The small independent restaurants that add flavor to university districts across the country are key to the ambiance of the college experience. Whether for meetings, study sessions, first appointments, live music, brunch or special occasions – local restaurants are an essential part of university life for students, teachers and employees alike.
The University of Pittsburgh shares one of those strong symbiotic relationships in the historic Oakland neighborhood – and Pitt is strengthening its local partnerships through an innovative new program that allocates 25% of student meal membership fees for use in locally owned restaurants.
Pitt Eats Local is part of a new age investment strategy. “Pitt invests in community relationships that improve the college experience for students and keep the neighborhood alive for all. We’re looking beyond conventional improvements and adding local partners to our dining program, ”said Joe Beaman, Director of Dining Services.
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Auxiliary Services Julie Bannister said: “Building community strength is one of the priorities set out in the university’s strategic plan. This program, which was just launched when COVID-19 began to disrupt life on campus, has proven extremely important in maintaining the community connections that make Pittsburgh’s university district unique. “
When The Compass Group was elected the university’s new food service provider in July 2020, Vice Chancellor for Business Services Matthew Sterne had the opportunity to prioritize the Pitt Eats dining program and Pitt Eats Local elements.
Two main criteria were defined to ensure that the investment benefited businesses closely related to the community: partner restaurants had to be either local and family-owned, or their corporate headquarters had to be in the Pittsburgh area.
“Supporting the community is also a priority,” said Quintin Eason, Compass Group’s vice president of operations. “Students love to have the opportunity to enjoy their favorite off-campus restaurants as part of their meal plans. Local restaurant owners badly hit by the pandemic never needed assistance anymore. “
Since the program launched in the fall of 2020 with about 20 partners on board, it has raised more than half a million dollars for the community.
Local businesses participating 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.
Working with Pitt’s point of sale provider, Transact, Bannister ensured that Pitt Eats Local restaurant partners had the hardware they needed.
Unsurprisingly, Pitt Eats Local receives rave reviews from both students and restaurant partners.
In a recent survey of restaurants, students named Pitt Eats Local as their preferred part of the menu.
“It’s about the experience,” said Beaman, who manages the day-to-day operations of the program.
“Yes, we have a number of menu options in our dining rooms, but we also want our students to explore the neighborhood kitchen during their time here in Pitt. The city is our campus and Essen is more than just food. In partnership, we provide students with a menu that is rich in choices and culturally diverse experiences, while ensuring that our local business district stays strong and maintains its unique character, ”he said.
“This year, the pandemic has limited students’ ability to spend time in the Oakland business district as they normally would,” Beaman admitted. “But even if students are unable to dine in person off campus, the many take-away options make it safer for them to enjoy neighborhood cuisine at home,” Beaman said.
Jas Bhangal, Owner of Prince of India, said, “I am grateful for the Dining Dollars and Pitt Panther Funds program as it has attracted many new customers, which has helped bridge the gaps between our online and take-out orders close. It helped generate much needed revenue as we don’t have a dine-in. We appreciate that the University of Pittsburgh made this possible for us and its students, and we hope that this program will continue when things return to normal. “
Pitt Eats Local also attracts the attention of executives in other college and university dining programs. “We’re proud to be driving this innovative approach and we’d love to see other schools adopt the Pitt Eats Local approach,” said Beaman. “Serving our students by deepening our community partnerships has been an asset here at Pitt.”