offer an element of differentiation for the campus. It doesn’t hurt that the sales of a familiar, much-loved local or regional brand can be significantly stronger as well.

“We have three Starbucks on the campus, we have Chipotle, we’ve got Qdoba and we’ve got a McDonald’s,” says Pam Lampitt, director of business services for hospitality services at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. “[But] we wanted something that had a ‘wow’ factor, that would be unique, that would get our students excited.”

It’s not always a matter of geography. Chicago is a long way from Philadelphia, but familiarity with Rick Bayless is strong among the university’s population, even though the TV star and best-selling author has no restaurants in the area. Now students who might yawn at a burrito from Qdoba or Chipotle can indulge in Mexican food from Bayless’ Tortas Frontera, a local brand unfamiliar to the region but not to grads and undergrads.

The survey says

Today’s college crowd is smart when it comes to brands and to food. Quick-serve and fast-casual street brands have pretty much always been available to them, and with more ethnic and global options than ever, comfort food for this group runs the gamut from burritos to wontons. Offering variety and unique food options is merely a means of meeting student expectation.

“For our students who have grown up with this dining experience where they’re very brand and franchise oriented, they are coming to campuses demanding—frankly expecting—that they’re going to see those same kinds of experiences on their campus,” observes Mary Anne Nagy, vice president for student life and leadership engagement at Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.

And at Monmouth, an experience they will get. Until the 2013 fall semester, the college didn’t offer any retail street brands within its residential dining program, which is managed by Aramark. The team recognized the need to up its street cred among students. When the opportunity arose to update the food court with more recognizable brands, rather than seeking out the big brand names, the dining services team looked down the street.

Jersey Mike’s started stacking its signature sub sandwiches in Point Pleasant, N.J., less than 25 miles from campus more than 50 years ago. The first college unit for Jersey Mike’s, the Monmouth outlet offers a broad variety of its signature and customizable sandwich options, providing students with the opportunity for a different meal experience each time they visit. “You could literally go to Jersey Mike’s [the] five or six days a week that we’re in operation and you can have a different sandwich or experience every day,” Nagy says.

After just one year, the outlet has exceeded expectations. It has become a student favorite and is consistently ranked No. 1 in satisfaction surveys.

With so many college options at their fingertips, today current and prospective university students base their school choice on perks well beyond average class size or the number of internship opportunities. “Students are making choices today by amenities,” observes David Gingher, director of retail operations at Pennsylvania State University, in State College. “It used to be the curriculum and what each school had, and now it’s a balance of both. If you don’t have what they’re used to having every day, they’re going to find it somewhere else.” Gingher is trying to meet those elevated student demands by adding the first Pennsylvania McAlister’s Deli unit to his campus.

But beware. If you don’t meet expectations, get ready to hear about it. Such was the case at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. With an established mix of national and proprietary branded options, students wanted more. Through surveys and focus groups, students pushed for the opening of the first non-commercial unit of Fazoli’s, the Italian fast-casual brand headquartered in Lexington, Ky. While not a local franchise, few outlets were available to students, and Fazoli’s was a brand that filled a campus need.

Slated to open this fall, the Fazoli’s campus unit will be a modified version of a street-side operation, offering a smaller menu. Though freestanding units exist off campus, Kirk Rodriguez, director of hospitality services, looks forward to working with those operations to build the campus brand and taking advantage of student awareness for the unit’s success.

Much like Tech, Northwestern’s students were “clamoring for restaurant-type style places on campus,” according to Sophian. The addition of Frontera Fresco fit the bill. “One of the benefits is that we are able to offer students something that they are more familiar with, that they’ve grown up with possibly, and it’s an opportunity to give them, in many ways, a taste of home,” Sophian says.

Unique to you

As an added bonus to satisfying students, unique retail brands also do a good job of making a building or section of campus a draw for students—and for the community.

Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, is adding a smaller footprint of the popular hometown comfort food outlet, Melt Bar & Grilled, called Melt University. Melt University, alongside proprietary brands, will anchor a new multimillion-dollar build out of the campus’s first student union. A state-of-the-art facility in the heart of campus, “We really wanted to reflect the nature of the facility with the dining concepts,” Dick Jamieson, vice president for campus services, explains of the new union.

Spearheaded by foodservice contractor Bon Appétit, the addition of the brand’s first non-commercial unit is slated to open later this month offering an amended version of its full-service menu, sans alcohol. “Students know Melt, they know the concept; it’s not your run-of-the-mill foodservice-type option and they’re really excited,” Jamieson says.

Often, only a unique brand will do. A commonplace offering wouldn’t do justice to the renovated historic building that was to house the new unit on the food-centric urban University of Pennsylvania campus. “It became very apparent that we needed to not just have salads and sandwiches and things of that nature, but we really needed something dynamic in the space,” Lampitt says of the Tortas Frontera addition.

Similarly, adding Frontera Fresco to the roster of Northwestern dining options worked well for the university’s reputation. “In order to be a prestigious and cutting-edge dining operation, bringing in a brand such as a Frontera Fresco we believe falls directly in line with those goals,” Sophian says.

Rather than another Subway or McDonald’s, a unique brand can complement the entire community and serve as an attraction for the public as well as students. Tortas Frontera has served as the shiny penny for the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s brought the community to campus, which is kind of an unusual thing for our dining [program],” Lampitt says. “It’s usually mostly faculty, staff and students, but we’ve gotten a lot of outside community members who have come to eat at Tortas, which I think is a new development for us and one that we are really pleased to see.”

Centrally located on the city campus and near the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western’s Melt outlet will also be open to the public.

Benefits of branding

Though franchise and loyalty fees typically apply, just like agreements with big-name national brands, partnering with a unique brand comes with its perks—marketing, promotions, equipment, training, product procurement and hands-on attention, as well as promised unit updates, to name a few.

At the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern, Rick Bayless and his team have become an extension of the dining services staff. From unit design and layout to sourcing local products—a cornerstone of the Frontera brand—to culinary support, to menu displays, “it’s the Rick Bayless brand,” explains Steve Scardina, resident district manager with Bon Appétit at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re pretty hands-on with us. There’s an open door of communication on a regular basis regarding the operation.”

A similar setup is in place at Case Western Reserve. Melt Bar and Grilled staff will be on site at the campus unit for the first four months of operation. “It’s our brand, it’s our concept, so we need to make sure that it works,” says Matt Fish, founder of Melt Bar and Grilled and Melt University. “Our involvement potentially never ends.”

Because they’re new and unexpected, unique retail offerings can draw increased traffic. At Texas Tech, any time a new branded option opened “there was an uptick in traffic,” Rodriguez says. For example, the opening of an Einstein’s Bagels increased sales volume by 8%, “which is substantial,” Rodriguez says. “More and more auxiliaries [departments] are big supporters of the university and we give back to the university in various ways. So we’re having to get more creative on how we can continue to increase that bottom line.” Rodriguez says adding these exclusive retail options helps achieve this goal.

Opening the new Frontera concept was also a sales hit at Northwestern. “I think [students are] a lot more eager and willing to go across campus for a Frontera … than they were for [the previous option] in the middle of January,” Sophian says. Although specific figures weren’t available, Sophian says the unit has demonstrated increased sales as well as foot traffic from the previous year when three nationally branded options were available in the space.

Whether it is a defensive strategic move to maintain share of stomach, a student push or a necessary addition to keep the campus engaged, adding a unique brand to your retail lineup can raise the bar while adding an unexpected element. Look down Main Street, beyond the golden arches and past the hut, to those concepts that will bring a sense of home closer to campus.


Hospital’s “Rotating” Solution

West Georgia Health has found a way to bring in retail names without the contractual hassles.
By Paul King

Colleges aren’t the only ones getting in on the retail renovation. Although most foodservice directors realize the value in bringing retail names—whether local or national—into their operations, the idea of getting tied to a franchise or license agreement often dissuades them from taking that approach.

But at one Southern hospital, the solution has been to “loan” restaurateurs space on a daily basis. According to Linda Mack, director of food and nutrition at West Georgia Health, in LaGrange, Ga., the arrangement has kept several local operators happy while helping to drive a 15% increase in cafeteria revenue.

At West Georgia’s campus, which consists of a 276-bed hospital, a 150-bed skilled nursing facility, a hospice and a medical office building, Mack has contracted with five restaurants—two local and three national—to operate her cafeteria’s grill station one day a week.

“Initially, the idea was to bring in pizza,” says Mack, who started the program five years ago. “I had a friend who had a local Domino’s franchise and I arranged for him to bring in pizza on Fridays. We found it to be a big customer satisfier, but then my friend sold his business.”

However, the idea had attracted the attention of at least one other business. (Mack would not name the restaurant, because she was not sure the franchisee has corporate blessing.) “They asked if they could be part of this, and so we began bringing them in Thursdays,” Mack explains.

The concept has snowballed, with a number of operators looking to secure space. Through various changes and tweaks, the current lineup features three national brands and two local restaurants. Mondays has Tulla’s, an Italian restaurant. Tuesdays are given over to Moe’s Southwest Grill. On Wednesdays, Teriyaki Bistro takes the stage, while Thursdays features another national brand and Friday is given over to Subway.

Each restaurant pays West Georgia a percentage of sales, and Mack says there are certain parameters each restaurant must follow so that they cannot cannibalize the cafeteria’s business.

“We limit each restaurant to three or four items, and they have to offer their meals at a set price. You have to limit them or they will kill your cashiers with all the prices,” she explains. For example, Moe’s sells only rice bowls, quesadillas and nachos, and Teriyaki Bistro offers chicken and beef teriyaki.

“Also, they can’t sell drinks, salads, desserts or sides. You have to make sure that they use their own supplies or that if they use your clamshells or plates that you charge them for it. But generally, they are so eager to come in that they will do whatever you want,” she adds.

The program has been so popular there is a waiting list of restaurants wanting to set up shop in the cafeteria, and Mack has had to deny requests from current operators to do more than one day

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