College and University Foodservice Innovators: Drexel University

Veggie Café, C-Store/Noodle Bar Add Fresh, On-Trend Options

Drexel-MarketThe noodle bar’s efficient setup features rice cookers and hot and cold drop-in food wells. Customers can order noodle and rice bowls and soup. The concept also includes a coffee and tea bar and sushi prepared fresh to order.When Philadelphia-based Drexel University began transitioning from a commuter campus to a residential one some 15 years ago, it might have geared up for significant residential dining development. While it does in fact offer an all-you-care-to-eat operation in one of its nine residence halls (and a second is in development), Drexel put much of its focus on providing an eclectic, on-trend array of retail foodservice options.

It's a strategy that Rita LaRue, senior associate vice president of Drexel Business Services, says meets students' most pressing need today: convenience. "A lot of people in the industry talk about how campus dining is moving from residential to retail, but we're already there," she says. "We've been investing in retail for many years as a way to provide greater convenience."

Drexel's newest retail operations hit both the trend and convenience hot buttons. Vegetate, a vegetarian café, opened last fall, and Market 16 & Noodle Bar, a c-store/foodservice hybrid, debuted in late 2012. Both, which were developed in collaboration with the school's contract foodservice partner Sodexo, add fresh new flavors to the modern urban university campus.

Refreshed Venue Goes Meat-Free

While vegan and vegetarian menu options are available in all Drexel Dining venues, Vegetate is the university's first meat-free concept. Opened last October in the Creese Student Center, it replaced an existing venue that was slated for a refresh as part of Drexel's new partnership with American Campus Communities (ACC), a private student housing developer.

"They were putting up a complex with 869 resident beds and several retail outlets in Chestnut Square, literally surrounding our student center," LaRue says. "I knew we'd have to refresh the Creese café in some way when I learned of the partnership. They ended up putting in a frozen yogurt concept, a Shake Shack, an Italian wine bar and wood-fired pizza concept and a Japanese small-plates concept. When I looked at my dining portfolio and listened to what our students were saying they want, we came up with the dedicated vegetarian/vegan concept. It is important to students to have a place where they don't have to worry about cross-contamination with nonvegetarian items. This is an especially big concern for students who are vegetarian by religious preference."

As part of the refresh of the old venue, LaRue and her team led a redesign that would close off an internal entrance into the student center. Doing so was part of a plan to develop the concept as a stand-alone brand distinct from Drexel Dining, but one that just happens to accept dining plan dollars.

The space measures roughly 1,000 square feet and provides seating for 22. It opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m., with lunch being its busiest daypart.

Popular menu items range from the vegan tempeh potato fritter and the egg white sandwich with roasted pepper and pesto, to a variety of salads, fresh and grilled vegetable wraps, and marinated tofu sandwiches. Hearty entrées such as vegetable lasagna and quinoa primavera are also on the menu. Two vegan soups are available daily, and the same applies to a variety of freshly baked pastries and sweets, including signature vegan sweet potato cupcakes.

LaRue says the menu continues to be tweaked. Breakfast, for example, was recently enhanced with the addition of smoothies, and the team is working to develop other, more unique breakfast items as well.

Another new addition: vegetarian sushi. "We thought that the ACC's Japanese place would do sushi, so we stayed away from it initially," she says. "But they didn't, so it's a great opportunity for us to offer it."

Service is counter-style with menu items displayed in a six-foot refrigerated glass case. The 25-foot counter area also includes a bakery display case and condiment bar stocked with pickles, peppers, traditional favorites and specialty sauces.

Refrigerated reach-in merchandisers on an adjacent wall provide easy access to bottled beverages and menu items packaged for grab-and-go service.

Given limitations on space for on-site prep, many of Vegetate's menu items are prepared in Drexel's main kitchen at the Handschumacher Dining Center. Items served hot are then simply finished to order in high-speed ovens positioned along the wall behind the counter.

C-Store Meets Noodle Bar

Another recent addition to Drexel's retail portfolio is Market 16 & Noodle Bar. A NACUFS 2013 "Best in the Business" Campus C-Store Award winner, this hybrid retail/foodservice operation came together quickly to take advantage of available prime real estate in what used to be the facilities management offices.

It's located in the heart of Philadelphia's University City neighborhood, where, in addition to Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia have a presence, as do several medical institutes, offices and research firms. Occupying a 4,000-square-foot site on the first floor of the Drexel parking garage, it takes advantage of a thriving street corner that includes heavy pedestrian traffic and access to public transportation just around the corner.

"We wanted to do a c-store, but the space was really too large for just that," LaRue says. "So I pulled from my back pocket a noodle bar concept that I'd been playing with. We have a large and growing international student population, so I wanted a place where people could go in and have a variety of fresh, authentic ingredients to choose from to create noodle bowls and rice bowls or soup."

The noodle bar's simple and efficient setup features rice cookers and hot and cold drop-in food wells. A back prep kitchen provides space for storage, vegetable prep and cooking of protein items. The concept also includes a coffee and tea bar and sushi prepared fresh to order. Customers access each of these via a dedicated foodservice line across the back wall of the large, rectangular space — noodle bar on the left, coffees and teas in the center, and sushi station on the right.

Customers can place orders verbally or via electronic kiosks. "This is the first campus location to incorporate kiosks, and it fits very well here — particularly during high-traffic times," LaRue says.

Those who want to stay and eat and enjoy a cup of tea can do that as well. The operation has seating for up to 50.

Snapshot

  • No. of students: 25,000
  • Operation: Sodexo Campus Dining
  • Meal plan participants: More than 13,700 plans purchased yearly
  • Dining locations: 1 residential dining hall, 10 retail locations
  • Annual revenues: $27 million
  • Annual purchases: $6.3 million
  • Total employees: 266, including 248 full-time, 18 management

 

Key Players

  • Jim Tucker, senior vice president, student life and administrative services
  • Rita LaRue, senior associate vice president, Drexel Business Services
  • Jackie Gemenden, director, retail management
  • Paula King, executive director, Drexel student centers
  • Sodexo Campus Dining Architect (Market 16 & Noodle Bar, Vegetate): Charles Matsinger
  • Associates Project Management/ Consulting (Market 16 & Noodle Bar): BH Axis Inc.
  • Equipment: Performance Interiors

 

 

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