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Original Fare

School-branded food items can help the bottom dollar while building name recognition and a sense of pride.
University Business, Oct 2005

Some people wear T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with their alma mater's name. Others display bumper stickers on their cars. The younger set may even stick athletic shorts on their bumpers, proudly bearing a school's logo for all the world (walking behind them) to see.

College pride comes in all forms, and it's something universities have taken to the bank, quite literally, thanks to that overwhelming desire for people to buy items with their university's name.

But considering revenue alone is an old-school outlook. Institutions of higher education are now connecting with their students, past and present, through university-branded food items that can entice students to their schools and keep them happy while they're there--as well as make some money along the way.

Even more than that, IHEs are learning that the bonds they create with students through these foods are everlasting. That's priceless publicity.

"In the last five or six years, colleges have found that they need some sort of a niche," says Vicki Dunn, senior director of marketing for Sodexho, which handles dining services as well as creates and markets IHE-branded food items for about 900 colleges and universities. "They'll say, 'Okay, these five colleges are my competition: How can we be bigger, better, different?' " Food is now the draw--whether it's at Java Plus Plus, the new coffee shop at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which sells specialty coffees and campus-baked artisan breads to the entire Troy, N.Y., community, or Alice's Cafe at University of Vermont in Burlington, a special place where alums return to visit the cafe's namesake, who has worked there for 30 years.

"[For] most colleges and universities, the most valuable thing they own is their name, reputation, and brand," says Wynn Medinger, creative director at Brand Logic, a 25-year-old company that acts as a sort of image consultant for universities by helping them create independent identities and highlight their strong points to attract incoming students. Prospective students don't always differentiate one school from another, so IHEs are competing for their attention.

As for IHEs putting their stamp on a food item, it's pride, rather than the bottom dollar, that's the driver, notes John Kandenir, national marketing director for Aramark Campus Services. "Once you attach your school's name on a [product], it helps share local pride."

The long-term value of a university-branded food item seems to stem from the connection students and alums feel when they buy and eat an item bearing the name of their school. In fact, colleges and universities can expect to generate between 8 and 10 percent on royalties generated from licensees of its products, according to Tim Tolokan, associate director of Athletics, Licensing, and Athletic Traditions at the University of Connecticut.

That profit may help fund the department in which a product is made, provide student scholarships, or simply be added into the college's overall operating budget. But IHEs with experience selling school-branded items see the value of creating and continuing the sense of community for alums long after they leave campus.

Here's how a handful of institutions are making their own brand of food work:

The most alluring link on the University of Connecticut web site is one to a photo of a dreamy, creamy hand-dipped cone of something that looks like pistachio or mint chocolate chip heaven, with a notation that calls the ice cream "the university's most delicious tradition." The school's champion sports teams won't take offense to that label if they're fans of the UConn Dairy Bar, which has served homemade ice cream for 50 years and taught students how to make it for even longer.

Karen Thompson, an alum who has managed the Dairy Bar for the past three years, says unabashedly, "We have the best ice cream in Connecticut!" Many Dairy Bar patrons feel the same way, with the summer months and pre- and post-athletic game times drawing the greatest crowds.

Dairy Bar ice cream is an offshoot of the Dairy Product Salesroom, which opened around 1954 and sold products made by the school of agriculture. At the time, it provided the school and some Connecticut agencies with products like sour cream, cream cheese, and milk--the tasty byproducts of classes taught in these areas. The university no longer operates the full-fledged creamery, but ice cream-making continues, with some 25 flavor creations--including "Jonathan's Supreme" (named for the Husky mascot)--sold on campus.

In 2003, the university teamed with Connecticut-based ShelfSpace Marketing to help bring Dairy Bar ice cream to dairy cases in state supermarkets. UConn was paired with Guida Dairy, also locally based, to work with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to help package and market eight flavors to the general public. Royal Ice Cream, a Connecticut company that remains true to UConn's recipe, produces the creamy concoctions.

Recently, UConn's branding gurus took the treats to a broader audience. Half gallons can be ordered online and shipped anywhere in the United States. It's not cheap: Two half gallons are $16, and the necessary overnighting in dry ice totals $73. Still, UConn ships a few orders monthly during the summer and does bang-up business at the holidays, when alums are looking for unique gifts.

It's a feel-good purchase in another way, too: Royalties from ice cream sales directly support academic programs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"Students don't really notice until they graduate that we have this," Thompson says of the broad exposure of the ice cream.

But sweets aren't all that the university produces and markets. In the 1980s, UConn parent Mike Zabkar, whose athlete son had just died of an illness, started a fundraising campaign for the school. He proposed that the university create and sell Huskies corn tortilla chips and salsa. The idea went forward, with the school licensing the products through Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Company. "Expertise in licensing products is paramount," says Tolokan, who adds that licensing firms help in protecting everything from the name of an item to its logo.

Packaging and marketing are handled by ShelfSpace Marketing, run by Zabkar's friend Tony Cusano, who is the former president of Cape Cod Potato Chips. While Zabkar is no longer involved in the endeavor, Cusano has kept up a special labeling tradition--including a small number 88 near the ingredients list. "Mike's son's athletic number was 88," explains Tolokan, who handles licensing for anything related to the university's seal, logo, or branded services.

In the past few years, Tolokan says that other IHEs have begun seeing UConn's branded food efforts as a model. And with ShelfSpace's help, the institution has teamed with other Connecticut companies to offer (both on campus and beyond) additional items bearing the Huskies logo:

Four flavors of "upscale" coffee produced by Omar Coffee

Four types of Munson's chocolate bars

Bottled water, which is the only water sold during UConn athletic events at Hartford Civic Center.

According to Tolokan, UConn nets approximately $50,000 annually from its chips and salsa, chocolate, water, and coffee (ice cream sales aren't tracked as closely). All of its branded items (clothing and food, but not including ice cream) bring in about $1.2 million in total annual sales.

But it's more about the visibility than the profits, Tolokan says.

The deep, dark recesses of Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel, 30 miles from Clemson University's South Carolina campus, is the perfect place for only two things--Dead Poets' Society-esque poetry readings and curing blue cheese. Fortunately for the stomachs of students and alums alike, it's the latter that has been a tradition at Clemson since 1941.

The tunnel wasn't built for cheese curing, but that's why Clemson bought it. Its moist conditions are ideal for creating the pungent, marbly mold for which blue cheese is so well known. When Clemson contracted with Aramark in 1969 to run the university's two residential dining halls, the food services company learned that it didn't have to do much to promote the school's signature cheese.

"It really became popular due to word of mouth," says Missy Smith, Clemson's Aramark representative for campus dining services. "It's definitely a favorite at functions, including alumni functions, and has been featured in a number of publications, including Southern Living."

The signature food is popular off campus, as well. "We have a lot of high-end restaurants serving the blue cheese," says Rex Graves, Clemson's coordinator of Food and Vending Services. But, he adds, when demand gets too high for the cheese (as generally happens around the holidays), Clemson cuts back on what it allows to the public to ensure it has what it needs for alums.

That's because production can't really be sped up to accommodate demand. The cheese takes a full six months to cure, and the process yields only 240 pounds per batch, compared to the 1,000-pound batches typically made by a large company like Kraft.

"Our cheese is very labor intensive--it's hand-packed and hand-made. It's not processed by machines," Graves notes. "And the milk is a high-fat content, so if you want to be on a nonfat diet, this is not the cheese for you!"

Graves spent 35 years in the restaurant business, and although he's not much of a blue fan he hears from people who are how much they love it. Clemson accepts orders from its website and will ship the cheese in wedge, wheel, or "krumble" form, or as a dressing, but only overnight and in dry ice; with no preservatives, it's got to get from campus to kitchen, fast.

Clemson Blue Cheese products are also available at the local Bi-Lo grocery store, so they've become a part of the community. But likely one of the best places for a taste is at a place that really knows how to showcase all that blue cheese. At Seasons restaurant on campus, the Clemson Filet pairs the cheese with rich beef. It's become a signature dish at the school.

While Clemson doesn't reveal its blue cheese product earnings, the school will churn out two to three 240-pound batches per week, through much of the year, at $19.59 for each nearly two-pound wheel. All proceeds go back into university programs, including Dairy Sciences. But revenue doesn't appear to be the driving force anyway. Says Graves: "The powers that be continue to have the blue cheese as part of the operations here, not only for sale but for part of the educational program," Graves says. "I think [having] it instills pride in what everybody does here."

In Bethlehem, Pa., a sweet pride has swept the Lehigh University campus in the form of a famous brownie. When Marty Keppel arrived 18 years ago to become Bakery Supervisor for the Lehigh University Dining Services bake shop, he received some sage advice from a co-worker: Don't mess with the Lehigh brownie.

Janet Tucker, associate director of Alumni Relations, conveys the importance of the brownie this way: "If alums came to an event and the brownies weren't a part of the event, they'd complain."

Ooey, gooey, with a chocolate icing slathered on top--or, if you're lucky to get it in a Lehigh event's gourmet lunchbox, with a mint sauce drizzled over it--the Lehigh Brownie has been a tradition since the 1960s. For the freshman welcoming picnic, alumni gatherings, and any event in between, every single brownie is made at Keppel's shop, "Bakers Junction," located at the University Center.

For everyday cravings, the brownies can be bought for $1.49 a piece, and they move off the shelves fast, says Jodie Stancato, unit marketing specialist for Lehigh University Dining Services. "Our bakery produces about 85 dozen brownies for the campus in an average week, not including holidays or special promotions," she notes. Packages of a dozen go for $9.99--another popular choice, especially among parents who receive a reminder postcard in the mail from Lehigh's clever dining services folks suggesting that purchasing one makes a nice alternative to a more traditional birthday cake for their Lehigh student.

While the brownies may not help the waistline, David Joseph, executive director of Student Auxiliary Services, can't say enough about how they help morale and the sense of tradition at the school. With a "Food that comforts" slogan, the brownies are one more warm thought that current students, parents, and alums have about Lehigh.

Joesph has been reading a book by former CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz, which mentions: "The most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart; they are real and sustainable and they last because they are authentic." The Lehigh Brownie and its meaning to his school certainly came to Joseph's mind as he read those words.

Perhaps the connection is so strong because the brownies are only available on campus, unlike labeled food items that other universities have. "They're just another reason for alums to come on campus," says Stancato.

Sometimes, an item becomes synonymous with an IHE entirely by accident. That's what happened with special blue and white M&Ms at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Ordinarily, having a candy's colors match that of your school might be more coincidence than special. Not so, when an alum with the last name Mars is involved.

Soon after her 1958 Wheaton graduation, Adrienne Bevis married John Mars, who, along with his brother, co-owned Mars, the company responsible for such treats as Skittles, Three Musketeers, and, of course, M&Ms.

While the Mrs. Mars has spent much of her post-Wheaton career living overseas, she's been one of Wheaton's most active volunteers, sitting on the college's board of trustees since 1974.

In 1995, Wheaton began its five-year Campaign for Wheaton, the college's most successful fundraiser ever, which earned $90 million (a full $30 million above its goal). Most people would say it happened thanks to the generosity of alums investing back into the place that educated them. Whimsical sweet-tooth types will credit the blue and white M&Ms.

It took Mars about seven batches of hand-mixed sugar coating to exactly replicate the "Wheaton blue"--a hue that's a little bit of cobalt, navy, and teal all swooshed together. But once they got it right, Wheaton had its personalized candies, which were distributed in the traditional M&M wrapper with a Wheaton sticker added.

"The 'Campaign for Wheaton' was a big moment in college history, and Adrienne recognized that we could have these special M&Ms. Everyone thought it was a great way to celebrate," says Michael Graca, Wheaton College's director of communications.

Since the debut of the personalized candy, packages of the M&M's have been a part of every admissions packet for new students, and at every big event for the "old" ones, too. Alums would be disappointed not to see them when they return to campus, Graca says.

Wheaton has no plans to sell the candies; they will simply remain available to the whole campus community, as a gentle reminder of the celebration that welcomed their entry into Wheaton history.

"What makes [the M&Ms] special for us is that they come from a long-standing relationship with one of our alums," explains Graca. "They have become such a part of the college tradition."

Mars now has a section of its website devoted to helping schools and companies create similar personalized treats by customizing colors and letting them write whatever can fit onto traditional M&M varieties. But "Wheaties," as Wheaton alums are called, take pride not only in perhaps being one of the first colleges to have the special candies, but in this alphabetical fact: Flipping an M&M upside down reveals a "w."

Jennifer Chase Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.

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