The recession-defying success of such new-breed burger concepts as Five Guys, Smashburger, The Counter, Mooyah and others hasn’t been lost on the companies that manage college dining programs. On at least three campuses this fall, Sodexo will introduce a new proprietary burger concept called The Original Burger Company that’s heavy on burger customization. Taking the concept beyond colleges to healthcare and corporate accounts is under consideration.
At the same time, Aramark, another major player in what Technomic defines as a $12.4 billion college-dining marketplace, is taking a similar tack this fall by introducing a college-campus retail concept called Burger Studio.
Sodexo won’t place its own brand in direct competition with Burger King or other national burger chains in college food courts. Rather, Original Burger Company was developed around those qualities that college students have demonstrated an interest in and often need to go off-campus to find. “What you see in these concepts [like Five Guys] is that, first, they keep it simple,” says Husein Kitabwalla, president of Retail Brand Group LLC (RGB), the Allentown, Pa.-based unit that develops Sodexo’s retail restaurant concepts. “They focus their menus on a few core items and give customers the ability to choose toppings to make a really big sandwich. Second, they stress quality.”
Original Burger Company units will build on just two patties: a quarter-pound patty and a third-pound Angus burger. A crispy chicken patty (marinated and breaded on site and cooked to order) is another option. A limited selection of salads and sides (fries, onion rings) complete the menu.
“Where every burger is an original” is the concept’s marketing slogan, says Erica Milios, RGB director of brand development. Burgers will be priced in the $4-to-$6 range depending on toppings (a few premium toppings will be available to begin with, with more added as customer preferences are gauged). Locations will have the option of adding a limited breakfast menu as well, she says.
Greater customization and faster speed of service set Original Burger Company apart from Sky Ranch Grill, another Sodexo retail concept that serves burgers, Kitabwalla says. Sky Ranch is fast casual edging up to casual dining with premium-price burgers; Original Burger Company is fast casual leaning toward quick service with mid-price burgers. As such, the new brand fills a void in Sodexo’s concept portfolio, he says.
Confirmed locations this fall for Original Burger Company include three Sodexo clients: Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, Ga.; North Carolina A&T University, Greensboro; and Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. Additional locations this year are likely.
RGB has extended other retail foodservice concepts beyond college campuses. Its Jazzman’s Café coffee shop and Pandini’s pizza/sandwich-cafe concepts have been opened outside colleges by franchisees. Kitabwalla and Milios consider it is unlikely the Original Burger Company will be franchised, but establishing the concept in hospital or corporate-dining locations is quite possible. “Those markets also aren’t immune to the pressures of what’s on the street,” says Kitabwalla. Original Burger Company could help keep a hospital’s staff and visitors on-site with their lunch dollars, for example. “We wanted a baseline burger concept that could be used across [Sodexo's market] channels.”
Philadelphia-based Aramark’s Burger Studio concept is similar in many ways to Sodexo’s Original Burger Company. Both emphasize have-it-your-way customization and have been developed with extensive input from college students. Burger Studio’s key difference is its use of electronic kiosks where customers make their choices of bun, burger patty and toppings. Aramark tested burger recipes with students at University of Delaware, Newark, Del.