Fast-growing fast-food chain finds a new, larger home at the Student Union Building.
Not so gradually, Chick-fil-A has vaulted into the middle of American college culture as a go-to option for quick, tasty and reasonably priced food.
Like so many other college campuses, Texas Tech University joined the parade a long time ago when an express counter opened on campus in the late 1990s.
Now, though, Texas Tech has stepped out of the pack as a trendsetter for the fast-food giant that was recently ranked No. 1 among limited-service restaurants in an annual survey conducted by American Customer Service Index.
The university raised the curtain on a full-service Chick-fil-A at the east end of the Student Union Building (SUB) on June 27, a major leap into a new world of dining options designed to carry the Hospitality Services goal to “feed Red Raiders.”
That first day, designed as a soft opening with no notice or advertising to trumpet the launch generated an increase of $4,000 in paid revenue in a shortened day, a 22 percent increase from what a full day the previous express counter averages during the summer. Those numbers didn't include the customers who came to the opening as guests of Hospitality Services.
“Adding a full-fledged Chick-fil-A has been on our list of things to do for a long time,” said Kirk Rodriguez, managing director of Hospitality Services. “The three locations on campus have always been a brand that students love, but at the SUB we were limited to an express unit. We were excited when we sat down and decided to install a full-service location, but it took a little while to convince the folks at Chick-fil-A. It's important to them that operations, service and the quality of the product are consistently very good, so we had to demonstrate that we could do that with a full-service location.”
Indeed, a major component of Chick-fil-A's philosophy that helps make the franchise unique is that franchise owners must apply for ownership and qualify to open a location, including universities and colleges.
The number of on-campus Chick-fil-A locations around the country is rapidly approaching 300, and Texas colleges have more than any other state with 41, which until now were express locations. Rodriguez said he believes is Texas Tech's new full-service franchise the first of its kind on a college campus in the Lone Star State.
Rodriguez noted that the SUB location has regularly ranked in the top 10 nationally in revenue among college locations.
Bigger space, higher expectations
The new Chick-fil-A occupies 2,800 square feet with six registers at the front end. One requirement Texas Tech will have to meet before expanding hours for the fall semester is a work crew of at least 50 employees.
“This has been in the works for a couple of years now because we had really outgrown the space where we were at the SUB,” said Joseph Martinez, unit manager with Hospitality Services. “The express counter at the SUB was running about $13,500 a day and they were running it off a lunch counter that was really too small, but we made do. Chick-fil-A as a corporation wants to move away from the express title, and we were lucky to be one of the first locations where they made that transition.”
Making that leap required plenty of work.
Construction was slowed in the spring, and it appeared the full-service location might not be ready to open until later in July, which was getting a little close for comfort to the fall semester. A goal remained to have the restaurant up and humming in the summer months to hammer out any kinks that might arise.
When the fall semester begins, Martinez said he hopes the Chick-fil-A will be open from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Friday with hours on Saturday as well – particularly when the Red Raider football team is at home. The benefits of extended hours include windows of opportunity for students from breakfast through late-night study hours, with added game-day traffic as a bonus.
“We're really focused on the students eating when they're ready to eat, not just on our schedule anymore,” Martinez said. “We want them to know we'll be there to feed them as much as we can be.
“We really want to catch that crowd walking into football games.”
Don't expect Texas Tech to settle for a boost in profits, which officials estimate could increase 30-40 percent at the SUB location as a result of a projected 50-60 percent increase in traffic because of the full-service option.
Those numbers match up with what Hospitality Services and Chick-fil-A had in mind when they reached the decision to make Texas Tech one of the first schools to get a full-service location.
New horizons await
With the new concept, Chick-fil-A officials didn't aim low.
“After we agreed that this is what we wanted to do, the folks from Chick-fil-A kept telling us we were going from a Chevrolet to a Lamborghini,” said David Deason, associate managing director of Hospitality Services. “We have always had a great relationship with Chick-fil-A because we have always had a high-volume business on our campus. We believed we were ready for something bigger, and they believed in us and we worked together to make it happen.”
With the work and long-term planning only beginning.
Rodriguez and Martinez both said the restaurant's staff is still a work-in-progress. Labor is one of the major challenges that all on-campus food venues grapple with, and Chick-fil-A isn't exempt. Martinez believes beefing up the SUB location's workforce will be feasible when students start trickling back to campus for the fall semester.
Beyond the full-service option, Rodriguez said his agenda includes developing the full-service location on the catering side – one of Chick-fil-A's more emerging and lucrative endeavors.
“We want to explore every option we can, and catering is one way we can expand and keep that money on campus instead of relying on somebody else,” Rodriguez said.