‘It’s a college thing’

University-area businesses attempt expansion with mixed success

Morgan Lambert, Geena Funk and Erin Marie pick out slices on Wednesday at Mesa Pizza in Uptown. Mesa expanded its business from Dinkytown to Uptown in 2011.

Image by Alex Tuthill-Preus

Morgan Lambert, Geena Funk and Erin Marie pick out slices on Wednesday at Mesa Pizza in Uptown. Mesa expanded its business from Dinkytown to Uptown in 2011.

by Barry Lytton

Businesses have come and gone over the past few decades in the University of Minnesota area, but those that have remained and expanded to other locations have left behind a distinct brand.

Many of the small businesses in the area have only one location, but some area entrepreneurs have expanded — either within the school’s surrounding business districts or beyond —garnering mixed success.

The University community’s population creates a unique market in which one class of students leaves the University each spring and another enters. Business owners have to market to about 5,000 new customers with unpredictable success rates.

 The amount of international residents, combined with a community of young people who are willing to try new things, creates a diverse arrangement of businesses in the area, said Daniel Forbes, associate professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship in the Carlson School of Management.

And the sometimes limited funding available to students means an opportunity for businesses to attract customers with giveaways and drink specials.

“Being in a public place where the students can see you and experience the food with their friends might actually be more effective than a traditional advertising message,” he said. “If it’s free the first time, you might be hooked and you might go back.”

Collegiate Pizza

Mesa Pizza opened its first Dinkytown storefront in 2006, and has been expanding since. It has four total locations — two of which are in the University’s area.

Mesa’s Dinkytown location manager Nato Coles said the store had always intended to expand, depending on the Dinkytown location’s success.

“The philosophy we have here is that if we can make money doing what we do and what we’re good at, we will expand to an area,” he said, “so long as it’s not a major headache to do so.”

With that mindset, the restaurant has expanded to new locations about every three years, opening their most recent Stadium Village outlet in August 2014.

Three of Mesa’s four locations reside in university areas.

The business defines itself as a college pizza place, Coles said, but the restaurant has been successful elsewhere, too.

“Mesa Uptown proves that we can successfully cater to any area with nightlife and foot traffic,” Cole said. “But hey, man, the nature of pizza is that it works really well for a college atmosphere.”

Mesa’s Uptown location opened in 2011. It has less giveaways and more flexible delivery options than the business’ other stores.

Though there is a certain harmony between the University and area businesses, the businesses cater to the community as a whole — including non-students and residents, Forbes said.

Ice cream to coffee

Patrick Weinberg bought Bridgeman’s Ice Cream — which sat where Potbelly Sandwich Shop currently sits — in 1986. Years later, he turned it into Purple Onion Café, before it was relocated about a block to its current location. Between the remodeling, Weinberg opened Espresso Exposé in Stadium Village in 1990.

After buying the two stores, Weinberg said, he is done expanding.

“Two businesses is more than I can handle,” he said. “We could have taken our concept further, but I just didn’t want to do it; this was enough.”

Instead, Weinberg said, he focuses on marketing by word-of-mouth — a strategy that has been successful thus far.

He said the café is most profitable during meal hours, though it remains open until midnight.

The café’s late hours aren’t as profitable that’s the cost of doing business in the area, he said, as the residents and faculty members who frequent the coffee shop don’t tend to buy much food after the lunch rush.

“If you look at all the Starbucks, and all those places, you see very little seating in all of them — they’re just looking for to-go business,” he said. “I’ve always tried to cater a place for kids to study and hang out along with people who want to meet.”

Burritos & beer

Burrito Loco first opened a Dinkytown location next to Shuang Cheng and Varsity Bike in 2001.

The restaurant opened a second location in Uptown three years later, owner Greg Pillsbury said.

An opportunity to add a second Dinkytown location arose later that year. The restaurant, however, almost immediately shut down its original location after deciding to add the additional store, he said.

Pillsbury said he didn’t originally plan to expand quickly and took opportunities as they came.

“Years ago, you lived in Dinkytown or on campus until you were 22,” he said. “Then you’d move to Uptown.”

The Burrito Loco concept works well, considering the cheap, youthful atmosphere, he said.

“We’re a Big Ten college burrito shop that’s open until three in the morning, and we sell a ton of beer,” he said.

But the Uptown market was targeting an upscale market increasingly over time, and the change, for Burrito Loco, was too dramatic over the five years the Mexican restaurant called it home.

Once the market shift became apparent, Pillsbury said he decided not to renew his lease on the location in 2009.

“It didn’t totally fit with a burrito shop; people maybe want tapas or appetizers and martinis,” he said. “Do they want a coke? Or maybe a bottle of Corona? No.”

Now, Burrito Loco only has the one Dinkytown location it bought in 2004.

Sixty-year-old subs

Big 10 Restaurant and Bar first opened in Stadium Village in 1955.

When the current owners, Todd DuPont and his business partner, bought the restaurant in 1992, they expanded to a second location in Hopkins, Minn.

Unlike the Stadium Village location, the suburban Big 10 restaurant has a larger kitchen, more seating and an expanded menu, DuPont said.

The Big 10 location in Stadium Village has a mix of staff, students and hospital workers dining during the day, alumni and students eating in the evening and also a late-night scene, he said.

“Campus community is very different than a neighborhood community [and] a suburban community,” DuPont said. “You have different clientele here at varying hours of the day.”

DuPont said he also keeps track of major University events to make sure his business is prepared. He schedules everything from large meetings to football games.

“Everybody assumes that when they walk in with their party of 20, that you’re ready for them,” DuPont said, “And if you don’t know there is a large swim meet, and you’re the type of establishment that swimmers are going to come to, and you’re not ready for it — you’ve upset those folks.”

The suburbs are much more predictable, he said. There, the weekends are busy, and Mondays are slow.

Big 10 expanded to a third location in Owatonna, Minn., in 2005, DuPont said. But that location closed five years later because of the recession, DuPont said.