Running a restaurant in a college town is unlike running a restaurant anywhere else. Few folks know that better than Matt Crumpton, CEO of D.P. Dough Franchising, which has placed all 27 of its specialty calzone quick-serve locations in college towns like Athens, Ohio; State College, Pennsylvania; and Ithaca, New York.
Perhaps nothing screams “college town” louder than all the “bring backs” (undeliverable food orders) that take place in college towns coast to coast. More often than not, Crumpton says, it’s for the same reason. “Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s someone who passed out from some form of intoxication before the food got there,” he says.
Welcome to the wacky world of running a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant in a college town—something more operators are exploring as an opportunity to serve a captivated audience. For all the “undelivered” meals that never get accepted by anyone, there are gobs of other college students who are dutifully ordering, eating, and paying for their food 24/7.
Students spend more than $17 billion annually on campus-related dining, which perhaps explains the recent explosion of limited-service restaurants targeting college towns, according to Datassential. “College students know what they want, how they want it, and when they want it,” says Corey Winograd, CEO of better-burger concept BurgerFi, which just opened its first collegiate location at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Increasingly, national chain restaurants like Chick-fil-A are refocusing on college locations even as smaller independent operators are also cracking the books—and opening their doors—at all kinds of campus locations, Datassential reports. The food they offer varies widely, from fruit bowls to vegetarian fare to upscale Mediterranean.
For restaurant owners, managers, vendors, and entrepreneurs thinking about opening in a college town, experts like Crumpton and Winograd say there are 10 key tips to remember.
1. Get used to crazy seasonality. Both D.P. Dough and BurgerFi see big dips in guest traffic at college-town locations during summer and winter breaks. “That’s the No. 1 downside of a college town,” Crumpton says. “Our goal is to break even or sometimes even lose money in the summer.”
2. Immerse yourself in college culture. You’re best off if you learn everything about the local college’s DNA, from which sports team is most popular to what celebrations are unique to the university, Crumpton says.
3. Link to the school’s meal plan. BurgerFi’s Temple University location is inside the student center food court and is directly linked with the student meal plan run by Aramark. That’s been a huge traffic driver, Winograd says.
4. Get techy. College students want online-ordering capabilities, and they want to have a strong voice in that technology, Winograd says. “College students want to have a technological voice,” he says. “They want to be able to post reviews and talk to the brand.”
Not only are digital platforms crucial to success, but social media responsiveness is, as well. Crumpton says D.P. Dough relies heavily on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat to get out its message.
5. Offer an interesting menu. When college students are starting this new chapter in their lives, they are particularly open to changing their habits and trying new restaurants and menu items, Crumpton says. His chain attracts students by selling dozens of varieties of fresh-basked calzones—which themselves are a special twist to the typical pizza.
6. Offer delivery very late. With its delivery service lasting until 3 a.m. most days, D.P. Dough is almost always available whenever students want it. It will also deliver Ben & Jerry’s ice cream pints along with its calzones—a move that has become very popular with students.
7. Know the traffic plan. Many college towns have just one or two main streets, which can result in traffic tie-ups. That’s why it’s key to understand the traffic grid and stay ahead of it for delivery, Crumpton says.
8. Know the local college calendar. You need to be “granular” in your understanding of the details of the college schedule, Crumpton says. “If you’re staffed for a $4,000 day, but it’s President’s Day and all the students have gone home for the weekend, you could be in a mess,” he says.
9. Expect odd tipping habits. Some D.P. Dough delivery drivers are offered unusual tips instead of cash—sometimes of the, shall we say, illegal variety. “We’re very clear that’s not acceptable during work time,” Crumpton says.
10. Understand that flirting sometimes happens. Because it’s a college town—and employees are mostly college workers—there’s bound to be inter-staff relationships, Crumpton says. The key is to draw clear on-the-job limits to those inclinations, he adds. “Young love is cool, just as long as it’s not between managers and non-managers.”
The benefit of all this investment in college towns? The experts say it’s not just dollars and cents. ROI can in fact extend far beyond those college towns and prove to be long-term.
“You have educated consumers from different parts of the country who, upon graduation, will go back to different parts of the country and spread the BurgerfFi gospel,” Winograd says. “That’s extremely appealing to us.”