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The Big Idea: Flex Success

The Big Idea: Flex Success

Virginia Tech Dining's flex meal plan, introduced in 1996, is at the heart of the department's rise in sales because it has allowed a la carte based concepts to thrive on campus alongside all-you-care-to-eat dining halls. Students have no restrictions on when or how to use their flex dollars.

Basically, for resident students, who are required to purchase meal plans, there are two options, the Mega Flex and the Major Flex. The only difference between the two is the amount of spendable flex dollars the user gets.

In the most recent school year, a student paid $1,244 a semester for a Mega Flex plan and $1,144 for a Major Flex. In each case, $731 was reserved as a base cost to compensate the department for overhead. The remaining amount (either $513 or $413, depending on the plan chosen) is available to be spent in any department-run dining venue at any time they are open. The flex dollars give users a 50 percent discount in a la carte venues — including branded outlets like Sbarro, Chick-fil-A and Au Bon Pain — and at least 67 percent (depending on daypart) in the all-you-care-to-eat venues.

Students can add flex dollars to their plans at any time, either online, at the Student Service Center or at one of the cash-to-card machines located around campus. Since they have already paid the base cost when they purchased their plans, additional funds students put on their plans are all available to be used as flex dollars.

To illustrate the power of the flex option: prior to Dining Services managing the Squires Food Court (and hence before the flex option was available), the branded outlets located there struggled to generate sales. In 2004, Dining Services took over the operations and made flex plan payment available. Since then, sales have soared.

Sbarro was there before and after the change and saw its daily sales rise from about $1,100 a day to more than $4,300. Au Bon Pain only came in after Dining Services took over, replacing a struggling burger concept (it added a second location in the Graduate Life Center across the street in 2005). It now generates over $15,000 a day in its two locations and was named the chain's Franchise of the Year in 2006.

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