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.
Ohio Wesleyan’s convenience store is well stocked with organic products. Other late-night options include vegetarian cuisine, composed salads, humus, and pita products.
That’s not to say students don’t give into cravings. Frozen T.G.I. Friday’s items are big sellers at night, Castelli says. Griffin’s experience at Binghamton has been similar. “I know the national trends are for healthier foods. Late-night daypart—I don’t see it,” he says. “Chicken fingers are huge on this campus.”
They’re equally popular at Holy Cross, where chicken fingers and fries, chicken finger subs, and chicken parmesan subs are top sellers at Crossroads’s kitchen. “They just can’t get enough of them,” Nardella says of the chicken finger subs. At both schools, burgers, fries, and cheesesteaks are also top sellers.
Students also like ice cream as much as they do grilled and fried foods. At Purdue’s Harrison Grille, students love milkshakes made with Edy’s Ice Cream, Johnson says. Although the Cary Knight Spot Grill uses a soft-serve mix, its milkshakes also do well.
Locations that serve Starbucks or similar specialty drinks are especially popular with students. Holy Cross’ late-night venue, Cool Beans, sells smoothies, bagels, muffins, and coffee. The Freshens on the Binghamton campus does such a brisk business that it is doubling in size.
Not surprisingly, most campuses offer pizza—two of the five late-night locations at Binghamton serve pizza. Sales, however, are off. The busiest site sells about 125 to 150 slices a night. “It’s not bad, but it’s not the volume I would have expected,” Griffin says. He credits the fact that other foods are better suited to grab-and-go.
Perhaps that is why pizza rolls are popular. The finger-friendly food stemmed from a student request. “If a community says it’s what they want, nine out of 10 times, we can do it for them,” Griffin says. “If it is not selling, we get rid of it. It’s that simple.”
While price points vary depending on a school’s concept, items like burgers and subs generally run less than $5. At Crossroads, for instance, the average check is $5.46. The Cary Knight Spot Grill sells pizza for $3.97, subs for $4.25, and burgers for $4.25. The ice cream and coffee shops have an average check of $2.50.
Binghamton for a time offered paninis at a slightly higher price point than most sandwiches. “They went well for a short period and then fizzled,” Griffin says.
Timing is Everything
Admittedly a late-night eatery on campus is subject to ebbs and flows. After a big game, the Cary Knight Spot Grill, situated next to the basketball arena, will see a surge of customers. Students will also congregate after an evening exam.
In some schools, the seasons play a part. Restaurants in Binghamton’s foodcourt, including Taco Bell and Freshens, stay open until 11 p.m. in warmer weather. “Otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” Griffin says. Like most quick-serve customers, students keep in the dorms late at night during inclement weather.
On any given night at most schools, the heaviest customer traffic often occurs about 30 minutes before closing, which has prompted Binghamton to consider extending its hours until 3 a.m. Surveys indicate that about half the students are hungry just before the current closing time, Griffin says. Others breeze in because they realize that if they want something, they only have a few minutes to spare.
Holy Cross’s Crossroads, which opens at 8 p.m., also experiences a rush near closing at midnight. The rest of the time, it’s a steady stream. “I’d love to say we’re really, really busy late night, but we’re not that busy,” Nardella says. “We’re busy enough to stay open because we’ve done a cost analysis.”
At the University of California–San Diego’s Price Center, however, an initial attempt at late-night hours was thwarted by a mixed response. Why try again? “We’re doing a whole new approach,” Terzino says. “The building will be open 24 hours a day.”
Attracting an Audience
When the Price Center is complete, it will become part of a new “downtown on campus,” Terzino says. One of the student center’s venues, The Loft, focuses on providing a social setting for entertainment. The restaurant will serve beer and wine.
The Cary Knight Spot Grill hosts a java jam with live music. The Harrison Grille holds an open mic night. Both have banks of flat-screen televisions on the walls. “If they stay more, they buy more,” Johnson says.
Most dining directors agree that it takes a while to develop a following. How do you market late-night dining? “Word of mouth. Word of mouth. Word of mouth,” Griffin says.
He’s found that ads in the campus newspaper and fliers are an unnecessary expense. Instead, he relies on campus ambassadors, who greet new and prospective students, and resident dining directors. The college Web site and even Facebook are good places to broadcast offerings.
Most operators know that brand names attract attention. So when Ohio Wesleyan wanted to add a coffeehouse to its library, there was only one brand to turn to—Starbucks. Starbucks not only offers instant recognition to students outside the area, but it also appeals to the school’s large international population.
Schools are also building name recognition and establishing goodwill by partnering with off-campus quick-serve restaurants. Holy Cross, for instance, has a partnership with Domino’s Pizza, which delivers to the campus until 4 a.m. on weekends. Students can order pizza for delivery and use their college card to pay for it, and Holy Cross gets a percentage of the sale.
Schools might also create partnerships with off-campus quick-serves willing to take students’ college cards. Foodcourt quick-serves on campus typically pay a price per square foot, and the school gets a percentage of the sale. In most cases, students can use their college cards at the quick-serve, but the purchased items are not part of the overall dining package.
These days schools are keeping late-night hours in mind when considering offering new quick-serve restaurants. The lack of viable concepts was one reason late-night hours didn’t fare well the first time at the Price Center, Terzino says.
Schools are getting picky and brands must have a flexible menu. “You have to be willing to make adjustments,” Griffin says. “Sometimes that is hard with a brand concept. Some things are going to go. Some things aren’t. I don’t want to forget the late-night crowd.”