Bleecker Street Café–or, at least, the concept–was a winner a year before its prototype units opened on four college campuses last fall. In September of 2005, Philadelphia-based Aramark conducted a national online survey of students, faculty and staff of four-year colleges and universities. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents chose Bleecker Street as the most appealing of five fast-casual concepts, including one the company describes as “the leading national bakery brand.”
Three-quarters of the respondents also said that they were “likely to purchase at Bleecker Street,” according to Aramark’s Innovative Dining Solutions (IDS) department. The bakery-on-premise concept, with its made-to-order sandwiches and pastry menu and neighborhood-friendly, settle-into-a-comfy-seat-and-stay-awhile ambiance, was inspired by the converted lofts-turned-neighborhood-gathering-spots found along Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village.
|The University of Delaware’s location offers four to seven muffin varieties daily.|
|The Bleecker Street concept features a linear design between 12 and 16 ft. to fit college food courts.|
|Five varieties of 3-oz. frozen cookie pucks are baked throughout the day at Bleecker Street on the University of Delaware campus.|
In fall 2006, Aramark, which provides foodservice to more than 500 universities throughout the country, opened Bleecker Street Café units at the University of Delaware, East Carolina University, University of Minnesota and University of Southern Maine. Two additional locations–at Mississippi State University and Stephen F. Austin University in Texas–are set to open this fall, with another 10 to 13 on the drawing board for 2008, says Scott Zahren, a Certified Executive Chef (CEC) and Aramark’s director of culinary development.
The majority of Bleecker Street Café units are 12- to 16-linear-ft. “in-line” versions designed to fit into college campus food courts or retail spaces. A “stand-alone” version is based on a minimum of 3,000 sq. ft.
Seating is café comfy with a mixture of banquettes, easy chairs and traditional table options. At the University of Delaware, a large column in the middle of the space was converted into a counter with bar-type seating around it.
“Live” baking of breads and pastries is an integral part of the Bleecker Street concept, says Zahren. All of the locations have a $10,000 deck oven behind the front retail display counter in full view of customers.
“The Bleecker Street concept is built on freshness, and that’s constantly reinforced when customers see–and smell–just-baked items coming out of the oven all day long,” he explains.
Another important Bleecker Street component is a back-of-the-house area for refrigerated and frozen food storage, prep and baking the baguettes (actually 20-oz. sourdough batards) used to make panini. To fit the space restraints of the 2,100-sq.-ft. site at the University of Delaware’s Morris Library Commons, Aramark designed a special hybrid version of the concept sans separate kitchen. Food storage and bread-baking support for this unit are provided by the campus dining services main commissary, which delivers product via van on a regular daily schedule and as needed if supplies run low.
All of the breads and pastries on the Bleecker Street menu are made from frozen doughs or batters (except for the brownies and bars, which are frozen RTU products) to streamline production and allow small-batch baking and display replenishing throughout the day. Among the daily selections are at least two varieties of 3-oz. flatbreads, cut from sheets of frozen dough, proofed and covered with house-made toppings from a selection that includes sun-dried tomato, basil and asiago.
Margaret Ramos, the baker at the University of Delaware unit says the asiago flat bread sells so quickly “I can just about keep up with the demand.” Other varieties include kalamata olive and feta, red grape and goat cheese, and a recently introduced roasted vegetable.
Sandwiches are made on wheatberry bread, ciabatta, baguettes or croissants, baked from frozen doughs. Soup and salad orders come with a quarter of a 20-oz. baguette.
At breakfast, the best seller at the University of Delaware is the cinnamon bun, according to Allan Moore, the campus dining service manager of “cart” (i.e. snack bar) locations. Blueberry muffins, which Bleecker Street initially made from a scoop-and-bake batter but switched to a labor-saving predeposited puck, also usually sell out quickly, Ramos notes.
Aramark suggests that each Bleecker Street location offer four of the seven muffin flavors each day. That allows for regional menu flexibility as well as rotation of variety. “Corn muffins, for example, are a menu staple in the southern part of the country,” Zahren says.
In the cookie category, chocolate chunk is the top seller at Delaware. Ramos bakes the 3-oz. frozen pucks in batches of four to six all day long. Aramark specs out five varieties of cookies and requires each Bleecker Street location to offer at least three.
“Because we use frozen bread and pastry doughs and bake in such small batches, everything we sell is always fresh. Plus, we have almost no waste,” Ramos points out. “We see every day how aroma sells; whenever I pull something from the oven, customers come over to ask what it is and buy it
Bleecker Street at a Glance
Locations: Four locations at University of
Julia Hamm, assistant to the director of the University of Delaware Library, likens the aroma appeal to that of baking bread or a pie during a real estate open house event. “It makes you feel welcome,” she observes.
University of Delaware junior Steven Hill says that fresh baking is one of the main reasons he goes out of his way to visit Bleecker Street each morning for a breakfast muffin, and again later in the day for a sandwich and/or pastry. Between classes, sophomore Mollie Kostielney stops by for some studying and a snack. “I always get the Granny Smith apple bars,” she says.
During the concept’s pilot phase, Zahren and his IDS crew received operational, sales and production feedback from the four schools via weekly, and eventually, monthly conference calls. Continued regular feedback will help Aramark to evaluate and tweak the concept’s progress each semester.
While the best selling cookie variety was not a surprise to Zahren, customer preferences in the Danish category were. The Danish are made from frozen dough and baked and finished on site.
“We found a great raspberry Danish, but it doesn’t sell. Customers love the other two kinds–maple and cheese–but fruit flavors in general just don’t do well,” he observes.
Scones, available in two varieties, also may disappear from the menu due to low sales. As far as sweet snacks, cupcakes, made from frozen batter and frosted with buttercream and gilded with sprinkles in rainbow and sometimes specific school colors far outsell brownies and bars. Zahren suspects that customers view the 5-oz. cupcake, which is priced at $1.29, as a better value than the 3-oz. brownies or bars, priced at $1.89.
“This is a living, breathing concept, and we plan to continually adjust it to take advantage of new product technologies, such as the muffin pucks, and consumer trends,” Zahren says.
Core menu items will be supplemented with “Limited Time Offer” products on a three- to four-week basis to allow the cafes to offer seasonal specialties and introduce new products. In October, for example, a pecan tart will be featured, and a croissant filled with almond or chocolate is being considered for sometime in the future.
Since its October launch, the University of Delaware Bleecker Street Café serves somewhere between 3,000 to 3,500 guests per week. Each check averages about $5.50.
On weekdays, Ramos begins baking at 5 a.m. to prepare for the café’s 9:30 a.m. opening. Among the first items she prepares are the Danish to accommodate earlier arrivals with a quick Continental breakfast. On Saturdays, Bleecker Street is closed, and Sunday opening time is 1 p.m. Closing times are
7 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. Sunday.
Lunch–between noon and 1:30 p.m.–is peak sales time at Delaware’s Bleecker Street, with another burst of activity during the 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. dinner period. However, streams of students and faculty flow in and out of the café in between classes, during early evening study times and on weekends.
Establishing a brand
The University of Delaware, located in Newark in the southern part of the state, has 15 dining locations, including retail food courts and carts, resident dining halls and faculty dining facilities and three small convenience stores to service its more than 20,000 students and 1,100 faculty members and other staffers. The food courts and snack bars feature a combination of national and “home-grown” quick-service brands, explains Susan Bogan, the university’s director of dining services.
Establishing Bleecker Street Café as a recognized brand is key to the success of the concept, Zahren says. “That’s why we try to keep everything, including signage, menu and even the sandwich wrap paper with its imprinted ‘B’ logo, as consistent as possible from location to location,” he adds.
Prior to becoming a Bleecker Street Café, Delaware’s Morris Library Commons building was the site of a bistro concept offering pre-made, grab-and-go fare.
“It was pretty much a table selling sandwiches and sodas,” Bogan notes.
Before the bistro, vending machines provided snacks for students who wanted to take a break from library study. The Bleecker Street concept has added a new dimension to dining on this part of Delaware’s campus, according to Zahren.
“Now instead of just being a convenience, it has become a destination,” he says. “And that’s the experience we expect to be able to duplicate on just about any campus in the