Competition | July 2008 | By Pam George

Food for Thought

A lesson from colleges and universities on catering to students seeking late-night meals.

It is nearly 11 p.m. and Samantha Kelly is far from calling it a day. A freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, Kelly closes her books, grabs her bag, and meets up with friends at the student center, where a Burger King is open until midnight.

“We plan it all the time,” Kelly says. “We stay an hour, if we have that much time. We eat and then stay up working until 4 a.m.” The late hours are not unusual on her campus. “Everyone is always up,” she says of her bustling residence hall. “You can’t even sleep, it’s so busy.”

Students like Kelly are driving the trend toward late-night dining on campuses. Seeing the potential for a “fourth meal,” many colleges and universities are creating distinctive offerings. Some schools offer late-night venues that are part of residence dining. Others are leveraging relationships with brand names to meet the demand. And some do both.

Regardless of whether or not a quick-service restaurant is considering partnering with a school, the trend can provide some useful information for eateries looking to attract the 18–22 demographic in this daypart.

“There are so many aspects to it,” says Bob Griffin, marketing director of Sodexho at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. “[The food] students are looking for late night is an interesting topic to begin with.”

Feeding the Demand

When Kelly entered Temple University she did not hesitate to select the fourth-meal option, which became part of her dining-hall package. “I figured I’d be up late,” she says. The service is offered Sunday through Friday, from 8 p.m. to midnight, at all three dining halls.

Kelly made a wise choice. She lives on Tyler campus, which is a 40-minute shuttle ride from the main downtown campus. “A lot of times you don’t get to eat during the day,” she says of her busy commute.

Without the meal plan, she’d have to visit off-campus restaurants for meals. Not only is that inconvenient for the students, but it’s also dollars lost to the school. “Either students go off campus and stay off campus or they stay on, and obviously, we’d rather have them stay on,” says Linda Nardella, director of dining for College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

That’s the case at schools like Binghamton, located in an area experiencing a growth spurt. A local major roadway, lined with retail, is a shopping and dining Mecca. To combat the competition, the university offers a major advantage for students who stay on campus: They don’t need cash or a credit card to make a transaction.

Students can make purchases at the school’s four Nite Owl Cafés with a student card that automatically deducts transaction amounts from the card’s balance, just like a debit card. And students can add money to the account as often as they want.

The payment system is common on most campuses, and Kelly appreciates the convenience, especially late at night. “It’s nice not to have to carry cash back and forth.”

Late-night options are not just for students living on campus. Foodcourts are logical hangouts for commuter students, who constitute about 65 percent of the student population at the University of California–San Diego in La Jolla. The school is expanding the student center and doubling the number of food-court restaurants to 16. Many will have late-night hours.

“We want to attract commuters to stay here longer,” says Paul Terzino, director of the Price Student Center.

A Market-Driven Approach

When it comes to late-night dining, many schools are bringing venues to the students rather than taking an “if you build it they will come” approach. Consider Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, which has 11 dining options for 1,800 students. Those that perform poorly are closed and replaced with new ones.

In 2004 the school opened a library café, which is open until midnight. “Turns out the library—believe it or not—is a place where they hang out,” says Gene Castelli, regional manager for Chartwells, the school’s foodservice provider. “It’s been very popular with the kids.”

While the library is a logical spot for a study break, it’s not the only one. Crossroads, a pizza-deli pub at Holy Cross, is a favorite for students looking to relax. “You’ll see packs straggle in throughout the evening,” Nardella says.

Many schools decide to reach students where they live. Although Binghamton’s residence communities all have dining halls, the Night Owl Cafés, open from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., five nights a week, are each separate units. Sales have increased about 9 to 12 percent each year, Griffin says.

At Temple, the Louis J. Esposito Dining Center at Johnson and Hardwick Hall, which is undergoing an expansion, has the most late-night options, Kelly says. Ohio Wesleyan University installed a Trattoria Pizza in Welch Hall. Open until midnight, it offers pizzas, subs, and sandwiches for pickup and delivery.

In 2005, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, opened the Harrison Grille in Harrison Hall. The late-night eatery, which is open until 1 a.m., has since become popular with students. Then in 2006 Purdue further expanded its late-night dining options by opening the Cary Knight Spot Grill, located in the university’s largest residence hall.

The name pays tribute to a sculpture of a knight, which has long lived at the residence hall. But it’s also a play on the words “night spot.” By any other name, its sales have been sweet. Between the 2006–2007 academic year and the 2007–2008 academic year, sales increased 40 percent, says Sarah Johnson, director of dining services for university residences.

Late-night options aren’t confined to eateries. At Binghamton’s convenience store, students can select from grilled foods and to-go foods as well as chips and sodas. Ohio Wesleyan’s store, which Castelli calls a “convenience store on steroids,” is open until 1 a.m. The shop, which accounts for up to 25 percent of overall food sales, is ideal for students who want to microwave a frozen snack in their room.

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