C-Stores 101

There’s a profitable parable tucked somewhere inside the hodge-podge of mix-and-match cereal containers laid out on a table in the University of Rhode Island’s Corner Store.

Something deeply religious, or at least something that screams "diversity" and "open-mindedness." For every Tony the Tiger, there’s a Lucky Charms leprechaun. For every Cookie Crisp, there’s a Cinnamon Toast Crunch maker.

Indeed, for every student and employee on the University of Rhode Island’s 1,200-acre campus, there’s a special flavor of food at the campus convenience store.

"The demographic at the university goes from one end to the other," said Kathleen Gianquitti, director of dining services at URI. "We try to get something for all of those people."

It’s as good as gospel that she and her crew have officially succeeded. The National Association of College and University Food Stores (NACUFS) last month chose the URI Corner Store—a 1,567-square-foot collection of all things ethnic, organic, grab-and-go and more—as "Best in the Business" for the product mix and variety category.

The Corner Store’s setup so impressed the NACUFS judges that the collegiate trade association, which boasts 625 higher-education members, sent a film team to the store to document its successes.

The store’s diverse offerings in foodservice, grab-and-go and general merchandise were instrumental in securing the NACUFS honor, Gianquitti said. "We have something for everybody."

 

A Lesson In Creativity

The URI Corner Store opened in earnest 12 years ago as a 400-square-foot c-store in an old dining hall on campus. It was sliced up in snack and beverage sections so small that if you sneezed you might have walked right by them.

It operated like that for a decade, 17 to 18 hours a week, from 7:30 p.m. to a few hours before midnight.

The dining hall was torn down a few years ago, and the c-store was dropped into a temporary construction trailer, a 10-by-12-foot box parked on the sidewalk outside. "The only thing we really did in there were beverages and chips, five days a week," Gianquitti said.

But then came Hope Commons, a 47,000-square-foot extravaganza that opened in June 2007 to become the university’s nerve center, more or less the holy trinity of all things gustatory: URI’s Butterfield Dining Hall, Rhody Market café and the URI Corner Store.

From the word go, the new URI Corner Store had much working in its favor. The second floor of the facility houses the dining hall and café, but the c-store is positioned prominently on the ground floor near a primary entrance.

"Basically, almost everyone passes by it on their way into or out of the building," Gianquitti said. The three food entities at Hope Commons—café, dining hall and c-store—work like a well-oiled machine. The dining hall offers fresh-made, all-you-can-eat food, but with a catch: students and staff can’t take anything out. The café, meanwhile, has 110 seats, a lounge, a fireplace, four plasma TVs, Starbucks, ice cream and smoothies, pizza, calzones, nachos and anything else a brain-drained college student would need to relax.

"A lot of the students go into the dining hall and eat their meals," Gianquitti said. "So we are dealing with a very diverse market share."

The Corner Store caters to those grab-and-go shoppers by offering an impressive variety of foods and other products. "Since you can’t take anything out of the dining hall, if our customers want a bottled beverage, they have to buy it at the convenience store," Gianquitti said. "Similarly, if they want mac-and-cheese or a bowl of cereal to eat later, they buy it at the convenience store."

 

Satisfying Needs

The mix-and-match cereal bar at the Corner Store offers something of a small glimpse at the lengths Gianquitti and her planners went in diversifying the store’s offerings. Placed on a table near the store’s front window, the cereal bar was gleaned from the Cereality chain store concept, which lets customers choose from an array of bulk cereals to create a customized mix packaged in on-the-go containers.

"It’s really fun," Gianquitti said. "For us, the gross margin on bulk cereal is a lot more than a retail pack. Plus, it’s exciting for the customers. They get to put together something they want. This is the alternative for someone who wants to make their own cereal."

Of course, a university populated by students and staff from every shade of the human spectrum requires more than cereal to lure shoppers. The Corner Store’s foodservice is a smorgasbord of ethnic treats, organic fare, vegan products, sushi, sweet-and-salty mixes, local foods, pre-made sandwiches from a local vendor, even the macaroni-and-meatball meals from the dining hall upstairs.

About 50% of the foodservice products at the university are self-made, but the store also buys pre-made foods locally. "That’s the big push these days," Gianquitti said. Items like butter, eggs, milk and cheese are purchased from Rhode Island farmers like Rhody Fresh.

To ensure fresh coffee, the store sells 12-ounce K-Cup portion packs of Green Mountain Coffee for $1.10 per cup. Green Mountain Coffee is based in New England. "What we find with the coffee is it’s a study in people, a sociological study," Gianquitti said. "Many of the students are from New York and New Jersey, where there’s a Starbucks on every corner."

The students often buy higher-priced coffee from Starbucks in Hope Commons’ Rhody Market café, but the university staff and employees usually stick to the c-store K-Cups. "They don’t want to pay the price, and many don’t like the flavor of Starbucks," she said.

The Corner Store doesn’t sell tobacco, energy shots or energy pills as a matter of principle, but it does stock energy drinks. The store, operating on a Pepsi-branded campus, offers Red Bull, G2, Propel, SoBe LifeWater and Monster.

If there’s any doubt that energy drinks aren’t popular with the young college crowd, Gianquitti can clear it up: The store sells upwards of 60 cases of energy drinks each week. Other top sellers are packaged beverages, candy by the pound and snack foods.

General merchandise at the store rivals the diversity in foodservice and packaged goods. Balloons, magazines, school products, books, eye drops, HBC items and even wiffle balls and bats are regular sellers.

 

Selling Points

It’s taken the better part of a year to tailor the Corner Store’s product mix to the university’s liking, but it’s gradually reaching its apex. "Little by little it has picked up," Gianquitti said. "It’s a popular place, and it seldom lacks for people."

The register says it all. The store was averaging about $2,100 a day in September 2007; by February that was up to $3,050, and it’s now up to about $3,200. "A lot of that is attributable to it taking us a while to get the product mix that the kids wanted," Gianquitti said. "It’s also getting the general university population to know that it’s here."

 

It Isn’t All About Profit

"We’re here not just to feed them, but to teach them," Gianquitti said. "Our mission is also education," culturally and healthwise. An example: "Some kids have never tasted sushi. By putting it in the store … a kid with dining dollars in their meal plan will say, ‘I’ll try that.’"

And chances are, it’s probably there for the trying.

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