UMass Amherst Transforms C-Stores

BabyBerkUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst c-stores get a market-fresh makeover in time for this year’s incoming freshman class.

By Erin Rigik, Senior Editor

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, located in Amherst, Mass., boasts the single largest dining operation in the U.S. based on revenue. In addition to the renowned dining program, the university offers 24 locations for retail dining, including three convenience stores, Harvest Market, two food trucks and 11 eateries at the Campus Center.

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“This year we are approaching close to almost $100 million dollars of food revenues. We’re growing rapidly. We serve over 45,000 customers a day,” said Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises.

The retail stores alone generate $27 million in annual sales.

UMass offers four dining commons: Berkshire, Worcester, Franklin and Hampshire. Berkshire, located in the Southwestern Residential Area, is divided into 10 food stations with themes from vegetation to Pan Asian.  Worcester, in the Northeast Area, features continuous, all-you-care-to-eat dining, with items ranging from create-your-own stir fry to a pasta bar, American fare and Halal dining. Franklin Dining Commons, located in the Central Residential Area, is famous for its vegan and vegetarian cuisine, among other options.

Hampshire Dining Commons unveiled a renovated look in fall of 2013, with a contemporary New England theme and 12 concepts designed around UMass Dining Services’ four guiding principles: healthy eating, sustainability, world flavors and community.  The goal of Hampshire is to be one of the healthiest and most sustainable dining operations in the nation, according to the school’s Website. Minimally- processed foods, less red meats and more sustainable seafood grace the menu.

But the dining commons are only part of the foodservice offering at UMass Amherst. One of the biggest markets on campus is known as Harvest Market, a 1,500-square-foot store, which caters to Generation Z’s craving for fresh and healthy sustainable foods. Harvest Market opened about a year and a half ago and has been a big hit with students.

“It’s not only a convenience store, it’s a like mini Whole Foods,” Toong said.

Harvest Market sells fresh food by the pound and features a fresh juice and smoothie bar, and a Chobani yogurt bar. A hot bar features Indian, Ethiopian, traditional American and freshly-prepared traditional Chinese wok dishes, while a salad bar offers fresh, locally-sourced salads. Grab-and-go sandwiches and salads made on campus daily from the highest quality ingredients, local cheeses and deli meats, and all-natural and organic snacks also greet hungry students.

“There’s less of an emphasis on candy bars and chocolate and more focus on upscale items,” Toong said. “Students want better quality food and better products and they don’t mind paying for it. The philosophy at UMass is ‘healthy, sustainable, delicious.’ We want to provide the best quality, and items with less sodium and less sugar.”

College students are leading the trend away from three meals a day and toward continuous snacking throughout the day. UMass wants to meet this demand but in a healthy less-processed way; something students want too: The No. 1 selling food item on campus is fresh fruit pieces.

The Harvest Market concept is one UMass is looking to replicate across all of its convenience stores.

“We think this is the future of the convenience store,” Toong said.

Harvest Market has the feel of a café mixed with a traditional c-store, only with fewer aisles and more open space, and featuring brands with regional and organic appeal. Traditional general merchandise items are at a minimum and mainstream chip and candy items have been removed completely to make way for “better for you” indulgences.

“We look at what the students want to determine how we should position ourselves. Our goal and strategy is to push our traditional c-stores into this market format. Two years ago we re-evaluated our strategy. We said we are not going to have the same products as 7-Eleven. We don’t sell hot dogs or pizza at any c-store. We have no doughnuts anywhere on campus. Not too many students eat hot dogs anymore,” Toong said.

Students who really need a hot dog fix can find them at the U-Mass concessions stand, along with grass-fed burgers.

What are today’s students craving? Sushi. Harvest Market offers fresh-made as well as grab-and-go sushi. The entire UMass dining program sells 4,000 rolls of sushi every day—not including the retail sales. Twenty-five percent of the sushi sold is served on whole grain brown rice. UMass is looking into getting a small machine in order to serve sushi in the concessions and on its food trucks as well.

“With sushi you need to keep it fresh and display it nicely and that item is definitely expanding for us. The margin is really good on sushi as well. We are also looking into expanding into Mediterranean foods including olives, and all the healthy oils and cheeses,” Toong said.

The three c-stores at UMass are spread out across the campus in the various dining commons.

Worcester Market currently has the look and feel of a traditional c-store and offers some traditional Asian items, such as Pocky (a Japanese cookie product) and a functional beverage from Taiwan, appealing to the large Asian population that patrons the c-store.

Franklin Market is another traditional style c-store on campus that’s located in close proximity to the university’s health services department. The store features a number of food items that students can purchase and then microwave in a back room.

Both Worcester and Franklin are both undergoing a transformation this summer to bring them more in line with the look and “Whole Foods” feel of Harvest Market by this September when the students return for classes. Once the transformation is complete, the stores will feature fresh-made salads, sandwiches and baked goods, fresh-brewed fair trade and organic coffee, health and wellness products, and healthy beverages and snacks.

UMass’s Hampden Market c-store is already in the process of this remodel. Hampden is located in the Southwest Area of the campus and caters to the most concentrated population of students on campus: about 28,000. Hampshire Café is located on the first floor of the newly-renovated Hampshire Dining Commons. The Hampshire Café, about 100 yards from Hampden Market, offers freshly-prepared artisan sandwiches, salads, gelato, Starbucks coffee, upscale snack items, sushi, a gelato machine and a mac-n-cheese bar. “There’s very little gum and no q-tips or products like that,” Toong said.

“I think the convenience store model we are moving toward is not a traditional convenience store anymore. It is more of a market or a small-scale Whole Foods with upscale items and an emphasis on freshness,” he added.

The university also helps meet students’ food needs with two food trucks: Baby Berk and Baby Berk 2. Baby Berk debuted about three years ago to help meet the dining needs of the 13,000 people living on campus. Baby Berk is named after one of the most popular dining halls, Berkshire, and specializes in upscale burgers and hand-made French fries.

In addition, the food truck is also used to cater house parties and helps out with concessions at campus games. Baby Berk’s services were in such demand that a year later UMass added a second truck, Baby Berk 2, which offers a Chipotle burrito-type menu and recently added sushi. UMass has plans to add a third food truck in the near future.

The trucks run on a schedule from the early morning until the middle of the night. Using the UMass Dining app, the students can view the schedule and the menu on their phones.

Technology is a key component in getting information to students regarding food offerings on campus. UMass dining reaches students via its Website and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in addition to the app. Toong estimates about 20,000 students use the UMass Dining Website, and another 2,500 use the app.

“We found food trucks to be a very efficient use of capital because they are portable. We spent about $135,000 on Baby Berk. They feature grills, deep fryers, microwaves, refrigeration and are really quite comprehensive,” he said.

Three students and two marketing interns run the social media component. “We pay them more than student wages and they’re our eyes and ears for what’s happening on campus,” Toong said.

Having that social presence is absolutely crucial in getting the attention of this generation of college students. UMass constantly provides social updates to keep students engaged.

UMass also offers a local, healthy UMass food initiative and is on track to invest about $3.2 million in sustainable foods each year.

“We have been buying local for the last 10 years and three years ago we started a sustainable initiative and received a grant from Henry Kendall Foundation out of Boston for $500,000; in the fall of 2015 UMass received an additional grant of $500,000 for two years to create a more resilient regional food system. The result will be more local supply and subsequently prices will drop. We also created a how-to guide with 120 comprehensive steps on how to implement the UMass sustainable delicious initiative,” Toong said.

The pilot project includes the conversion of Hampshire Dining Commons into a premier campus eatery in the nation dedicated to sustainability, health and wellness with a cost-effective example to implement campus wide.

UMass has also done what it calls “creative engineering,” in other words using its power to incite change. For example, the school uses 850,000 pounds of chicken each year spending $2.5 million on the product and pushed its suppliers to switch to chicken without antibiotics.

UMass also has two bakeshops on campus with 10 full-time bakers who bake all the bread for residential dining. About 90% of the baked goods sold on campus are baked right at the shop and shipped to residential dining. Students can visit the bakeshop and watch the items being made, be it macaroons or gelato.

Portion control is also a theme in the bakeshop due to student demand for smaller portions in addition to a focus on quality. “We sell three-ounce bagels and muffins, not four-ounce,” Toong said.

The campus meal plan features dining dollars, which can also be used at the food trucks in addition to the dining halls.

“They are able to use about $250 dining dollars but they’re not allowed to use it at the c-stores. Eventually, when we switch to the market format at our c-stores, students will be allowed to use the dining dollars there because we’ll be selling more fresh foods with that transition,” Toong said.

UMass does not have plans to run its retail locations completely through the meal plan because it also serves about 8,000 off-campus students and 6,000 staff members who do not have the meal plan. “We are looking at how we can make the meal plan more flexible so that we create more value for students,” Toong said.

UMass dining has partnered with the campus’ nutritional science department to conduct a survey for 400 freshmen over two years in order to better serve its students, and is currently in the second phase of the study. The survey has found that 70% of students ranked ‘good food’ as an important factor in their choice of university.

The Princeton Review ranked UMass as the second best campus dining operation in the country in 2015 and 2014, up from No. 3 in 2012 and 2013.

“I hope we are No. 1 by 2017,” Toong said.