Students, restaurants look for mutual rapport

Local restaurants get about 10 requests from student groups every week and try to accommodate them all.

by Andrew Johnson

Owners and managers of restaurants around the University of Minnesota see a two-fold advantage to working with student groups: involving themselves in the community and, in turn, improving their clientele base.
âÄúIdeally IâÄôd like to find student groups that might become customers,âÄù Burrito Loco Bar & Grill manager and owner Greg Pillsbury said. âÄúAnything where I can get someone in the door.âÄù
Pillsbury is not alone in that strategy. Proprietors of other area businesses also follow that approach.
âÄúIt has to have some sort of reasonable benefit,âÄù Qdoba Mexican Grill owner Randal Gast said.
Student groups frequently provide food at meetings and events, and go to local restaurants in hopes of donations or reduced prices for large-quantity purchases.
Stock TraderâÄôs Club treasurer Brannon King, who is in charge of providing food at events for his organization, said thereâÄôs âÄúa lot of buzz and attentionâÄù when a group has free food.
King said his approach to getting food for STC meetings and events has switched from asking for direct food donations to alternatives, such as reduced prices and coupons. One of the first restaurants that STC approached was Qdoba.
Management ultimately gave them a donation, but in exchange for Facebook âÄúlikes,âÄù something Gast values in his marketing.
Currently, close to 2,800 people âÄúlikeâÄù the Dinkytown Qdoba on Facebook.
For the First Amendment Free Food Festival earlier this month, Society of Professional Journalists Vice President Alyssa Anderson said her group was responsible for adding 100 more âÄúlikesâÄù to QdobaâÄôs Facebook page. SPJ had up until the week before the event to meet the condition.
Gast said he will often request student groups do something in exchange for the food because it shows they are committed to their cause.
âÄúThe bottom line is, I donâÄôt mind doing stuff for groups, and I donâÄôt mind helping,âÄù Gast said. âÄúI tend to work with the ones that really show a passion.âÄù
He will talk with student group leaders about different ways to make the transaction mutually beneficial, sometimes asking them to develop a plan to present to him.
âÄúIf you give them the right challenge and give them the ground rules, most of them come back with some pretty good programs,âÄù he said.
Neither he nor Pillsbury said they have blanket criteria or set protocol for determining how much a student group gets.
âÄúIt really boils down to the group and what theyâÄôre trying to do,âÄù Gast said.
Both owners said they are open to doing what they can when student groups approach them.
Out of the estimated 10 requests Burrito Loco gets in a week, Pillsbury said he tries to supply something for each one.
Raising CaneâÄôs Chicken Fingers in Stadium Village, which has worked with both STC and SPJ, has similar request numbers, general manager Kory Blaschko said.
âÄúIf weâÄôve got five or 10 different student groups all looking for a donation, instead of putting our eggs all in one basket, we try to spread it out as much as we can,âÄù he said.
What Raising CaneâÄôs can provide depends on the week, time of year and budget, Blaschko said, and ranges from food to gift cards or gift baskets.
Restaurant managers and owners view student group events as marketing opportunities.
Ensuring that customers will come as a result of the relationship is important to Pillsbury. He tries to avoid giving cash and prefers to provide gift cards and coupons.
âÄúThe hardest thing to get from people is cash because theyâÄôre not necessarily getting anyone in the door,âÄù he said.
Student body turnover is another obstacle in generating a customer base, Gast said.
âÄúUniversity of Minnesota is a difficult business environment because every three or four years these people graduate and they leave,âÄù he said. âÄúYou have to start all over again.âÄù
Due to a studentâÄôs short time on campus, it is important to attract them.
âÄúI hope that most people, if theyâÄôve been here once and theyâÄôre here for college for a few years, I would hope that theyâÄôd come again,âÄù Pillsbury said.
Beyond the initial meeting, local restaurants and student groups reciprocally gain from these interactions. A good experience with a new restaurant, King said, will work in everyoneâÄôs favor.
âÄúThey know the better relationship they have with the University students, the better their business is going to be,âÄù he said.
At the First Amendment Free Food Festival, food was one of the main draws, Anderson said. Qdoba provided mini-burritos, and many attendees had never tried them before. The exposure was positive for both parties.
âÄúTheyâÄôre open to a totally new side of the restaurant,âÄù Anderson said, noting the exposure probably wouldnâÄôt have happened without the donations. âÄúItâÄôs probably the best way of them advertising and getting their name out there.âÄù