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University of Washington: Retail’s Next Generation

University of Washington: Retail’s Next Generation

Extensive renovations at the University of Washington’s dining operations have made it a “must see” program and facility for college foodservice operators nationwide.

A student union food court filled with concepts that rival the best, big-city fast casual restaurants... Grab-and-go units across campus offering day students a true, in-house branded experience...A residential dining hall with choices that range from take-out “home” meal replacements to near white-tablecloth dining...

At a Glance
School: University of Washington (Seattle)
Number of campus customers: 50,000 total; 5,300 resident students
Annual foodservice revenues: $21 million
No. of food locations on campus: 22
Daily sales/transactions: $80-100,000/ day; about 30,000 transactions/day
Design team members: URS Architects ; Thomas Ricca Associates (foodservice consultant); Ricca Planning Studios (market research, master plan); Mesher Hing and Associates (restaurant architect and interior design); Landor Associates, Girvin Associates (brand development consultants)

Generically stated, these could be the ambitious retail foodservice goals of virtually any large U.S. university campus given the high expectations of their customers today. But in execution there are few campuses that really meet the challenge in every single respect. One institution may have a spectacular retail food court while its grab-and-go concepts remain a bit hodge-podge in terms of having a consistent brand presence. Residential dining may be very good compared to that of the past, but still have students complaining it doesn’t meet the quality of what they can buy “on the street” from commercial vendors.

In an era when the goal of many campus dining departments is to offer the highest-quality retail experience to their customers, perfect execution always hovers at a receding horizon point. But in the just-completed renovations at the University of Washington campus (and in the remaining dining hall renovation still on the drawing boards there,) one can find a model that comes closer to that goal than most....

A total transformation

“Our goal was nothing less than a total transformation of how we prepare, cook and serve food on campus,” says Paul Brown, the university’s director of housing and food services

have a wide choice of retail dining concepts on
the U of W campus.McMahon’s Abundo and the c-store at Husky
Den’s ETC.

Photos by John Lawn

“Even though our dining programs have followed a financial a la carte retail model since the 1980s, we decided to completely re-engineer them to become more customer-driven. That is what has resulted in the dining experience you now have on our campus.”

The largest part of that vision became a reality over the last 16 months, as the school opened its renovated Husky Den student union food court in January of 2002, followed by the opening of the spectacular residential dining facility known simply as “8” this past September.

Concurrent with those projects, the school upgraded its decentralized unit operations, developing clearly-defined in-house brands for them and taking full advantage of traffic and demographic patterns it identified in master plan research. In doing so, it effectively tapped most of the key retail trends on campuses today: from the state-of-the-art internet espresso cafe known as Ian’s Domain to wellexecuted convenience stores to high volume grab-and-go bakery and sandwich displays.

The dining experience these projects represent are a far cry from what existed on campus only a few years ago. And while it is easy to appreciate “before” and “after” comparisons, it is the process Brown’s department used in managing the transition, and the teamwork responsible for it, that best explains the success of the efforts so far.

Planning the transition

The University of Washington was founded in 1861, and although not a land grant school, has long been one of the state’s major education resources. Seven on-campus residence halls house 5300 students, but they represent only about twelve percent of the total campus population on any given day. The large transient population has given the university’s foodservice a strong retail orientation for years, but by 1995, when Director Paul Brown assumed responsibility for it, the situation he faced was a difficult one.

Though following a retail model in terms of pricing and payment, the actual dining options then available were viewed by customers as increasingly uncompetitive with those available off campus. That was complicating the university’s ability to position its resident programs relative to other schools.

Further, retail revenues had been decreasing even as operating costs had been going up. The possibility that finances might go into the red made it clear that dramatic changes were necessary.

Meanwhile, Assistant Director Dan Farrell, who had started his career at U of W in the mid-80s, had just returned to the department after a stint at the University of Colorado.

“As a department, we were completely self supporting,” he recalls. “Our ability to successfully appeal to the retail sensibilities of customers was critical to keeping the operations a financial success.”

Husky Den’s Firecracker, Pagliacci and Arriba! stations.

Photos by John Lawn

To begin addressing its problems, the department arranged for a peer review through NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Services). It also commissioned an outside consultant to perform a brand review and work with a newlyformed strategic planning committee in the development of a master plan for foodservices.

The committee, chaired by Assistant Director of Finance Nancy Hyde, worked with the consultant to evaluate every operation on campus, studying food quality, production and cash flows, customer demands and the competitive environment.

Meanwhile, foodservices moved forward with three major programs that would set the stage for the plan’s ultimate recommendations.

Boss Tucker and the Balmer Cafe

The brand study had identified Subway and Pagliacci (a regional pizza chain) as the top choices of campus customers. Foodservices began discussing franchise options with both chains and soon, while negotiations with Pagliacci continued, Subway became the school’s first foodservice franchise with the opening of a sandwich counter in the existing student union facility in March of 1998.

In another move, the debit card system used by residents was named A la Carde-Plus and extended so it could also be used at all the HFS-operatedcafes and espresso bars on campus (previously, some units had required cash payment). That immediately broadened the choices available to resident students.

Finally, even as master plan development continued, it had already become clear that retail operations needed to better address the needs of parts of the campus that had been underserved in the past.

Tops on that list was the School of Business, located in an out-of-the-way corner of north campus, says Farrell. “We identified a location in Balmer Hall that was a key cross-traffic point, and modified it to became what is now known as Balmer Cafe.”

There, a new grab-and-go island station and wall display cases were assembled to provide high-density merchandising opportunities that would appeal to on-the-move customers.

Balmer also gave the department a chance to develop what has since become its most mature on-campus brand, the Boss Tucker line of sandwiches and salads. Produced centrally, they are distributed from display cases, cstores and grab-and-go units across campus.

But Boss Tucker?

“Tucker is an Australian slang word that’s often used to describe take-out food consumed on the go,” explains Debbie O’Donnell, the departments marketing administrator. “And ‘Boss,’ of course, is just a hip way of saying ‘Great.’

“Rather than emphasize an umbrella concept, we decided to focus on individual brands that would make a clearly defined ‘value promise’ to customers.”

Developing a strong graband- go brand had other benefits as well, says Farrell.

“Boss Tucker became a brand we could use to increase the comfort level our customers had with pre-packaged items.,” he says. “It was a key objective in the effort.”

Going for high impact

The master plan was completed in the fall of 1998, just as Balmer Cafe was opening. It highlighted a number of weaknesses in the university’s programs. One of the most telling?

“That there was a sizable group of potential customers who were eating on campus, but not buying meals here,” says Farrell.

The reasons were many. Straight line service points that were creating long lines for customers. Cook-and-hold production that limited merchandising opportunities. Inefficient seating. Layouts that obstructed visibility, traffic flow and customer access during peak periods.

While not every problem plagued every location, the overall solution called for extensive renovation work—three major campus remodels at a final price tag of over $24 million—which would inevitably disrupt service.

To minimize that, renovations, were to be staged, with some areas receiving immediate, strategic upgrades so they could handle additional traffic and demand during the renovation period. Plan recommendations included:

  • increased food variety, speed of service and convenience;
  • more consistent in-house branding to improve the image of University Food Services;
  • greater use of presentation cooking stations;
  • and recipe development for quality, authentic foods.

Husky Den’s Firecracker, Pagliacci and Arriba! stations.

Photos by John Lawn

Since the new Subway had already proven itself, it was expanded with an additional counter and a satellite unit on the other side of campus. The Atrium Cafe on Husky Den’s patio level was also expanded with a Seattle Best Coffee operation and graband- go choices to help carry overflow traffic while the food court was shut down in mid-2001.

Husky Den: fast, casual and spectacular

While construction proceeded, another key component in the overall mix fell into place when the department began advertising for an executive chef to help it fulfill the culinary objectives in the master plan.

One of the applicants turned out to be Jean-Michel Boulot, a French-born and trained chef who had earned his stripes working for several international hotel chains, including Sofitel, Ritz Carlton, Hilton and Starwood.

Boulot had come to the U.S. several years before to help open a number of new hotel properties, but, with a young family, had begun looking for a career change that would provide more predictable hours and less travel.

Although skeptical of the university position at first, he was impressed by the scope of the projects that were underway and joined the department as Executive Chef and to help recruit and oversee a team of chefs to staff the new operations.

In retrospect, Boulot’s arrival was serindipitous and he was able to immediately get involved in menu and concept development for the new food court.

Firecracker was my favorite,” he says. “I wanted it to have original flavors, to let the customers see the food cooked before them, but also to be able to move the line quickly.

“We had to develop batch production procedures that would let us continuously vary production depending on demand, always having fresh food, but never over- or under-producing.

It was a great challenge.” It was also a challenge that soon turned out to be worth the effort. When Husky Den finally re-opened in January of 2002, the impact was immediate.

Husky Den’s nine stations run the gamut from a grab-and-go espresso bar to classic comfort foods. Each has its own look, uniforms, packaging and brand support. Yet what distinguishes its menu mix is not only the variety but how well each concept is executed and how effectively they work together as a whole.

Even at midday, when traffic in the HUB complex is heavy, it absorbs the flow easily and distributes it effectively. Queues move quickly at even high-demand stations (Farrell says the average transaction is completed in under two minutes) and provide customers with enough ambience, display cooking and socialization opportunities so that few seem impatient.

Meanwhile, the Firecracker concept has the distinction both of driving the largest average daily volume of the signature restaurant concepts while also requiring the smallest operational “footprint” in the food court. With daily sales in excess of $4,000, “We’ve even discussed whether it might be something we could develop as a franchise opportunity for others,” says Farrell.

Opening Up “8”

With Husky Den behind them, the group turned to Phase Two—McMahon Hall.

“The tremendous success of Husky Den showed the campus community we knew what we were doing,” says Vennie Gore, assistant director of residential services. “When we were going out to bid, one of the regents had just eaten there. His comment was, ‘If you are going along the same lines with McMahon, we have nothing to talk about—just do it.’”

The master plan called for an enlargement of McMahon’s dining hall capacity so that the dining facility in nearby Haggett Hall could be shut down, reducing operating costs and making McMahon the primary restaurant to support north campus diners.

Designed around a Marketplace concept, the new dining facility—named simply “8”—opened on schedule this past September. (“8” serves 3,800-4,000 customers a day, and will generate annual revenues of about $1 million. Initial projections show it with an 18% increase in transactions and a 37% increase in revenue).

Like Husky Den, “8” offers a wide variety of food styles, service options and presentation- style cooking. But as a major resident dining facility, it has a significantly different “look and feel,” one that in subtle ways is geared to community dining, including the evening meals that are a key component of on-campus community life.

“We want our residential students to feel they are part of a university within the university,” observes Gore. “Dining is a key part of that experience.”

The impressive look and feel of “8” is more than skin-deep, with each station projecting a distinct identity and menu philosophy. “These were not small undertakings,” says marketing administrator O’Donnell.

“We’ve realized over the last five years that it is very important to have these brand identities on campus. That was a key lesson from the Subway experience. Even though the sandwiches cost more than what we had been offering, they were hugely popular. It was the strength of the brand at work.”

The residential operations group has applied that same philosophy with equal impact to other projects it has initiated in the last two years. Most notable is probably Ian’s Domain, a combination study lounge, internet cafe, espresso bar and c-store facility that it opened in November, 2001 in McCarty Hall, another residential facility.

Voting with dollars

Phase Three—the renovation of Terry Hall dining facilities on west campus—is being planned now, and will likely be completed in 2004. At that point, virtually every major oncampus foodservice will have been re-engineered to compete with the retail environment of the cosmopolitan city that surrounds it.

“I am passionate about this because we have a chance to be the very best, but we’re only going to have one chance to get it right,” says Brown.

Adds Farrell: “This is a true retail model—customers eat where they want to eat, whether on campus or off. They vote with their dollars, and we want them to vote for us.”

Husky Den: Dining at the HUB

A literal crossroads of the U of W campus, the Husky Union Building’s nine eateries are responsible for almost $35,000 in daily sales and more than one-third of total campus foodservice volume. Transaction averages shown here are from a typical day last November.

ARRIBA offers a wide selection of fresh Mexican foods, featuring large, wrappedto- order Mission-style burritos made from marinated and grilled fillings, complemented by a self-serve salsa bar. Transactions average $5.12.

@Home is a comfort food station with a carving station, homestyle grill and Italian pastaria serving pastas cooked to order. Transactions average $5.34.

ETC. is billed as “the ultimate grab and go” and does triple duty as an upscale c-store, high volume espresso bar and fresh bakery outlet at the entrance to the Husky Den food court. Transactions average $2.50.

Pickles & Fries

Pickles & Fries offers Husky Den customers a retro diner experience.

Photo by Robert Pisano/Courtesy of Thomas Ricca Associates

FIRECRACKER is a pan-Asian concept whose constantlychanging menu offers entrees from China, Japan,Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, stir-fried in front of the customer on a “Tappan Yaki” (an iron plate grill). Dishes are prepared in house with fresh meat, seasonal vegetables and proprietary spice mixes and are served in striking red Firecracker branded to-go boxes Transactions average $5.09.

PAGLIACCI PIZZA is a key branded concept brought to the University of Washington campus under a customized partnership agreement with the regional chain. Hand-thrown pizzas, fresh salads and Italian specialties make this one of the Husky Den’s volume leaders.Transactions average $3.51.

PICKLES & FRIES offers a classic short-order menu in a retro diner ambience with a range of fresh allbeef burgers and a vegetarian burger option.Prices range from $3.49 to 5.09 and a large order of fries and 32 oz. soda can be added on for $.79. Transactions average $3.10.

Dan Farrell

Dan Farrell : “There was a sizable group of potential customers who were not buying meals here.”

RED RADISH combines an extensive salad bar and tossing station with a selection of organic fresh fruit,juices,40 varieties of tea, premium breads and 8 savory soups. Transactions average $3.92.

In planning surveys of students, SUBWAY was the top choice of all branded concepts and at Husky Den it has turned into the highest grossing Subway franchise in the Northwest.Double counters serve customers from the station’s front and back. Transactions average $5.15.

In ATRIUM,overstuffed couches and chairs and Italian-style pedestal tables and bar chairs create a European coffeehouse feel.A full-service espresso bar offers a quickservice menu that includes soups,panini, salads and fresh baked goods. Transactions average $2.06

Welcome to “8”

Mongolian grill

The Mongolian grill Jangar at “8”

Photo by Robert Pisano/Courtesy of Thomas Ricca Associates

The long-awaited re-opening of McMahon Hall’s dining facilities last September capped a twoyear process of intense planning, conceptualizing and reconstruction. Although its primary customer base is made up of residents in McMahon,Haggett and McCarty Halls,its eight concepts are open to all campus comers. Here’s the eclectic dining mix they get to choose from:

Jangar, a full-featured Mongolian grill, provides a sizzling, central focus to 8’s servery the minute you walk in the door. Daily specials are grilled-to-order based on ingredients selected by each customer, from fresh meats and produce to authentic Asian noodles,even to the amount of cooking oil used.The circular grill is viewable from all sides, with efficient customer access to “mini” stations around its perimeter for ordering, pick-up and sauce selection, expediting Jangar’s constant, high-volume traffic.

Boss Tucker

The Boss Tucker brand was given its own station presence at “8”.

Photo by Robert Pisano/Courtesy of Thomas Ricca Associates

Abundo offers a full range of Mediterranean cuisine, cooked on display by executive chef Jim Watkins and his staff. An abundance of fresh center-of-the-plate ingredients are complemented by a broad selection of chutneys, relishes and sauces designed to enhance the flavor profiles of regional dishes from Italy, Morocco, Israel, Spain, France and Iran.

Broiler Zone offers a contemporary diner setting and caters to those craving all-American comfort foods,which are cooked-to-order using northwest regional ingredients. The station is overseen by the talented chef Tracey MacRae.

Boss Tucker was inspired by U of W’s best-known brand. Fresh meat roasted in Abundo’s kitchen provides for an extensive variety of made-to-order sandwiches, while daily salad and vegetable specials,fresh baked breads and bagels and an espresso/bakery bar round out a custom deli experience.

Pagliacci Pizza is a must-have brand for Seattle students. Its hand-spun pizzas, baked in the onsite brick-lined oven, are a critical part of most of McMahon Hall customers’ weekly dining habits.

Vennie Gore

Vennie Gore: “We want our residential students to feel they are part of a university within a university.”

Photo by Robert Pisano/Courtesy of Thomas Ricca Associates

Wild Greens caters to the seemingly insatiable demand for salad exhibited by today’s university students, complementing specially-tossed creations with fresh soups.Wild Greens also features eclectic vegetarian dishes specially prepared by chef Jim Watkins.

The Nook. On campuses, cereal and milk aren’t just for breakfast anymore,and The Nook caters to all-day noshing with a selection of over 30 cereals.

Seconds. On your way to your room? No time to wait? Seconds offers ready-made meals,snacks and take-out fare for high-energy customers on the go.


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