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R&IEditorial Archives2005May 15 — Business

Triple Play
Three Chicago universities discover the benefits of a shared housing/dining facility.

The University Center of Chicago houses 1,699 students and includes a year-round conference center and 30,000 square feet of ground-level commercial retail space.

There were no models to follow in creating the University Center of Chicago (UCC) because nothing like it—either in size or ambition—had been tried before.

Not quite a year old, the country’s largest, multicollege residence hall is still learning how to make its plan work. Housing 1,720 students from three universities whose administrations work together to manage meal plans and contend with two competing foodservice contractors, its success may serve as a benchmark for future urban-university housing solutions.

“We think of it as a laboratory,” says Janice Johnson, executive director of U.S. Equities Student Housing, a division of Chicago-based U.S. Equities Realty, the center’s property-management firm. “We’re always learning.”

Bill Reich, a 12-year veteran of campus foodservice, compares his role to running a hotel. “We’re 24/7,” says the director of University Center of Chicago Food Service, managed by Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.

Critical Mass
UCC anchors a major corner in the burgeoning South Loop area of downtown Chicago. It slips into a landscape of department stores, hulking commercial complexes and academic institutions. More than 52,400 students attend 21 schools at 41 locations downtown, making the 26-block area the “biggest college town” in the nation, according to the Greater State Street Council and Central Michigan Avenue Association.

Opened in August 2004, the 18-story UCC, shared by DePaul University, Columbia College and Roosevelt University, took two years and $151 million to build. The facility includes 15,000 square feet of meeting and conference rooms, available to the community; a fitness center; music practice rooms; and student suites and apartments. Educational Advancement Fund Inc. owns and operates UCC as a nonprofit venture of the three schools.

UCC is the first Loop-based residence for 683 DePaul students. Most of the school’s 23,570 students live on its main campus several miles north. Roosevelt’s 7,200 enrollment is split between the Loop and a suburban campus; the school houses 316 in UCC. Most of Columbia’s 9,803 students commute though the college now houses 700 students in UCC. In terms of population spread at UCC, students from Roosevelt represent 20% while DePaul University and Columbia College each claim 40%. Residents live on floors 3 through 18 of the E-shaped building.

Inside Story
UCC’s second-floor cafeteria looks similar to any bustling campus dining hall. The 30,000-square-foot facility provides seating for 350 and offers a breadth of food options, from action stations with pizza from wood-burning ovens and chefs plating daily specials to a salad bar where students heap greens as they juggle espressos and cellphones.

The center’s 30,000-square-foot dining facility seats up to 350 and features action stations, wood-burning pizza oven, salad and dessert bars, and espresso/bakery counter.

Students live in furnished apartments with kitchens and suites with access to communal kitchens. The center includes fitness center, lounges and music practice rooms.

Against a backdrop of citrus colors and refrigerator cases of grab-and-go foods are racks of nonperishable items—from cleanser and pizza mix to packs of soda and snacks.

Dining at UCC is for residents only; others are welcome if invited by tenants or employees. Students who live in apartments with kitchens can opt to participate in a meal plan; participation is mandatory for those living in suites.

There are countless foodservice options in downtown Chicago but cost-conscious students tend to stick to meal plans. UCC’s Aramark-run facility is one, but DePaul also has a 400-seat cafeteria in its nearby DePaul Center, managed by the Chartwells division of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, The Americas. It’s not uncommon for UCC’s DePaul residents to participate in both the UCC meal plan and the Chartwells operation, says Jim Winn, resident district manager for Chartwells. Columbia College has a small self-operated foodservice outlet in a separate Loop residence hall, and Roosevelt students also can use Columbia’s Herman Crown Center, a residence with cafeteria managed by Aramark.

Aramark and Chartwells have a professional relationship, tinged with what Robert Janis, DePaul’s vice president for facility operations, describes as marketplace competition. But dollars spent at UCC and Herman Crown go to Aramark while purchases at DePaul Center profit Chartwells. When asked for sales figures, check averages or participation numbers for dining at UCC, DePaul’s Loop outlets and the Herman Crown Center, both contractors declined.

Traffic Patterns
Differing academic calendars—Roosevelt and Columbia are on semesters, DePaul on quarters—pose operational challenges for the University Center. When Roosevelt breaks for summer vacation, Columbia students are into finals, then exit in droves weeks later. The ebb and flow impacts foodservice sales.

“When most schools shut for spring break, they close a facility. We can’t,” says Reich. “UCC has to anticipate where to cut expenses without shutting down. I make decisions daily on when to reduce food production or how to staff based on demand.”

City Temptations

The best meal plan for an urban campus is a flexible one, says Robert Bronstein, president of The Scion Group, Chicago, a real estate firm that specializes in urban student housing.

“Plans with flex dollars that can be spent in the community benefit schools. You get a small percentage of sales back,” he says. The popularity of in-room kitchens is an opportunity for foodservice to sell groceries. Howard University in Washington, D.C., created satellite food shops for students in neighborhoods where there were no retail outlets.

Reich operates seven days a week with 30 full-time and 15 part-time employees. Serving hours are from 7:30 a.m. to midnight. Current meal participation runs in the high 80%, with sales from meal-plan subscribers accounting for 15% of total revenue. Dinner sees the highest activity, with 850 to 1,000 transactions daily; lunch rings up 600 customers and breakfast around 400. Late service on weekends includes pizza, pasta and burgers until midnight.

Students are billed by their respective schools and sign contracts for the academic year or on annual basis. Students who cook in rooms are no threat to foodservice or socialization, says Johnson. Lounges and dining halls have become social hubs. “They have time to linger because, living in one building, there is no need to rush across campus to meet someone for coffee.”

Data In, Menus Out
A state-of-the-art computer system handles the complexities of separate billing for the individual schools. Each institution inputs usage figures into U.S. Equities’ database, which Reich accesses to update meal-plan information, policy changes and participation for each school. He uses data to anticipate and manage student arrivals and move-outs, modifying meal plans and purchases as needed. Additionally, Reich retools food-related events based on UCC’s social calendar. These have included ethnic-day menus and a baseball park-inspired nosh before a trip for 300 to a Chicago Cubs game.

Reich says his previous experiences in campus foodservice have little in common with his challenges at UCC, so he has had to learn on the fly. When the center opened, it offered too much customization at action stations, which slowed traffic, and was short on grab-and-go items, vegetarian and vegan dishes, carryout and groceries. Reich responded with greater choices in sandwich meats, cheeses, convenience products and dairy. He aims to increase grocery and nonperishable choices and make more foods such as chopped raw onions available for students who cook, sold at salad-bar prices.

The lessons for the three schools, U.S. Equities Student Housing and Aramark continue, Reich and Johnson agree. One area to be studied is greater flexibility in meal plans and reciprocity for nonresidents. “Students want more options and convenience,” says Chartwells’ Winn.

Sales Seer
University Center of Chicago (UCC) is a marketing dream, according to Michael Crabb, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based consultant. “There’s plenty of opportunity to connect with retailers downtown,” he says.

Crabb was hired to consult on UCC when it was still a dream on paper. “The Center can build relationships with retailers with discounts and coupons for parents and students,” he says. “What retailer wouldn’t want extra sales from gifts and merchandise?”

The building’s tight security also makes it ripe for room-service delivery from the on-site kitchen. “The challenge for Aramark or any foodservice provider is to keep meal plans flexible, menus lively and to pay attention to what students buy outside,” Crabb says. “If it’s groceries or pizza, sell it on campus. Keep the money inside.”

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