Partnering with the community is one element of the University of Delaware’s strategic vision, and the school’s dining services department is doing its part by encouraging select local foodservice operators to set up outposts on campus.
“We’ve had multiple partnerships with different restaurants in various ways,” says Amanda Steiner, vice president of operations for Aramark, which manages dining services on the Newark, Del., campus. Ole Tapas, which debuted on campus with a food truck, has migrated to a popup spot in a dining hall. La Casa, a nearby Italian eatery, takes over a station dining hall each week. And the Stomping Grounds coffee concept in the food court switched from a national brand to serving products from a popular nearby coffee shop/roaster, Little Goat.
More recently, the university carved out a physical space, dubbed Local Restaurant Row, as part of a student center remodeling project. Local restaurants can take over the space, typically for a month at a time, and serve curated versions of their menu. They have access to a shared kitchen with prep and production space and equipment. Students can pay with a meal swipe, points or credit.
Currently, the sole tenant of Local Restaurant Row is International Food Creations, which specializes in sushi, poke, ramen and other Asian specialties. The operator changes up the menu weekly to keep it interesting. Steiner says staffing shortages have temporarily prevented additional restaurants from setting up shop in the student center, but eventually the plan is to expand the lineup and regularly rotate different concepts through the space.
“We are really looking for partners who can create an experience different from one we already provide,” Steiner says. Typically that means authentic ethnic flavors, which can diversify dining services’ existing menus. “We’re also looking for partners with a good brand image that can meet our safety requirements and want to engage with the community at the university,” she adds.
In exchange for operating on campus, operators receive the proceeds from their sales, minus a commission, and exposure to potential new customers. Rent is free, so the risk of opening on campus is minimal. The university also provides marketing support for Local Restaurant Row tenants through dining services’ social media feed, point of sale promotions and articles in the campus news feed and the department’s monthly newsletter.
Having an on-campus presence also allows partners to build their brand’s loyalty with the students, faculty, staff and guests, Steiner adds.
Students have been involved in determining some of the local concepts that have become regular partners. Aramark has conducted student roundtable discussions and partnerships with campus groups also provide opportunities to share plans, solicit feedback and encourage engagement, Steiner says. Sales data from the local restaurant relationships has factored into decisions as well.
“Students said they wanted a diner concept, so we added that. They also wanted local authentic food and spaces that didn’t feel just like a dining hall, so we used that to create Local Restaurant Row,” she adds.
On the partner side, more restaurants have sought pop-up arrangements, so a pop-up stand was created to accommodate shorter stints.
Steiner says flexibility has been a key as the local dining partnerships have evolved. “If we bring in a partner that the students are just raving about, saying they never want it to go away, we look at how we can work it into the location in a way that doesn’t conflict with our own products,” she explains.
Little Goat coffee was a big hit and is one of the keepers. “They roast the beans and provide the coffee; the owner has trained our staff and worked through the recipes and created a blend just for us. That was definitely a concept that we determined needed a permanent space, which is Stomping Grounds.”
“We’ve seen a positive from creating that local community connection,” Steiner says.