Magazine article University Business

Food Franchise 101: Getting Down to Basics with National Franchises

Magazine article University Business

Food Franchise 101: Getting Down to Basics with National Franchises

Article excerpt

After years of working with multiple food service vendors and local restaurants, administrators at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh decided in January 2016 to bring fast-casual bakery chain Au Bon Pain to campus. The school's first experience with a national restaurant franchise, it was a 12-month process from the brainstorming phase to opening the doors to hungry students.

"The success of this dining franchise has been beyond what we--meaning the university and Au Bon Pain--ever expected," says Pascal Petter, the university's director of dining services. "We may have even underestimated the popularity."

Such on-campus partnerships between colleges and quick-serve restaurant franchises are natural--schools have hundreds of hungry students with busy schedules and shallow pockets while national franchises sell quick, familiar and reasonably priced food.

Although many institutions feature on-campus satellite locations of local eateries, national brands can be an appealing financial choice for the institution.

"Usually the reason the bigger franchise systems have grown that big is because they have streamlined their buildout and operations," says Nicole Duncan, associate editor of Food News Media and QSR magazine, which follows restaurant industry trends. "They're used to being in smaller spaces, such as what a campus offers, so it's easier for them to come in, versus a local franchise or an independent restaurant that has only a few locations."

Restaurant franchises can make good college and university partners: the idea is that they're expected to have seasoned teams to handle installation and business management, and can anticipate concerns that may arise, from food production necessities to customer flow.

But there is a menu of issues to consider before adding a national brand to campus.

Making a match

Finding an effective dining concept for campus can be a challenge, as tastes vary. "Currently there's a shift toward healthier options, so some of these franchises that have an emphasis on healthy, wholesome food are being seen more in universities," says Duncan. For example, wraps, salads and bowls are gaining popularity over burgers.

Students also lean more toward fast-casual, where the experience is more upscale than traditional fast food. Orders are still placed at a counter, but the quality of the meals and service is higher.

Administrators must consider if existing buffet-style student dining would present significant competition to a franchise. For example: If a student can get pizza in the dining hall as part of the meal plan, why would they spend extra to get it from somewhere else? A franchise's menu offerings, price points and convenience all factor in the determination.

And when it comes to actual vetting, it can take months before all analysis and discussion is complete. At Carnegie Mellon, the process to bring in dining partners was overseen by the university dining services team and started with input from students via town hall-style meetings, discussions with campus organizations and even one-on-one interviews. Administrators drafted a request for proposal based on the feedback and shared it with on-campus vendors and local restaurant entrepreneurs. Following that, the opportunity was officially put out to bid to national contract companies and brands. Finally, after several on-campus presentations to students, faculty and staff, dining services selected Au Bon Pain. The entire process took six months, Petter says.

Other institutions may delegate the entire endeavor to a food-services provider. Pedestal Foods, an on-site dining services company and food-service partner with Lindenwood University for 15 years, was tasked with managing the partnership process when the school added three national restaurants--Chick-fil-A, Qdoba and Caribou Coffee--to its 500-acre campus near St. Louis this school year. …

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