|UNLOCKED AROUND THE CLOCK. At Florida State University's Park Avenue Diner, an extensive fullservice menu is available 24 hours a day.|
The University of Missouri's 24/7 Mizzou Market offers extensive variety, including made-to-order sandwiches and pizza; pre-packaged, snack, microwavable, refrigerated and frozen foods, and a coffee bar.
AT A CROSSROADS: A 24-hour breakfast menu is a signature component of OklahomaMemorial Union's Crossroads restaurant.
Ike's has been open only 18 months, but it has proven so popular with Geroge Mason students— they are lined up outside each day for the 9 p.m. opening—that the university is considering a similar facility for the other end of campus.
7th STREET ALL NIGHTERS . Students at Bucknell University relax in their first allnight campus foodservice venue.
Booths At Bucknell
No one has to tell campus dining services directors that their student customers are on a different meal schedule than the rest of the world. Students typically eat their first meal of the day when the average adult already is well into his or her work day. And the rest of us are probably several hours into a good night's sleep when college students sit down to dinner.
Most campus operators already have responded to their students' rotated internal clocks by extending breakfast hours so they bump up against lunch and by expanding late-night dining options. Even when core residential dining facilities close at 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. each evening, it's easy to find c-store and fast-food facilities open past 10 p.m. on many college campuses.
But some colleges and universities have responded to nightowl student habits with a giant leap forward—offering dining options 24/7 or throughout the night. And we're not just talking pizza and burgers here. One size does not fit all, however. Campus directors customize their offerings to deliver more of what their own students really want and will use at a cost dining services can afford to pay.
That means, when it comes to all-night dining, some colleges and universities offer limited menus, some offer all-night service only on weekends, and some define all-night service as ending at 4 a.m.
University of Missouri-Columbia:
A C-Store with a To-Order Food Concession
Students at the University of Missouri-Columbia can get made-to-order Subway sandwiches and Noble Roman's pizza round the clock at full-service stations located within Mizzou Market-Hitt Street, a c-store measuring out at more than 3,000 square feet.
Introduced nearly 13 years ago as the first campus food facility open past 1 a.m., the operation has been popular with students since its opening. Nearly 70 percent of the business comes from off-campus students, according to Robert Curry, manager of convenience stores and snack bars, so it appears to fill a special, untapped niche for students who are not on residence hall meal plans.
"At a 24-hour operation, there is no time frame that has no traffic," says Curry, "although it does slow to 15 to 20 customers an hour between 4 and 7 a.m."
Labor costs have not been a problem. "There is prep work that can be done late at night that would normally have to be done during the day. Additionally, there are costs involved in shutting down that we no longer have."
Curry says the same 24/7 schedule is currently-being considered for a new c-store that is under construction on the university campus.
When asked the biggest surprise of operating 24/7, Curry replies: "I think the biggest surprise for me is that the top seller at 4 a.m. is hair coloring. I guess it has to do with folks not wanting anyone to know they color their hair."
University of Oklahoma:
If the Union is Open, Why Not Food?
At the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, its 24/7 facility, Crossroads, located in the Oklahoma Memorial Union, was open for 94 straight days without closing between the start of the school year and Thanksgiving break. It began life as a round-the-clock venue five years ago, when the Oklahoma Memorial Union went through a major renovation.
"The feeling was since the union was to be open 24/7, we wanted to have at least one food service operation open all the time," says David L. Annis, Oklahoma's executive director of food services and special assistant to the vice president for student affairs.
Crossroads grosses approximately $6,000 a day selling made-to-order sandwiches, upscale burgers, an assortment of pastries and a very popular 24-hour breakfast menu.
Initially, Annis admits the food service department was concerned "about the lack of foot traffic at 3 a.m. and how we would cover our labor costs at that hour but that has not been a problem. The slowest point of the day is between 4 and 7 a.m. when we average $100 an hour. We are very busy at exam time, often having a $400 hour at 3 a.m."
The menu is the same all day and has remained pretty stable since Crossroads' opening. At the beginning, "We did add items because the students requested them —things like chicken wings, poppers, onion rings and other snack foods. We also expanded our breakfast menu to 24 hours because the students wanted omelets and Belgian waffles at night.
"Student response has been great," says Annis, and word-of-mouth has been the only promotion needed.
"We allow our students to use their meal plans at all food operations on campus so we do get a lot of students from the residence halls after our other operations close at midnight. They like being able to get hot, fresh, made-to-order food any time they want. No pre-mades or microwaves."
George Mason University:
They Like Ike's
At George Mason University, in Fairfax, VA, students can relive their Cinderella trip to the March Madness national basketball tournament over traditional diner menu selections at Ike's from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays to 11 a.m. the next morning.
Opened in March 2005 as an extension of Eisenhower Hall, in the heart of the university's housing complex, Ike's has served as many as 1,600 customers in one night from a Denny's-style diner menu. It is a retail operation but at least 90 percent of sales are meal plan equivalency and declining balance meal plan dollars.
"Self-service was out of the question," says Michael Galvin, director of marketing and community affairs for George Mason Dining Services, a Sodexho account. "Our students wanted high-quality, fresh-cooked food from friendly, white-suited chefs and servers, and the pace at which we serve means everything is served immediately after cooking. Nothing is prepackaged except cold cereals. At the peak of the shift, usually around midnight, there may be 10 persons cooking and serving at a 20-foot wrap-around counter, with up to 75 customers served in a 15-minute period.
"Our biggest challenge was storage and cooking surfaces. Ike's was built to serve about 300 customers in a shift and, from day one, we were serving between 1,400 and 1,600," says Galvin. A truck started making shuttle runs to and from a larger facility for fried and other frozen foods about four hours into the shift. Storage and cooking-space has recently been expanded.
"The students are crazy about Ike's," says Galvin. "It's the place to meet and the place to eat. Ike's has built profound and enduring customer satisfaction and loyalty and integrated gracefully into our resident dining program. With the great number of equivalency dollars spent there, Ike's really is an additional service to the growing residential program. As our resident population approaches 25 percent of our total enrollment, we envision a similar facility on the other side of campus, in an area currently under development."
New Life for Old Space
At Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, customers at the 7th Street Cafè can choose from among four sandwiches and four to five salads and pair them with biscotti from the campus bakeshop and a made-to-order latte or cappuccino any hour of the day and night.
The 7th Street Cafè was an already popular-and established foodservice venue when it became the university's first all-night option last fall. Adding to its appeal and success as a 24/7 operation is the fact that "it is a small, homey, manageable space with old wooden booths, a wood counter, and hardwood floors," says Rick Slear, retail general manager, Bucknell Dining Services, which is contracted to Parkhurst Dining Services.
The idea for a 24-hour facility grew out of Bucknell's new President Brian C. Mitchell's expressed desire for a campus location where students could go at any hour. The 24-hour schedule was also encouraged by the success the college has had with a coffee shop in the library that stays open to 1 a.m. and goes onto a 24/7 schedule during finals week.
The menu is simple and basic: lots of teas, Starbucks coffees, lattes, cappuccinos, cold specialty ice cream and fruit drinks, juices, fruit, coffee shakes and on-the-go sandwiches and salads. There are admittedly quiet periods with the new schedule. There are even times when there is almost no customer traffic.
"Around 4 in the morning is a tough time and 3 to 6 a.m. is slow so we staff it with one person who can take care of customers and also stock for the next day," says Slear.
"We will continue to monitor traffic, but I think the general feeling is that it is a good idea, a smart idea, to have something open for students 24 hours a day."
Setting the Bar High
At the Park Avenue Diner (PAD), at Florida State University (FSU), in Tallahassee, wait staff won't check their watches no matter when you walk in.
You can order a tomahawk breakfast skillet of two eggs scrambled with ham, bacon, sausage, onion, green peppers and cheddar cheese served on a bed of hash browns at 8 p.m. You can order a green chili burger or fried shrimp platter at 8 a.m. and no one will bat an eye. The service is truly roundthe-clock, the extensive menu is available for all day parts, and the food is prepared to order.
"They don't get up early but they do stay up late," says Randy Clay, resident district manager for Aramark at FSU. Clay admits not even his years of experience throughout the industry and the country prepared him for the success of PAD, a 95-seat, full-service diner that serves 5,500 customers in a typical week and — believe this! — sees its heaviest traffic between 2 and 5 a.m.
PAD, which opened in July 2004, was a pet project of Patrick Sullivan, a student government president, who proposed a 24/7 operation three years ago. Clay's initial reaction was that "I've always said I would try something before deciding it wouldn't work. But I was certain this would hold up till about 3 a.m. and die after that."
Many concepts — sports bar, waffle house — were kicked around the allnight proposal "but we kept coming back to the idea of a diner," says Clay. "The menu is simple and straightforward — like a '50s diner. The jukebox plays '50s music. The Park Avenue Diner name capitalizes on both its Park Avenue location to give it an urban feel and the idea of a hometown diner for the atmosphere. It's a throwback to Joanie and Chachi [from the 'Happy Days' television series]."
The diner is a resounding success. "When it is running full tilt, the place really jumps," says Clay. Part of the reason is the diner's location in the heart of the campus, with a new campus bus route through the area. But Clay says a bigger reason is the friendly atmosphere and ambience that complement both the campus personality and university efforts to build a sense of community on the sprawling campus.
The only "dead time" at PAD is from 6 to 7:30 a.m. but "we need that time to get ready for the morning breakfast customers," says Clay. The design is such that seating areas can be closed off at slow times, when it is staffed with one cook and two wait staff.
Will They Use It? Can You Afford It?
In many locations, the pay-off for 24-hour campus dining services may be in the goodwill, public relations and customer service value more than the revenue generation. It's more a matter of "Look what we are willing to do for our students," than "We're open at 4 a.m. because there are so many students who are up early and want to eat pancakes."
"The real need for 24-hour service is the exception rather than the rule," says H. David Porter, FCSI, C.E.O. of Porter Consulting, a Crofton, Maryland-based food service consultant. "At some point, you do have to face the questions: Is there a demand and is it financially viable?"
Porter's test: If students are not actively calling for delivery or going off campus between 3 and 6 a.m. currently and some local entrepreneur hasn't opened to meet the need during that time period, there probably is not much real demand.
In an interview with FM, Porter said he believes that "'build it and they will come' is usually a flawed business philosophy. I truly believe that what people do is a better indication of what they will do than what they say they will do."
When Porter talks to college and university administrators in his consulting work on their campus food service operations, he finds that often "they are of the mind that students probably want 24/7 service, especially in dining services." But when Porter talks to their students, he often gets a different read.
If there is a proposal for a new food venue on campus, "We first ask where they go now, when do they go and how much do they typically spend," he says. " Who do they call for food delivery and when? We are looking for indications of their food preferences and buying patterns."
The student research generally pinpoints the peak for late-night dining between 10 and 11 p.m. or 11 and midnight.
"We also use our own observations. If there are off-campus locations open between midnight and 6 a.m., we go there during those hours to see whether they are busy and what they are selling."
In assessing late-night and all-night options, Porter says he sees potential in many locations for campus residential dining services to keep a unit open until 2 or 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights as an alternative to off-campus options for midnight breakfast and as a social experience for students. As an example, he cites the very successful free midnight breakfast program at West Virginia University, which serves as many as 6,000 students midnight breakfast every Friday and Saturday night between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Any student presenting a student ID gets breakfast.
If a university with a significant residential student population wants to experiment with a limited, round-the-clock program, Porter says a good starting schedule to test a unit would be from 7 a.m. Friday morning until regular closing time Sunday with all-you-care-to-eat, Anytime Dining.
Porter has coined the phrase "Anytime Dining" to describe such strategies and defined it as the combination of continuous service (breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night) with the all-youcareto-eat method of service with extended hours and unlimited-access meal plans.
In assessing future trends in campus dining services, Porter predicts more interest in 24-hour, Anytime Dining for universities looking to significantly enhance their residential dining programs, housing value and to help ensure the financial health of their dining departments.
"More universities are looking for very meaningful freshman experiences so students will socially connect and voluntarily stay on the meal plans longer," says Porter. "Anytime Dining enhances the value of living on campus."
Not Quite All-Night
Williams College, in Williamstown, MA, closes its Snack Bar at 3 a.m. and UCLA shuts down its "Dining Boutiques" at 2 a.m. but both schools are old timers on the late-night dining scene.
The Snack Bar, at Williams, which is open from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m. seven days a week, has been around for at least 20 years.
"We introduced our program out of a need by students who could not get to a dining hall for dinner because of sports, extracurricular activities, etc.," says Mark Petrino, associate director, Williams Dining Services. "The hours just started creeping later and later as the landscape of our students changed."
The Snack Bar serves the basics: burgers, fries, sandwiches, ice cream and smoothies.
"We are always changing our menu by introducing specials on a daily basis," says Petrino. The specials that are popular are added to the standard menu and others that have fallen off in popularity are moved off the menu. "Our most popular new item is gelato, which we make fresh every day."
Labor intensity is a critical factor in selecting menu items at the Snack Bar."We try not to burden our staff with labor-intensive foods since the staff not only cooks but also cashiers and cleans," says Petrino.
The response from the students to the Snack Bar "has always been fabulous," says Petrino. Currently, the Snack Bar is being relocated to a new student center under construction and Petrino says Williams alumni donated "a substantial amount of money" to rebuild the Snack Bar, on the condition that it be rebuilt "exactly the way they remember it, down to the furniture and pictures on the wall."
"We are very surprised at how many students are up at 3 a.m. and socializing like it is the middle of the day," admits Petrino, "but if that is their schedule, we feel it is our obligation to provide them with a central spot on campus where they can talk and eat."
UCLA began its "All Night Dining" program in 1997 when it redesigned its campus restaurants. Until then, no late dining was offered.
Under the program, foodservice is offered seven days a week from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. in select on-campus locations known as "dining boutiques." The boutiques are based on individual branded cuisine prototypes in which food is prepared in small batches and the menu is designed around different food types and cooking equipment and styles, according to Charles Wilcots, assistant director, UCLA Dining Services. The boutiques offer global, regional and fusion dishes with Mediterranean, Southwestern and Asian influences.
"Students choose a particular destination dining location based on its unique menu and serving style," says Wilcots. "Using different menus in different locations increases the variety of foods Dining Services is able to offer students. Fast foods like burgers, pizza and buffalo wings still top the list of students' favorite comfort foods, according to Wilcots, but the menus at the dining boutiques "also offer options for more healthful and more interesting eating."
"More and more students are taking advantage of late-night dining options," says Wilcots, "and eventually we anticipate 24-hour dining options as our on-campus population changes." But, so far, the 2 a.m. closing seems to be accommodating student needs.