As many of our longtime readers and viewers know, my undergraduate studies were at Drexel University in Philadelphia, adjacent to the Penn campus. Foodservice in those days meant going to the food trucks, typically run by fraternities or newly arrived immigrants offering exotic and delicious foods. Or buying a soft pretzel at two for 25 cents. Yes, it was that long ago.
But things have changed. “It’s been a slow burn to get colleges to realize how critical the retail and restaurants scene plays on the college campus experience. But it’s really starting to snowball, and you’re starting to see more and more schools recognize what they have, recognize what they need,” says Doug Green, managing principal for MSC Retail, whose MSC University unit focuses on retail real estate in higher education, in a recent report on Philly.com.
Academia has become increasingly competitive in attracting top students and staff, as we have noted in recent headlines, and universities are turning to retail to create study, work and play environments that set themselves apart. Drexel has long had a co-op program, but this goes one step further, Philly.com writes. Research shows what we have said here for a few years now: That the upcoming generation of college students is fiercely brand-loyal and often prefers a hands-on and extraordinary shopping experience.
Saxbys on 34th Street in Philadelphia is within walking distance of a Wawa, 7-Eleven and Starbucks. A Chipotle, Insomnia Cookies, Blaze Pizza and Drexel’s food court, Urban Eatery, are nearby. Alyssa Bennett, who is 21, and a third-year Drexel student, makes deposits, sets schedules and pitches in at the latte machine when the line gets long.
The third-year Drexel student is what Saxby’s calls a “Student CEO”—that’s cafe executive officer. In locations on or near college campuses in Pennsylvania, Washington, Georgia and New Hampshire, the coffee company hands over operations to a local student for the semester, paying them above minimum wage to run the cafe full time while also receiving class credits.
Drexel President John Fry called this twist on the campus coffeehouse “exactly the kind of thing that we want.” He told Philly.com, “Another coffee shop? Who cares. But a student-run Saxbys? Great.”
Saxbys CEO Nick Bayer says the university locations gave the company insight into the emerging demand for cold-brew coffee over regular hot coffee. This happened “far sooner” at college campuses, he said, and the company responded by creating a col- brew collection with signature flavors. This has since spread to the company’s noncollege locations.
Bayer says, “Our more urban cafes in places like Drexel, we’re seeing a nice glimpse into what sort of trends and buying profiles future consumers are looking for because we’re serving that 18- to 24-year-old so closely.”