In this exclusive Q&A, we chat with Taylor Bennett, VP of Franchise Sales for FOCUS Brands, about college town markets and their impact on fast-causal restaurant franchises.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Why is the college market an important market to grow a brand’s presence?
Taylor Bennett (TB): As the millennial generation comes to power in the consumer world, a college campus is the first time each wave of this generation begins to establish their eating preferences and spending habits. College towns across the country provide the fast-casual food industry with unique opportunities to spur brand awareness and product innovation.
With access to a high-density population, like a never ending 40,000 student-strong university, restaurants have a major opportunity to reel in a loyal consumer base and achieve iconic status within the market. Once established, restaurants are presented with a relatively low-risk opportunity to test new products and experiment with innovative service methods.
If approached with the right mindset, college markets can serve as a laboratory for fast-casual concepts to solidify their brand, optimize their services and test new ideas.
FC: Why do fast casual brands excel in college town markets?
TB: A college town offers several advantages when conducting expansion planning and evaluating a market.
For one, colleges and universities are generally a very stable part of a local economy and not as susceptible to outside economic conditions. Colleges and universities are fast becoming year-round enterprises and communities, unlike in years past when there were blocks of time with little student activity.
These communities offer a steady stream of employees as many college students work while going to school.
Most colleges and universities are expanding, adding more students, more facilities, more employees, all of which help grow the customer base for a local business.
FC: What role does the question “is there a college there?” play when approaching market expansion?
TB: College markets feature very high density which is incredibly helpful in growing a fast-casual business. If we can keep a high consumer density to low drive radius ratio, we reach a tipping point that shoots up the potential of success.
FC: What difference does the size of the college, such as a four-year state university vs. a smaller private university, make when identifying college markets for growth?
TB: The size of the college will directly impact the density of the market. A state university may have the same enrollment as a private university, so in this case the density will be relatively similar. Obviously, the larger the university population, the higher the density, which is the direction you look to move in when looking for a place to grow.
It’s not to say you won’t have the same or more success in a market with a smaller school as there are many pieces to the puzzle of success, but generally larger schools will feature a greater chance of success.
FC: What impact does having a presence in a college market play on growing future franchisee leads?
TB: The biggest impact is on brand awareness, as college students who enjoy a product or service while at college then move on to other cities or markets and crave what they enjoyed during college. This customer base can either be a source of franchise inquiries or future customers.
For FOCUS Brands restaurants, we strive to find franchisees who are passionate about the brand. Cultivating those relationships during the college years is a great way to relate to our customers and potentially gain them as franchisees.
FC: Is there a benefit to placing priority on markets with a stronger sports fan culture around the community’s collegiate teams?
TB: When opening a restaurant in a college market, being involved in the community is a key component of success. Having a strong sports fan culture gives a restaurant an instant “in” with the community if you embrace and join in the festivities and excitement. College markets are naturally passionate communities and if you add a strong sports culture, you have more opportunities to embrace and join in with what the community finds important.
FC: How does real estate (an on-campus food court vs. an off-campus location) affect the success of the franchise in a college market?
TB: On-campus and off-campus restaurants have different ways in which they can bring about success for a franchise. Having a restaurant right on campus helps penetrate the community due to ease of access. We see that college students have incredibly busy schedules so when you place your restaurant within their day-to-day path and provide a great experience and quality food at an affordable price point, you gain a repeat customer.
For off-campus locations, you open yourself up to be part of not just student life but also the surrounding non-student community. This widens your customer portfolio while also taking advantage of the strong population density of a college market.