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Re-capturing the "Liberated" Customer

Fast food 'surrounds' metropolitan schools," read a recent USA Today headline. "Most public and private schools in Chicago are only a five to 10-minute walk from at least one fast-food restaurant, says a study in September's American Journal of Public Health."

And another recent story lead, this one from Brandweek: "How can brands reach students who ... spend a record-breaking $175 billion annually? Try a little of everything, from campus marketing to ADD-derailing TV ads, and keep your fingers crossed."

Talk about "old news." Putting aside the continuing argument over who is responsible for the eating habits of Americans and their kids, both stories underscore a broader reality that matters to every reader.

We live in an era in which the economy is over-saturated with retail opportunities that pervade every traditional commercial environment. Quickservice restaurants, c-stores and service chains that already have a dominating presence in shopping malls, urban downtowns and suburban intersections have been desperately seeking new locations—and customers—for years. They have increasingly turned to onsite locations as target markets.

Any institution, business or recreational site is seen as a market opportunity. It is this phenomenon, more than anything else, that is responsible for the stagnant or declining participation rates that have plagued onsite operators and their P&L statements for the last decade.

For example, there is a large B &I site on my town's west side, in what was once a rudimentary office park near a highway exit. In the past ten years, a dozen restaurants have sprouted within a quarter mile of its driveway entrance.

The unit manager who operates its foodservice struggles with a client that demands below-market food pricing with little or no subsidy. Meanwhile, the chains' off-campus promotions make even these prices seem out of line. (Never mind that the meals cost more once they're purchased with drinks and sides in an actual transaction).

Hospital employees, responsible for up to 75 percent of a hospital's foodservice sales today are virtually identical to any other B&I customer base in this respect. Periodically, one reads about yet another hospital administration that is "up in arms" about the fast food fare sometimes offered on site.They should try broadening their vision to include the periphery of their own campuses, as well as the full range of business and customer satisfaction challenges that their foodservice departments face.

It's certainly no secret that c-store chains have been aggressively targeting university campus communities in recent years.

When college operators discuss so-called "town and gown" issues with their administrations, I always find it ironic that the conversations mostly focus on complaints lodged by local businesses who feel dining departments unfairly compete with private sector concerns.

What about the drain on foodservice department financial created by the ubiquitous "roach trucks" that line up on the periphery of many urban campuses? The 24-hour pizza delivery services whose campus "runners" and other employees are paid well below the school's wage and benefit scale? Or the three-steps-off-campus c-stores that attract students with cigarettes, alcohol and other items that on¯ campus outlets can't acceptably offer?

The only way for FM readers to compete with challenges of this sort is to focus more intently on the dining, menu and retail experiences they offer customers in their own cafès and outlets. No customers are "captive" today. Every onsite customer must be treated as "liberated," and none can be taken for granted.

You and your front line personnel are the foot soldiers in this daily battle. To prevail, all of the marketing "P's" we editorialized about over the past year must be used to their fullest extent.

Imaginative menus, top-quality food presentations, interactive merchandising by front-line personnel, creative promotions and effective delivery systems—if working together in tandem—can be more than a match for the homogenous and all-toopredictable competition on the outside.

But that's not to say it is easy. And if there was ever a time when onsite careers might have been considered "less demanding" than those in the commercial sector, it is certainly long past. Today the performance bar is higher—and more challenging— than it has ever been before.

This is yet another reason why hospitality educators, industry associations, and indeed, foodservice directors themselves need to take a new and more sophisticated look at how we are training and developing the foodservice directors of tomorrow.

JOHN LAWN Editor-in-Chief
[email protected]

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