At a Glance: The University of Northern Colorado
Located in Greeley, Colo., the University of Northern Colorado was founded in 1889. The university features students from 38 states and five countries. Other highlights include:
Getting to know your core customers is an ongoing challenge. But when your customers are a transient group of students, staying on top of their needs is virtually a 24-hour job.
Just when you get to know their likes and dislikes, favorite menu dishes and find that winning marketing strategy to attract new business, June storms in and tears away 25% of your consumer base in a single graduation ceremony.
Fortunately, come August, a new collection of wide-eyed freshmen gathers on campus, many away from home for the first time, expecting hot meals, snacks and a good cup of coffee. The marketing effort starts anew. After all, the freshmen class will be a customer for the next four years—or perhaps five for those with access to beer.
“Students’ needs don’t really vary that much on campus from traditional restaurants and convenience stores,” said Hal Brown, the director of Dining Services at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley, Colo. “They want fresh, healthy food, they want variety and they want great service. The difference is their tastes are constantly changing, so you really have to stay on top of your game to keep up with them.”
Under Brown, UNC’s Dining Services runs a tight ship and is extremely active in looking for solutions to make the students’ lives on campus more comfortable. To that end, UNC offers more than a dozen eating facilities and is preparing to break ground a convenience store prototype that it expects to become one of the most popular destinations on campus.
“Having choices through strong national and local brands has been an important part of our success,” Brown said. “More importantly, the growth of these brands has allowed us to expand our campus brands and build a loyal following. We expect this loyalty to extend to our new convenience store business.”
The biggest advantage campus operations have over traditional restaurants and convenience stores is the captive audience, so there is intense pressure to provide good food, variety and value. After all, what customer is going to make numerous repeat visits if they are not satisfied with the offering or service?
“Where Dining Services has been the most flexible is listening to our students to understand their needs,” said Sharon Eberhard, UNC’s assistant retail dining manager. “We survey students, conduct customer intercepts and go to the dining areas to solicit feedback for developing the menu and expanding our options. We are at the point now where we’re going to start using this data to launch a new convenience store offering and to implement some other student-specific programs to capture this business.”
Most students participate in a traditional meal plan, which is designed for students living on campus. “The residence halls do not provide adequate facilities for cooking and storing meals, so having meals prepared for you allows your focus to remain on your education rather than what to cook for dinner,” Brown said.
The extensive list of dining options at UNC includes:
• The Holmes and Tobey-Kendel Dining Halls. Originally constructed to be a women’s residence hall, this building now serves as the main dining hall for central campus. Students can choose from a variety of hot meals, sandwiches, pizza and salads from five different dining stations, most of them prepare the food right in front of the students. On-the-go students also have the option to utilizing the “Bear On The Run” program (appropriately branded from the university’s nickname, the UNC Bears.) With this program, students have 15 minutes to fill a biodegradable to-go box with the food offered in the dining hall.
UNC offers top-quality dining by award-winning chefs, and a registered dietitian is on staff to assist with special dietary needs. Both facilities are equipped with wireless Internet access.
• National Brands. Popular destinations for all-day dining include Einstein Bros. Bagels, Taco Bell Express, Starbucks and Subway.
• Coffee Corner. Dining Services operates three satellite coffee shops that serve as small-scale convenience stores. These locations offer espresso drinks, coffee, pastries, bagels, snacks, sandwiches, breakfast “Bear-itos,” salads, Eileen’s Cookies, sushi from SushiOne and refrigerated beverages. The Coffee Corner brand has blossomed since it was introduced seven years ago. In fact, the campus’s Michener Library Coffee Corner alone serves more customers per day than the campus Starbucks. “The library location served 70,000 customers this past academic year versus 67,000 folks at Starbucks,” said Jenny Larson, the assistant director for catering concession and retail dining on campus. “A more affordable price and the great location make this a popular destination for students.”
• The University Center Food Court. In addition to the dining halls and nationally branded concepts, students can access UNC proprietary brands at the University Center Food Court. Like UNC’s dining halls, the food court offers a great variety aimed at satisfying a wide range of palates. Brands include Bears Bistro, which features Chicago-style deep dish pizza, made-to-order pasta and salad bowls; Asian cuisine like sushi; deli sandwiches; and a full array of snacks, coffee and beverages.
• Vending Operations. A total of 30 Pepsi-branded beverage and snack machines are available throughout the campus.
Ongoing marketing and promotions help keep the dining facilities popular. Brown and his team have developed a host of unique programs to generate excitement with the student population. Programs include:
• Dining Dollars: A prepaid card program that allows students to purchase food and beverage items on campus with no added sales tax. The Dining Dollars card can be used at Starbucks, Taco Bell, Subway, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Bears Bistro and the three Coffee Corner locations, as well as select vending machines across campus and the new convenience store. Freshmen automatically receive Dining Dollars each semester with their traditional meal plan. The card can be reloaded anytime in $25 increments.
• Both of the university’s dining halls, Holmes and Tobey-Kendel, host special event dinners throughout the year including: The Taste of UNC, Casino Night, Holiday Dinner, Africana Night, Steak Night, Prime Rib Brunch, Featured Chef Night and Taste of Home.
• A taste of home. Parents of students can submit favorite family recipes to be featured in the dining halls.
The Coffee Corner brand started out as strategically placed coffee carts that focused on serving students and faculty between classes, or as they commuted back to their dorm rooms.
But the success of the concept, fueled by student demand, is necessitating a much larger convenience store, which the university is preparing to unveil at the beginning of the 2010 fall semester. The 3,000-square-foot prototype will be located in the busy University Center and will feature a host of beverages, snacks, school supplies, sundries and pretty much anything else students need to get through the day.
“This is a massive undertaking for us. I have been touring other college university c-stores as well as traditional convenience stores to get a much better understanding of layout and design,” Brown said. “Plus, we are constantly meeting with architects, designers and consultants to make sure we’re not overlooking anything. There is definitely an excitement brewing around this store that this campus hasn’t seen in some time.”
To involve the students in the store’s development, aside from soliciting their feedback on product assortment, Brown and his team decided to give students the ultimate honor: an opportunity to name the store.
At the end of the spring semester UNC launched a contest and corresponding Web site where students
can send suggestions for the new c-store brand. The winning banner is expected to be selected by late summer in enough time to produce branded signage and billboards for the first day of class.
“I’m not sure if anyone expected the student demand to get to the point where we would need to start developing our own convenience store, but that’s the nature of the world these days,” Brown said. “Customers, whether they are students or an employee working a 9-5 job, are driven by a need for convenience. To ignore this need would be an enormous mistake.”
Learning the Business
In addition to serving the university’s meals and snacks, UNC’s Dining Services also serves as one of the largest student employers on campus, hiring over 400 students throughout the entire year to work in the various dining areas, in addition to its 90 full-time members.
Shelby Williams, a Coffee Corner manager, is one of those student-employees. She said serving in both roles helps her gain a unique understanding of how to serve the campus.
“As a student, I look for something that’s affordable and healthy. So with the Coffee Corners, with their vast array of options, I get my coffee fix, but I’m also able to get meals that appeal to me like sushi or freshly made scones in the morning,” Williams said. “As an employee, I can see where things need to be changed to make students’ lives a little better, but I also understand the cost management associated with making these changes. I’ve definitely learned how to find a balance between the two.”
For example, one of the benefits of the campus brands is that they afford the university an opportunity to offer better prices than the national brands on campus because there are no franchise or advertising costs tied in. Not all students understand the pricing structure, so Williams will often talk to students on a budget to ensure they are choosing wisely to maximize their dollars.
“Students are highly attuned to customer service and not afraid to voice their opinion if someone isn’t acting properly,” Williams said. “Knowing this and knowing that there are other options available to them, we really go out of our way to explain our offering and make every customer feel welcome. We want them to be satisfied for that visit and walk away thinking, ‘I’m going to go back there.'”
The University of Northern Colorado is the first university in the state to qualify for the Smart Meal designation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Smart Meal Seal was created by the state Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado 5-A-Day task force and the Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition Program to establish nutrition requirements specifically designed for restaurant meals. Restaurants can showcase those entrees that are lower in fat and include components, such as beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, by highlighting them with the Smart Meal Seal. Participating restaurants are required to have at least two qualifying menu items to earn the Smart Meal Seal. The guidelines for a meal to qualify include: