Upscale Dining Goes to School
Colleges reap the benefits of branding their campuses with fine dining.
In 2010, the University of Southern California readied for a foodservice facelift.
The Los Angeles–based institution, best known for churning out Hollywood stars and football pros, joined with its USC Hospitality arm to unveil more than a dozen new restaurants on campus. In addition to grab-and-go spots and quick-service eateries—the traditional backbone of campus foodservice—the university also launched an unexpected offering to replace an existing café in its Campus Center building: a fine-dining concept called the Moreton Fig.
With the help of pioneering chef Bradley Ogden and his Lark Creek Restaurant Group, USC Hospitality created an upscale restaurant far beyond the coffee, sandwich, and burger outlets that dominate university dining.
Flanked by the school’s historic Moreton Bay Fig trees, the undeniable inspiration for the restaurant’s name, the Moreton Fig dishes up seasonal farm-to-table cuisine in a stylish, contemporary setting that is rare to find amid dorm towers, classrooms, athletic fields, and frat houses.
“We wanted to take it up a notch for our students, faculty, and staff, and the Moreton Fig brings flair and panache to campus,” USC assistant vice president of retail operations Kris Klinger says of the 135-seat restaurant that also features a 12-seat private dining room and a 120-seat patio.
In its five years of operation at the center of the USC campus, the Moreton Fig has become a popular destination for faculty and staff, students and alumni, visitors and external powerbrokers, helping the private university show itself as a lively, dynamic institution on the cutting edge.
“Our goal with USC Hospitality is to help create the best and most unique USC experience we can and to differentiate the campus and the university,” Klinger says. “Moreton Fig provides this and when we’re hosting visiting faculty or prospective students, we believe the Moreton Fig is something that can help tip the scales.”
USC, it turns out, isn’t alone in its desire to bring chic dining to campus.
Across the country, numerous universities have entered the fine-dining genre with white tablecloths, extensive wine programs, and ambitious menus more befitting urban centers than campus quads, adding both a sophisticated touch and an element of surprise.
Fine Dining Meets Higher Ed
Just as Paul McGowan was touring colleges with his teenage daughter back in 2006, he coincidentally learned of a real estate opportunity on the Yale University campus in New Haven, Connecticut. A former executive with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, McGowan, owner of Hospitality 3, embraced the opportunity to transform an old, tired campus hotel into a contemporary spot befitting Yale’s Ivy League grandeur.
Though the lodging possibilities were the initial attraction for McGowan, he soon envisioned a modern property hosting an upscale restaurant as well.
“When you’re on a college campus, there are plenty of limited-service offerings around, but there was an undeniable opportunity to have a full-service option within the hotel that could serve the needs of the college as well as the greater community,” McGowan says.
In 2008, the Heirloom at The Study at Yale was born, an elegant restaurant celebrating New England’s culinary scene and the 314-year-old university’s cultural heft.
Sitting near Yale’s renowned School of Art as well as university theaters and museums, the Heirloom is a vibrant addition to the Ivy League campus, says Yale University deputy chief communications officer Michael J. Morand, who adds that the restaurant attracts local residents out for a celebration, theatergoers, attendees of university-affiliated functions, dealmakers, and leading Yale alumni.
“Heirloom has been tremendously welcomed because [the restaurant and its staff] are accessibly excellent and excellently accessible,” Morand says, adding that the restaurant’s creative flair fits with New Haven’s spirited food culture.
Surely part of the allure of having high-end dining on campus is the ability to tap into a captive audience who often craves the convenience of a refined restaurant delivering credibility and quality.
At Cutler’s, the seafood and chop house located inside the Ohio University Inn in Athens, Ohio, general manager Scott Kovalick says his 80-seat dining room is often filled with campus regulars crafting deals, wooing prospects, holding celebratory events, or attending one of the restaurant’s bourbon or wine tasting programs.
“We are the home tavern and restaurant for many,” Kovalick says, adding that Cutler’s serves as a gateway for the university’s incoming students and faculty as well as a spot for academic, administrative, and athletic influencers to highlight the university’s appeal to prospective Bobcats.
“It’s a place where campus leaders can meet and talk about what’s in the area and sell Ohio University as a great place to be,” Kovalick says.
Where streetside restaurants battle mightily to gain loyalty with guests and to build and sustain deep emotional ties, the symbiotic connections that staff, students, and alumni have with their universities naturally spill into these classy campus-based eateries.
At The Carolina Inn, which recently celebrated its 90th year on the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill, Executive Chef James Clark calls university business his restaurant’s bread and butter. Professors are consistently hosting meetings at the inn, Clark says, while Greek organizations hold their formals at the inn and alumni flood the restaurant on football Saturdays before taking the 10-minute walk to Kenan Memorial Stadium for kickoff.
“Win or lose, every football Saturday is busy because Tar Heel loyalties run deep,” Clark says, adding that lodging reservations at the inn mount each spring as soon as the football schedule drops.
A Unique Syllabus
Upscale dining on a college campus, however, is not without its significant and startling differences when compared to the traditional fine-dining experience.
There’s the finicky issue of audience, as a fine-dining establishment’s polished vibe lends itself more to formal dining by adults rather than the energetic students who largely blanket a college campus. It requires eateries such as the Moreton Fig and The Carolina Inn to become clever marketers and more flexible, all-encompassing hosts.
Eager to attract students to diversify its guest base and ease its reliance on faculty, staff, and external visitors, the Moreton Fig touts wine classes and tastings as well as an afternoon happy hour to woo of-age undergrads.
The Carolina Inn, meanwhile, embraces the larger community, particularly outside of the academic year. The Carolina Inn’s “Fridays on the Front Porch” series, an annual summer promotion aimed at attracting locals, engages and entertains with live music and outside bars.
There are also unique—if not sometimes convoluted—ownership or management arrangements. Some upscale on-campus restaurants such as USC’s Moreton Fig are run by the university’s foodservice arm, relationships that can place the restaurant under the thumb of administrative bureaucracy or, even worse, state budgets. On the positive side, the Moreton Fig, unlike a private eatery, does not have to be so singularly focused on financials to ensure its survival.
“While profit is important, we’re not bottom-line driven,” Klinger says. “Ultimately, our goal is to create the most positive USC experience we can and cover our costs by being solid operators.”
At many other upscale on-campus restaurants, third-party firms are employed to manage the establishment. The Carolina Inn, for instance, is run by Colorado-based Destination Hotels, a company that operates properties across the U.S. such as the Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, D.C., and California’s L’Auberge Del Mar Resort & Spa.
“We’re fortunate in that the university leadership trusts us to make the right decisions for the inn,” UNC’s Clark says of the partnership that dates back to 2008.
Though the Ohio University Inn is owned by the Ohio University Foundation—the nonprofit fundraising organization of the 23,000-student state university—the complex has been operated by third-party management firm, Winegardner and Hammons, for the last 18 years and remains a for-profit entity that must support itself. It must do so, however, under a broader mission statement that calls upon the restaurant to support Ohio University and the greater Athens community.
“We’re much bigger than the street corner,” Kovalick says. “We’re not just selling the restaurant, but a rich experience that people can have at Ohio University and in Athens.”
Such a reality brings some challenges, Kovalick admits. Menu pricing, for example, needs to respect the university and community, as prices cannot rise to a level that alienates or excludes.
“We always have to strike a balance,” Kovalick says.
The Heirloom at Yale, meanwhile, must succeed on its own as an independent business, albeit one undeniably linked to the university’s energy and ambiance. McGowan says the restaurant must leverage campus assets while simultaneously appealing to the broader community. For that reason, McGowan says, “We are set up, marketed, and managed as a neighborhood restaurant.”
Lessons in Campus Fine Dining
The most pressing challenge for upscale dining on campus, however, comes from the ebb and flow of activity that the campus environment brings. Klinger, in fact, terms the Moreton Fig’s business cycle “decidedly unique.”
Whereas many upscale eateries struggle to attract, or altogether forgo, lunch service, mid-day dining thrives at the Moreton Fig. Evenings, by contrast, slow considerably, a noted reversal from like-minded restaurants on the street. It’s reflected in the Moreton Fig’s weekday hours, as the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and closes its doors at 8 p.m. during the academic year, and summer hours are a modest 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In another interesting twist, save exceptions for special on-campus events such as football games or graduation, the Moreton Fig is closed on weekends—an unthinkable act for virtually any dining enterprise.
“Monday through Thursday, this campus is busy and lively, but things begin to slow on Friday,” Klinger says. “We’ll open for special weekend events and also do weekend or evening catering, but things peak during the weekday lunch hours.”
While most restaurants operate at the mercy of local clientele and confront sales and traffic swings, the Ohio University Inn’s Kovalick says those factors are magnified on the college campus.
In the fall, Cutler’s devotes itself to Ohio University sports and an energetic back-to-school scene before shifting its focus to serving local businesses for holiday and end-of-the-year parties during the winter break. In the spring, the restaurant business accelerates with family and parents’ weekends as well as graduation events and award ceremonies before turning its attention to orientation and incoming students for the summer months.
The wild-swinging seasonality, particularly in short bursts, can make managing human capital difficult.
“There are times we can’t have enough staff on hand and others when we have too many,” Hospitality 3’s McGowan says. “If anything, it makes it that much more imperative that we have a good, core group of people in the restaurant at all times.”
Because the Moreton Fig is operated by USC Auxiliary Services, Klinger and his team have the ability to transfer staff to other campus units during slow times in the restaurant.
“It’s a tough cycle, but it’s nice that we can keep our staff busy and employed,” Klinger says. “The traditional operator would likely have to lay off people because of these significant shifts in volume, but we’re able to absorb them and be flexible.”
The seasonality, however, can also be a blessing, particularly with respect to planning.
This summer, for example, The Carolina Inn underwent an extensive renovation in which the bar and restaurant flipped locations and the restaurant added additional seating. Extensive exterior renovations, including upgrades to the front porch, courtyard, and patio, were also completed in preparation for the fall season.
“We were able to do this renovation because we know when our business slows and know we have a window to move ahead with work,” Clark says.
It was an investment made, Clark confirms, to ensure that The Carolina Inn remains relevant, vibrant, profitable, and a first-rate representation of the University of North Carolina.
As universities continue to compete for top talent, pursue novel revenue streams, and look to distinguish themselves with dynamic offerings that heighten hospitality and the institution’s broader appeal, there’s a rising sense that upscale dining on college campuses can—and will—become more popular, particularly as spots like Moreton Fig, Heirloom, and others continue to thrive.
“The more people who step into the hotel and into Heirloom,” Yale’s Morand says, “the more people who will say: ‘I want something like this where I am!’ ”