As with many nontraditional settings, college campuses have a lot of built-in advantages. There’s a captive audience of busy, hungry students with disposable income. But getting a quick-service brand into the college environment isn’t a sure thing. Competition is stiff, and college students are more discriminating than ever.

Students no longer look to food as just fuel; they make conscious decisions about each meal, says Sheryl Fox, senior director of development in nontraditional venues for Le Duff Brands. They’re health conscious, care about sourcing and sustainability, and represent a new generation of foodies who grew up watching the Food Network and snapping pictures of meals with smartphones.

“The students today are urban, hip, cool students,” Fox says. “And they’re food sophisticates. You have to be able to provide something that meets their needs.” Fox worked with Yum! Brands for 12 years developing nontraditional units and now does the same at Le Duff—which owns Bruegger’s Bagels and la Madeleine, among others—working to build upon its 45 or so nontraditional stores.

The college space has some eccentricities, but operations generally mirror those of other nontraditional settings, she says. Compressed construction of new stores typically occurs while students are on a break, and some units offer limited menus, depending on space. The labor force is also more transient than usual, as students come and go, making strong manager training a necessity. But those are small issues in what Fox sees as the limitless opportunities in the college foodservice world.

The bottom line is that students are demanding what’s on trend, Fox says. And colleges are listening.

“It goes back to ensuring your brand is relevant,” she says. “Putting something in a smaller nontraditional venue only works when there already is demand for your brand.” By giving students the chance to experiment with new brands, colleges offer a unique opportunity to cultivate new loyal customers.

“All they do is go to school and eat, basically. Their disposable income is high,” says Steven Johnson, a “grocerant guru” with consulting firm Foodservice Solutions. “It’s a prime target. And they’re going to be the trendsetters and leaders going forward. Brands really need to attract them.”

But college towns are increasingly competitive markets. Convenience and grocery stores are making big inroads with fresh, ready-to-eat foods. And new apps aggregate all restaurant options, even highlight the ones that will deliver. Those dynamics are changing things for operators on and off campus. Students are no longer as captive an audience as they used to be.

“The choices for students are in the palm of their hand,” Johnson says. “Instead of one block, two blocks, or five blocks away, all your options are in your hand.”

Which Wich sees the college campus as a perfect fit for its brand. The 400-unit sandwich chain has six on-campus locations, with another seven under development. Jeff Vickers, senior vice president of development, says the brand’s edgy image, premium ingredients, and customizable offerings make it a perfect option for busy, yet sophisticated, students.

“They do extremely well,” he says of college stores. “We’re very happy with their performance. For us, we are able to capture an audience that actually grew up with the brand. Once they go through their four years of education, they graduate and they’re able to take the brand home with them.”

While its roots are in the college space, the 100-unit Wing Zone just opened its first college campus location this fall with a store near the dorms at Georgia Tech. The on-campus restaurant is open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily, hours that differ from the regular stores that cater to the lunch and dinner crowd. But by focusing on the dinner and late-night crowd, Wing Zone avoids conflicts with class schedules for student employees. And the location isn’t competing directly with other on-campus dining options.

“We’re not going to take away from their food-court sales,” says Wing Zone CEO Matt Friedman, “because when they’re at peak volume, we’re not even open.”

Friedman and partner Adam Scott started Wing Zone in 1991 at their University of Florida fraternity house and are just now getting back to the college space. The brand has two distinct advantages on campus: It’s able to accept the university dining card, allowing students to seamlessly pay for their food, and with its branded electric golf carts, Wing Zone can offer a unique delivery option, both in transportation and menu offerings.

Wing Zone’s first college store occupies a former classroom space and gives a percentage of all sales to the university, which means it doesn’t lose out over holiday breaks or other slow times.

The Georgia Tech location will operate about 32 weeks a year, closing for academic breaks and summer. But already sales are about 25 percent higher than at regular stores. With those kinds of sales, Friedman says, the company expects many more on-campus locations to come.

“It is a major process,” he says. “I would say that if someone’s looking to get into a university setting, … budget 18–24 months from the time you pursue it to the time your first unit opens.”

Consumer Trends, Operations, Story, Bruegger's, Which Wich, Wing Zone