When a York University café faced imminent closure, it turned to a specialist foodservice retail provider to create a food-to-go concept that could draw students back from the high street and boost profits. FEJ finds out from the man responsible for specifying the set-up how it has transformed the site’s fortunes.
Lawrie Smith, commercial services manager at York University Students’ Union, boasts an impressive track record when it comes to taking over the university’s surplus food and beverage outlets. But even so, the launch of Café Barista, which is the latest site he has taken on, potentially looks as though it could be his most successful to date.
As commercial service manager, Smith has three main objectives: to deliver key services for the students that attend the university; to provide employment opportunities for them; and to produce a small surplus that can be reinvested in their best interests.
The problem we had was that we had little knowledge of how to set something like this up, or indeed the wherewithal to deliver it in terms of products, catering equipment, merchandising and training”
“In simple terms, a degree is a product that the students are buying and my job is to ensure that whilst they are on campus we provide a food and beverage offering that meets their expectations,” explains Smith. “And, given that they are used to the exceptional standards being set by high street outlets such as Costa and Starbucks, those expectations are understandably very high.”
The rebirth of Café Barista is a long story, but in a nutshell the university wanted to close it down and divert the students to two nearby outlets which it had recently spent money on refurbishing. Despite vociferous representation from the Student Union body — and in particular the Health Sciences students for whom Café Barista had become an essential part of everyday life — the university would not relent.
The president of the Union asked Smith to put together a business plan for keeping Café Barista open. No sooner had he done that than his bar manager and head chef returned from the NUSSL conference with details of a new concept they had seen called ‘Kitchen & Co’, created by Country Choice, a supplier of in-store bakery and retail foodservice products.
“With sales of alcohol at universities in freefall and casual dining venues booming on the high street I felt that Café Barista would make the ideal site for a quality food outlet, offering a safe, comfortable haven for existing student customers and, quite possibly, those who were currently going to eat and drink off campus,” says Smith.
“The problem we had was that we had little knowledge of how to set something like this up, or indeed the wherewithal to deliver it in terms of products, catering equipment, merchandising and training. But now, it seemed, there was a company out there with a solution.”
Shortly after the NUSSL show, Orpington-based Country Choice paid its first visit to York University and went through what the university wanted to achieve and what they could provide within the framework of ‘Kitchen & Co.’ Amongst the things Smith did was to take them to a local sandwich and coffee bar in town so they could see for themselves the huge queue of students outside.
What we had agreed on was a servery counter and back-of-house area that gave a really homely feel to the café”
“Seeing so many of them there was really disheartening, especially as they were paying about £1 more than we charge for coffee, but it also demonstrated that there was an audience out there,” he says. “We weren’t interested in creating a franchised look, preferring instead to try and produce a ‘shabby chic’ venue with real ‘wow’ factor that was unlike anything the students had seen before. Essentially we wanted to marry our vision to the product knowledge, skill, retail experience and ongoing support offered by Country Choice.”
It was at this point that the subject of dual funding came up. “Our original business plan was based on fairly limited investment but with the help of Country Choice we now found that we were in a position to create a much more complete offer and with it a far more professional looking operation,” remarks Smith.
After discussing various concepts with the university, Country Choice provided visuals of how the new Café Barista would look and it committed to the final design.
“What we had agreed on was a servery counter and back-of-house area that gave a really homely feel to the café — from the wooden décor on the front of the counter to the slightly rustic-looking cupboards on the rear wall containing a selection of condiments, bottles of olive oil and jars of pasta,” says Smith. “With a high proportion of foreign students, for whom the social aspect is far more important than a branded identity, it was really important for us to create this sort of atmosphere. Separate to this area and out of the students’ view was the baking and food preparation area.”
The offer itself is very simple. Café Barista provides a range of quality, filled baguettes prepared on site by the staff using fresh ingredients and bread that has been baked off in its own oven. These baguettes are then transferred to a chilled, self-serve display unit on the counter, which also contains a selection of freshly prepared all-in-one salads and a range of soft drinks and beverages.
Next to this unit is a smaller heated display unit which we use to merchandise our variety of hot sub rolls. On the countertop, adjacent to the chilled unit and displayed on wooden cheeseboards, it has a wide assortment of muffins, cakes and pastries — ideal for students that want to enjoy something sweet with a cup of coffee made using organic Peros coffee beans.
“Seeing the coffee being freshly ground and the baguettes coming straight out of the oven, along with the aroma that these create, really reinforces the homely feel,” insists Smith. The facts and figures from its initial launch are impressive. After just two weeks, it is already trading at 40% above its daily budget and sales are averaging around £6,500 to £7,000 per week. Compare this with an average of £2,500 before the refurbishment and it is clear that the concept has been well-received.
“The size of the café means that we are almost running at full capacity and so we don’t expect this figure to rise an awful lot more,” says Smith. “However, we do have a large outdoor area which will increase capacity during the summer months and we are already talking to Country Choice about the possibility of them creating a traditional ice cream cart for us, which I am sure would be a huge success. We may also look at changing some of the internal fixtures and fittings, such as tables and chairs, on a termly basis to create a different theme — maybe an indoor garden or seaside motif.”
Given the bleak future that was facing the café at one stage, its recovery and resurgence just goes to prove how finding the right foodservice concept has the power to unlock a whole host
of potential for any operator.
The typical Café Barista customer is a Health Sciences student who tend to have less disposable income than average because they spend longer on campus than other students (typically 45 weeks per year) and their courses last much longer, sometimes up to seven years. As a result, during his campaign to keep it open, the YUSU president promised that the new Café Barista would have the cheapest food on campus. So far it has been true to that promise while managing to maintain margins of around 75% to 80% on drinks and about 55% on food, for an average GP
of around 65%.
Country Choice offers a range of mobile merchandising units for operators based on its Tuk-Tuk, Pasta Pronto and Hudson’s concepts.
What sort of environment is the concept most suited for?
The cart allows retailers to offer a food operation in secondary or temporary locations. It’s perfect for schools, offices, factory, leisure attraction and stadia. Food can be prepared in the main kitchen facilities and then held hot and served from this unit.
What is its main USP?
It is able to hold different equipment inserts from our bespoke pasta refresher and hot hold unit to wet well bain marie inserts. The unit is mobile and can offer flexible food offers from hot dogs and burgers to rice, pasta and noodles. It can be easily re-branded with different side panels and headers, which can be changed in minutes.
What is the most important thing for an operator when choosing a merchandising unit?
Flexibility of use and the selection of different foods that can be sold through the unit to ensure daily use, not just one or two days a week. Speed and ease of service is also important. Will the piece of equipment actually increase sales or just make life easier?
How much does the concept cost?
It’s free on loan, subject to minimum food spend of £800 per month. It is 1012mm wide, 714mm deep and 920mm high. If you include the header board the height is 1680mm.