The small independent restaurants that add flavor to university districts nationwide are a key to the ambiance of the college experience. Whether for meetings, study sessions, first dates, live music, brunch or special occasions, local eateries are integral to college life for students, faculty and staff alike.
The University of Pittsburgh shares one of these strong symbiotic relationships in the city’s historic Oakland neighborhood—and Pitt is strengthening its local partnerships through an innovative new program that designates 25% of student meal membership dollars for use at locally-owned restaurants.
Pitt Eats Local is part of a new-age capital investment strategy. “Pitt is choosing to invest in the community relationships that enhance the college experience for students and maintain the neighborhood’s vibrant character for everyone. We’re looking beyond traditional bricks-and-mortar improvements and adding local partners to our dining program,” said Joe Beaman, director of Dining Services.
Assistant Vice Chancellor of Auxiliary Services Julie Bannister said, “Building community strength is among the priorities defined in the University’s strategic plan. This program, which launched just as COVID-19 began disrupting campus life, has proven crucially important to maintaining the community connections that make Pittsburgh’s university district unique.”
When The Compass Group was selected as the University’s new food service provider in July 2020, it provided an opportunity for Vice Chancellor of Business Services Matthew Sterne to define the priorities of the Pitt Eats dining program and the Pitt Eats Local elements.
Two primary criteria were defined to ensure the investment would benefit businesses with deep ties to the community: Partner restaurants either had to be local and family-owned, or their corporate office had to be based in the Pittsburgh region.
“Supporting the community is among our priorities as well,” said Quintin Eason, Compass Group vice president of operations. “Students love having the option to enjoy their favorite off-campus eateries as part of their dining plans. Local restaurant owners, hit hard by the pandemic, have never needed the support more.”
Since the program rolled out in fall 2020 with about 20 partners on board, it has infused more than a half-million dollars into the community.
Participating local businesses include Oishi Bento, Prince of India Restaurant, Szechuan Express, CHiKN and The Milkshake Factory as well as local legends Pamela’s Diner, Eat’n Park and Primanti Bros., Giant Eagle grocery stores and others.
Bannister, in partnership with Pitt’s point-of-sale provider, Transact, helped ensure that the necessary hardware was available to Pitt Eats Local restaurant partners.
Unsurprisingly, Pitt Eats Local is receiving rave reviews both from students and from restaurant partners.
In a recent dining survey, students cited Pitt Eats Local as their favorite part of the meal plan.
“It’s about the experience,” said Beaman, who manages the daily operation of the program.
“Yes, we offer an array of menu options in our dining halls but we also want our students to explore the neighborhood cuisine during their time here at Pitt. The city is our campus and dining is more than food alone. In partnership we are providing students with a meal plan that’s rich in choices and culturally diverse experiences, all while ensuring our local business district remains strong and retains its unique character,” he said.
“This year, the pandemic has limited students’ ability to go out and spend time in Oakland’s business district as they ordinarily would,” Beaman acknowledged. “But, even when students aren’t able to dine off-campus in person, the many take-out options enable them to enjoy the neighborhood cuisine in a safer way at home,” Beaman said.
Said Prince of India owner Jas Bhangal, “I am grateful for the Dining Dollars and Pitt Panther Funds program because it has brought in a lot of new customers, which has helped to fill in gaps between our online and takeout orders. It has helped to bring in much-needed revenue because we have no dine-in. We appreciate that the University of Pittsburgh made this happen for us and their students and we hope this program continues when things get back to normal.”
Pitt Eats Local is also attracting attention from leaders in other college and university dining programs. “We’re proud to lead in this innovative approach and we’d love to see other schools adopt the Pitt Eats Local concept,” Beaman said. “Serving our students by deepening our community partnerships has been a win here at Pitt.”