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Retail: Forging Far-flung But Sensible Partnerships

Ken Toong has two primary goals when it comes to retail foodservice on the UMass-Amherst campus: “stay away from national brands that charge high royalties, and increase the check average.”

To meet that first goal, Toong has turned to emerging concept operators who are willing to work with the university to operate branded outlets at reasonable fees in return for the volume and marketing opportunities offered by a large public university. And unlike many onsite operators who turn to local brands to take advantage of their name recognition in the community, Toong isn’t afraid to venture far and wide.

Take Café Talesai, which sells fast but upscale Thai cuisine. It comes courtesy of a mother and son team from Southern California. Another California import is Lemongrass, a pho noodle concept from Sacramento.

The Middle East-themed Pita Pit originated in Kingston, Ontario, and serves food ranging from pita pockets and salads to vegetarian specials like hummus and falafel. Pita Pit currently has three locations on campus.

Toong is not sitting on his gains. “We plan to expand the Lemongrass pho concept by adding an Asian Grill format,” he says. “Pho can get old, and we also want to expand the menu to get higher check averages. We are currently working with chef/owner Mai Pham on this.” He’s also looking to add brand cache to deli offerings. “We’re working with Boar’s Head to develop a brand name deli counter that will have highquality meats that will enable us to increase check averages.”

The bulk of UMass’s retail dining is concentrated in the Campus Center, home to several clusters of eateries. One is the Bluewall, where the Lemongrass stand sits along with three other ethnic-themed concepts. It rings up some $20,000 a day in cash sales, making it the university’s most popular retail dining spot

Elsewhere in the Campus Center is a Starbucks, which, along with a nearby Freshens smoothie stand, are as close to national branded concepts Toong has gotten. The Campus Center also has Cafe Pura Vida, which specializes in Fair Trade and organic coffees, teas and cocoa. It rings up $2,500 a day during the middle of the week.

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