Restaurants identifying university and college towns as prime locations

By Christian Petronio

When they are searching for the perfect location to put down the roots of their foodservice business, many restaurateurs want an area that vibrates with energy, vitality, and enthusiasm. University and college towns or districts are becoming increasingly more attractive as the number of students enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions continues its upward momentum year over year.

According to Statistics Canada, in the 2018/2019 academic year*, over 2.1 million students were enrolled in Canadian public universities and colleges, up 1.8 per cent from the previous year. This growth is attributable to a 16.2 per cent increase (+47,952) in international student enrollment during the same period.

Despite the more recent concerns over in-person learning and the move to online education, the significance of human connection and experiences in postsecondary life is not going anywhere. In university and college towns, local restaurants serve as a gathering place for both students and faculty and provide essential nourishment to busy students who, left to their own devices, may try to survive on a diet of only macaroni and cheese.

Graduating classes move on and new students move in, seeking that same connection and experience. International students increasingly contribute to Canada’s postsecondary landscape. According to Statistics Canada, international students more than tripled from 101,304 in 2008/2009 to 318,153 in 2018/2019. This continuous and dependable cycle provides fertile ground for new and exciting businesses to flourish.

Herein lies the opportunity for a company to successfully establish, consolidate and grow its brand. For this reason, there is strong interest in this market from well-known franchises and independent operations.

The campus periphery is an exciting constellation of bars, cafes, and restaurants of every size and type to satisfy the inherent thirst of postsecondary students and staff. Established franchise groups dominate most on-campus foodservice operations run by a third-party operator such as Compass or Sodexo. But just beyond the campus lines lies plenty of opportunities. Sharp operators can see the chance to position their brand and create engaging experiences in a formative moment of the student journey, potentially creating clients for life.

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Creative methods to engage guests are exciting operators and bolstering their confidence to enter the postsecondary markets. The popularity of playful neon signs, opulent wall decor, and new types of loyalty programs provide fun-spirited motivation to continue innovating for the next “it” thing.

Convenience and budget remain vital considerations when preparing to enter and excel in these university and college towns. These two qualities must be maintained and extended through the adoption of an omnichannel approach. Long gone are the days when an operator must rely on the seasonality and accompanying rollercoaster rides of cash flow. They can now dictate the terms of business engagement via diligent and effective social media awareness and benefit from online sales opportunities and delivery platforms such as UberEats and DoorDash. Employing these tools now provides a keen operator a reliable method of bridging the typically weaker times of the year and giving their guests what they’re seeking.

Even with the reality of more learning migrating online, many students and faculty will still choose to live and learn on or near campus while seeking out places to meet and congregate. Restaurateurs who can offer unique experiences while providing a significant value proposition to their customers can capitalize on this growing niche market. 

Christian Petronio works with CHI Real Estate Group, a full-service real estate team founded by Ori Grad, Broker, and Managing Director. Specializing in hospitality, food service, food manufacturing, and real estate investment opportunities in Ontario, CHI Real Estate, is a trusted brokerage for some of the city’s top chefs and restauranteurs.

*These statistics used here were recorded prior to academic years (and therefore college and university towns) being heavily impacted by COVID-19.