Topio's rise to the top

Feb. 28, 2010
The captive customer base on college campuses has made university locations attractive for multiunit concepts for some time. Perhaps even more so now because those locations have been somewhat insulated from the recent recession. Pizza chains such as California Pizza Kitchen - set to open its third university location at end of 2010 - have definitely adopted this strategy.
Meanwhile, Aramark recently announced its fifth proprietary higher education brand would be a neighborhood-style pizzeria called Topio's. The company is leveraging its existing locations in high school and college markets to get every aspect of the operation exactly right.
Proprietary brands make great sense for this institutional foodservice provider that's already in thousands of school districts, universities, hospitals and corporate cafeterias and other institutions across the world. Aramark has approximately 260,000 employees in 22 countries.
"We have this wonderful ability to understand what they (college students) want," said Susan Weller, director of brand development for Aramark Higher Education. "We can do taste tests. We have that sort of automatic audience, even prior to their entering college. And when they leave college, it serves us well also."
Weller said pizza was a natural choice for the college demographic. But extensive market research of their already captive high school and college customers provided a more specific blueprint of what that segment wanted.
The company's last proprietary higher education brand, Burger Studio, was its first to be largely designed by student feedback. Touchscreen ordering kiosks and even the concept name were requested by students who participated in online contests and chats.
For Topio's, executives again solicited students' opinions on possible concept names and the type of pizzeria they liked to frequent, addressing factors from feel to flavor.
"We took (students') temperature on what they gravitated toward," Weller said. "The first thing they do when get to campus is find the neighborhood pizza place. So we said, let's do that, capture that entrepreneurial attitude."
Spokesperson gives back-of-house view
That attitude is partially conveyed by Sal Topio, the fictional owner of the concept. Through Facebook updates, the 28-year-old Topio, a supposedly second-generation Italian-American, shares culinary musings, store updates and what he's found at the farmers market.
Weller said the Topio backstory was created from "a page from the marketplace." She had been reading about chefs who had left their professions to pursue family businesses, like small pizzerias, and "the pursuit of pizza perfection every single day."
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Beyond his story, the way Topio communicates with his customers has as much to do with their presence in the online space as it does with their increasing food savvy. They want to know more about back-end operations, having watched the Food Network and being frequent restaurant customers, said Weller.
"Sal is constantly willing to learn from them, so it's a vehicle for us to get a little feedback, to communicate with our customers. I think people have a desire to know what happens inside a restaurant. So the dialogue is about what he purchases; his grandma's and nana's ingredients; and reliving old world pizza experience with new twists," like Facebook and Twitter, she said.
Aramark's team also found that students love their neighborhood pizzeria because of its taste profile, which usually includes a less-sweet sauce than what's found at national chains. Their extensive taste tests pinpointed students' favored flavors and found their palates more advanced than they previously realized.
"We blind-taste-tested cheese pizzas with different flavor profiles – used organic tomatoes, and different cheeses and sauce blends," Weller said. "And interestingly, students chose a sophisticated cheese blend that included Asiago. That's what guided [our recipes and menu creation]."
Topio's is now open at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and American International College in Springfield, Mass., and will roll out an undisclosed number to Aramark-managed campuses throughout 2010-2011.
The new concept is the fifth proprietary brand launched by Aramark Higher Education in the last four years, joining Burger Studio, P.O.D. Provisions on Demand Market (convenience store), Zoca Fresh Mex to the Max! (Mexican), and Bleecker Street (bakery café).

Topics: Operations Management

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