For over 20 years, the market inside the University of Montana’s (UM) University Center was owned and operated by the University Bookstore, a nonprofit on campus. “The market had almost a cult following; people loved it. They had great coffee, music was always playing, and it was staffed by students. It was a fun cool place to be,” says Camp Howard, director of UM Dining. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t making enough money.” University of Montana Dining Services acquired the market from the bookstore last June and spent last summer drafting up a redesign of the space.
“The former market was congested and set up like a maze,” Howard. “We wanted it to feel really open, modern, and spacious while keeping all the things – student staff, music – that were working.” They closed the store in August to start construction. “The Mercantile, an historic building in downtown Missoula, was being demolished at that time so we were able to salvage some beautiful pine for our counters,” he says. One wall is a glass window to the University Center’s lush atrium and there is a sliding door with a wooden trellis above to create an inviting entryway path over polished cement floors.
The renovated University Center Market debuted in January, has been servicing upward of 1,300 guests daily, and is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. “The flow is improved so that we’re using the same 3,000 square footage, but we’re offering more products and more shopping space,” says Howard. “We’ve noticed students linger while shopping. They spend time reading labels and exploring the selection.”
By acquiring the market, UM Dining was able to take advantage of its Bear Claw Bakery right on the other side of the market. “We installed a door to facilitate back and forth and put a glass merchandiser in the market where guests can buy housemade treats from the pastry chef such as huckleberry bear claws, croissants, Danishes, scones, etc.,” say Howard. “The former market had been using our bakery as a vendor, but we’ve upped that game bigtime.”
Howard says that one side of the newly renovated market is dedicated to coffee, featuring local Black Coffee Roasting Co., as well as bagels from nearby Bagels on Broadway and Bernice's Bakery, toasted and smeared to order. “We also started a Dollar Coffee Club, in which guests can buy a $3 sticker to put on their reusable coffee mugs and get fresh drip coffee for $1 instead of $1.75,” says Howard. “Not only does it eliminate waste but proceeds from the sticker sales will fund a scholarship fund for students studying sustainability here at UM.”
Meanwhile the other half of the store offers convenience store-type goods with a strong emphasis on Made in Montana products. “We source locally made ice cream, popcorn, jerky, tea, candy, gourmet chocolate and more,” says Howard. “The former market had been getting salads and sandwiches for its grab-and-go section from local restaurants. We wanted to continue that tradition because Missoula is a small town, and we want to strengthen those town and gown relations.”
As an example, Howard cites sandwiches from nearby Staggering Ox restaurant. “They do these sandwiches in which they bake bread in cans and then hollow out the bread to put the ingredients in,” says Howard. “It’s a Montana thing.”
While there is no seating inside the market, there are plenty of places to sit just outside in the atrium, says Howard, and there’s also a microwave oven for any customers who’d like to heat up frozen meals they’ve purchased. Howards adds that because Missoula is a small town, small businesses used the University Center for meeting and conference space and frequent the market as well.
“There’s really nothing like it in the surrounding area,” says Howard. “You’d have to walk a few miles into town to find something like this market. And thanks to our Made in Montana program and on-site bakery, there’s a lot more fun and interesting food and drink in this market then a typical convenience store.”