Can onsite dining benefit from the dramatic increases in enrollment occurring at community colleges nationwide?
As a slumping economy drives growing numbers of students to lower-priced alternatives in higher education, community colleges represent a potential growth niche in an otherwise challenging foodservice business environment. Enrollment at the nation's 1,200 two-year community colleges is estimated to be up 10 percent this year.
A lot of this is due to the segment's traditional “older students” looking to make themselves more marketable. Also swelling the enrollment ranks are recent high school graduates and “reverse transfers” from four-year programs looking to earn inexpensive transfer credits without breaking the bank.
For onsite dining operators, the increased numbers represent opportunity even though the factors that traditionally make this a difficult market — no residential dining to provide bedrock revenues, cash-strapped commuter students who move on and off campus quickly — are still present.
Nevertheless, the sheer volume is an enticement, and if approached right can yield incremental business growth. That's what Lackmann Culinary Services, a Long Island based contract management company, has found, says Lackmann President Peter Alessio. He notes that it's a niche several contract management firms are pursuing as everyone looks for pockets of opportunity.
Lackmann is leveraging its experience with four-year commuter schools to target the community college market. “The business is like pizza dough,” Alessio laughs. “You really have to work it.”
The key, he says, is accommodating students' hectic schedules and lifestyles. “It's not too dissimilar from residential, but you've got to offer a lot more convenience and grab-and-go, and you're generally successful if you can put a branded concept in to anchor your program. You have site location s carefully to catch customers in the right traffic flow. Sometimes you have to bring the food to them with kiosks and carts.”
“Community colleges are becoming a lot more progressive in foodservice,” agrees Zia Ahmed, director of dining services at the University of Akron, whose department manages foodservices at Lorain County (OH) Community College outside Cleveland. “They're approaching the level of four year schools in that respect.”
Those similarities include getting the right brand mix, he adds. “For some concepts, you need a recognizable national brand. For others, a solid in-house brand will work.”
The community college dining operator also has to be aware of national branded concepts in the immediate area and tailor the in-house mix of brands to offer an attractive alternative, he adds.
“Students are a lot more price sensitive these days,” he notes. “They know the deals available in commercial restaurants and expect the same on campus.” He cites Subway's $5 sandwich deal as a prominent example.
U. of Akron Dining and LCCC are confident enough that extra revenues can be had that they are proceeding with plans to open a new marketplace style food court in the renovated College Center complex this fall.
“LCCC has been very aggressive,” Ahmed says. “They saw what we did in building up dining on our campus in Akron and would like us to do the same thing here.”