Getting on a meal plan is job one for campus franchisees
Inside an on-campus Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes, which can be as small as 600 square feet and where pre-built items are emphasized to speed service.
Campus operations have become quite a symbiotic relationship for the right brands, but there are some hoops to jump through and some operational differences for those who want to be successful on campus. But first, brands just need to gain a foothold.
“It’s very competitive now to get on campus,” said Pita Pit Director of Development Dirk Ferrell.
He said while they have about 10 locations on campuses across the country, it wasn’t easy to get into all those spots. Each campus is unique in operations, real estate and oversight.
Franchises must navigate each campus individually or forge a partnership with a massive campus operator such as Compass, Aramark or Sodexo. And those companies can work slowly.
Operating on campus means a lot of the same issues seen at other non-traditional sites like malls, airports or in-retail units. Basically, it’s another environment with small spaces and big crowds with big time constraints. And it’s all amplified by schedules that mean a huge influx of students all coming at the same time.
Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes director of franchise sales Jordan Duran said the real estate was no problem as their footprint can scale down to just 600 feet, but they had to make some changes because of that intense lunch traffic. Mooyah recently updated on-campus menus without altering the core brand. The brand is known for high customization, but in the campus update, they emphasized pre-built items.
DP Dough is a 30-unit calzone concept, shown here at the U of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“We really made that the highlight of our menu. And we’re combining those with full meals, so instead of building the full burger we bundle together a full burger and fries to make a combo,” said Duran. “We don’t want to shirk on quality ingredients, but when we shrank our menu and emphasized these combos, the line goes much faster.”
The ticket average comes down a little bit, but he said they make up for that with the sheer volume of students. By changing things up, they were able to shave two to three minutes off their ticket times, shrinking it from the standard seven to eight minutes at traditional locations. They also put a special focus on their core product.
“What we noticed was that while people loved our turkey and veggie burgers, over 95 percent of burgers ordered at our Aramark locations were beef burgers. So we removed veggie and turkey burgers from our locations,” said Duran. “Most of our college campuses have a chicken competitor nearby. So we really focused on beef because that’s what the students have been using us for most.”
The beef-only shift further speeds operations as employees can throw some burgers on the flattop as the line forms because there’s no guessing what protein customers will get.
Also known for a lot of customization, Which Wich similarly trims the menu at its more than 20 campus locations to fit in with the students’ busy lifestyles.
“We’ve streamlined our menu to capture that speed of service on campus,” said Jeff Vickers, senior vice president of franchise development at Which Wich. “What we’ve done is we created a limited menu really to hone in on those students needs, allowing them to get their product much faster.”
It also meant creating a favorites panel to keep the hem-and-hawers from slowing things down too much. And for those students that are always running late, the brand created a line of grab-and-go items.
Speeding up operations is key for the other dayparts unique to college markets.
“College kids are different. We typically see dinner rush at 6 to 8 p.m., but in college markets it’s really 8 p.m. on and they have that late-night meal around 11 to 1 a.m.,” said Wing Zone co-founder and CEO Matt Friedman, who founded the initial location in a college market in 1993.
“It’s very competitive now to get on campus,” says Pita Pit’s Dick Ferrell.
He said since their locations are generally off campus, they don’t even bother with the lunch rush, instead opening at 4 p.m.
“Students are in class during the day, eating on campus. So we like limited hours because we are focused on the core demographic, which is the student that is ordering for dinner or late night meals,” said Friedman, noting the hours also avoid a big labor headache. “If we wanted to staff up for lunch, it would be tough because everyone is at school.”
DP Dough is a 30-unit calzone franchise that locates all its stores as close to campus as possible. A third of the locations are directly across the street.
CEO Matt Crumpton said the brand sees 30 percent lunch traffic, 40 percent dinner, but focuses on that late-night traffic for the remaining 30 percent of traffic. He even holds the trademark for “Open Crazy Late.”
“If you want to fit in with a college market, there’s nothing more than the definition of freedom to an 18- or 19-year-old than being away from home and ordering food at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday,” said Crumpton. “A huge volume of our business is an intense late night rush.”
Of course 2 a.m. is also the bar rush for fake ID holders and their legal elders, highlighting another operational challenge: drunk youngsters. Crumpton said they have few issues with bodily fluids or fights, but a recent tweak has helped.
“What we’ve done to dramatically cut down on issues, but it’s also been a huge boon to sales, is a ready-now program, especially at bar rush,” said Crumpton. “If they don’t know what they want, a Construction Zone that might take 25 minutes versus a Roni Zoni right now with no wait. We empower the customer to decide, and that leads to less people being angry at us. And they’re not in the dining room long enough to start a fight.”
Slow summers are yet another operational challenge, when the students leave and business craters even if the student centers remain open through the summer. Operating near campus can help even this out, but there is still a big drop.
“We see a drop of 30 to 40 percent of sales, so we do have to plan for that as far as financing goes,” said Crumpton.
He said with 25 campus-adjacent locations it’s just a matter of slimming down staff so the trickle of traffic doesn’t come at a loss.
“I think because we’ve been doing it for 20 years, we understand the cyclical nature of it. We thrive from mid-August all the way through mid-April, then our summers slow way down,” said Crumpton. “We employ a lot of students, so we’re able to adjust staff at the same time.”
But the existential problem for all campus operations is getting on the meal plan. “The X factor is being on the student food program. If you can’t get on that, you’ll have a tough go.
Obviously the kids are using the parents’ money, and they load the cards and they’re not going to go elsewhere because that card is—no pun intended—their bread and butter,” said Pita Pit’s Ferrell, noting one franchisee’s plight. “We built one on one campus a year and a half ago, and that franchisee wasn’t able to get on the program, and we’re still dealing with the college. We often try to negotiate that beforehand to avoid issues like that.”
Getting in with an institutional operator is one option, but for individual franchisees, it can mean layers and layers of bureaucracy.
“It totally depends on the school and the vendor. In one place we place a phone call and we had the payment device sent to us the next day and had an account immediately,” said Crumpton. “In another market it took a year and a half to get a response.”
Brands that can maneuver all those quirks may find a good opportunity among the bright-eyed next generation.
The address says it all for this Mooyah: University Blvd.
How Sodexo finds the right brand
“It’s a constantly evolving process, we’re always looking at it,” said Don Wood, global brand and retail leader at Sodexo, the giant foodservice supplier on many college campuses.
“We really kind of view it as a privilege to be involved with the students and the campus life. In that regard, we do a lot of work up front to understand the consumer and client need and determine what we can offer.”
The process is rigorous and technical, and leans heavily on an internal tool dubbed PODS (predictive offer deployment system), which “allows our team to put in various factors around what the client is interested in and what the competitive dynamics are on and off campus,” said Wood. “It’s very much a collaborative process. We look to be an expert that can help our clients have the best possible foodservice for their campus.”
It starts with consumer research, including various focus groups for each campus demographic.
“Groups will focus on different parts of the campus, commuters, grad students. Then that gets wrapped up and shared with both the clients and our strategy team, who will then pull everything together, numbers and foot traffic,” said Susanne Epps, director of field marketing at Sodexo.
To be considered, brands don’t need to be non-traditional gurus, but being flexible to non-traditional spaces helps a lot.
“A lot of it comes down to the brands understanding our spaces and our client environments because there are modifications that brands need to make to be successful,” said Epps.