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Parkhurst drives engagement with sold-out pop-up events

Robert Morris University’s BBQ chicken sundae pop-up and Duquesne University’s edible cookie dough pop-up drove sales growth and enhanced guests' food experience.

Pop-up restaurants—once a novelty—are now the norm, especially for college and university dining programs looking to shake things up.

Take Robert Morris University’s (RMU) BBQ chicken sundae pop-up, for example. Hosted last fall, the event was designed to “break the mold” by surprising, delighting and engaging guests in something unique, different and exciting.

Just as the name implies, the pop-up occurred in an unexpected place—right in the middle of campus along a highly trafficked walkway—for only one hour. The event was teased over social media for 24 hours and guests who found it were served made-from-scratch pizza dough twisted into cones to hold ranch mashed potatoes, crispy onion straws, baked beans and housemade pickles before being topped with pulled barbecue chicken and a drizzle of sweet barbecue sauce.

“Dan Chiaverini, RMU's executive chef, created the recipe and it was absolutely unique, craveable and novel,” says Larry Orr, vice president of operations for Parkhurst Higher Education. “The team picked a beautiful day to host this event outside. They created an entirely new point of service in a high-traffic area between bus stops, parking lots and campus buildings. They proactively used social media to promote the pop-up and they delighted a lot of guests who were lucky enough to find us.”

Chiaverini served the cones himself, which also provided him the opportunity to interact directly with the students and guests. And in less than one hour, 55 sundaes were sold and supplies had run out.

Each portion was sold for $5 and included a canned beverage. With a food cost of 20 percent, it proved to be successful in more than just student engagement and excitement. It captured additional sales revenue, too.

“Pop-ups, like the one at RMU, are here today but gone tomorrow, compelling guests to take advantage of a really special experience,” says Orr. “Through this program, we’re able to offer a wide variety of menu offerings that otherwise wouldn’t fit our service model and create memorable moments for our guests and clients.”

Duquesne University (Pittsburgh), another Parkhurst operation, hosted two edible cookie dough pop-up events last year on campus.

During the events, Duquesne offered five different cookie dough flavors including chocolate chip, brownie batter, cookies & cream, funfetti (sprinkles and white chocolate chips) and Reese’s Cups. For both pop-ups, Duquesne teased the concept through print signage and social media posts 24 hours in advance. They shared the date but kept the time and location hush-hush.

Instead, the university encouraged students to follow them on social media to guarantee they wouldn’t miss the event. Then, approximately 30 minutes before it started, Duquesne Dining unveiled the time and location via Twitter.

During the pop-up, guests could choose one scoop of cookie dough or two. And it was such a success that the first event sold out within one hour, while the second event sold out within two hours.

“We're really excited about the future of this pop-up program,” says Orr. “By creating the program's foundation, purpose and structure, we're empowering our individual teams to bring it to life in infinite ways. It can adapt to the different needs, environments, audiences and schedules of our various client partnerships while continuing to bring our Parkhurst philosophy of authentic culinary experiences to life. As food trends are ever changing, our pop-up program will allow us to embrace timely trends and seasonal flavors and bring them to life in truly exciting ways.”

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