Bringing Local Businesses to College Campuses Strengthens Community Ties

By Brett Ladd, CEO Universities and Government, Sodexo North America

Institutions that have long been the cornerstone of the community—schools, colleges, hospitals and workplaces—have had to transform the way they operate throughout our collective journey through this global pandemic. Many of these organizations re-evaluated their role within the local and regional community as they worked to address the sudden and ongoing needs created by the pandemic. Forming and maintaining strong community relationships became more important than ever.

As a corporate executive who is used to spending 80% of my time traveling, spending the majority of the past year at home in my local community was quite a change. I realized that the importance of business relationships in the community has never been clearer, especially in a campus environment. This is the reality highlighted in the first chapter of this year’s President to President, a thought leadership series focused on the power and vitality of higher education. In “Town/Gown Partnerships to Town/Gown Membership,” State University of New York at Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley, JD, illustrates the value of developing positive relationships between campuses and the surrounding communities. She details some of the challenges campuses face in developing these relationships and shares practical solutions for bridging gaps and reconciling competing priorities. Strengthening these bonds enhances the college’s reputation and brand image while also helping local economies and communities thrive.

The fabric of Sodexo is built on the positive relationships we create with the communities in which the company operates. Sodexo teams are not separate from the campuses they serve; they are local residents who are fully ingrained in campus culture and committed to the success of students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community.

As consumers’ habits shifted drastically during the pandemic, many small businesses struggled to survive. Restaurants were hit particularly hard as lockdowns, capacity restrictions and safety concerns led people to cook and eat at home more often. Independent restaurants are integral to the local culture and play an important role in community life. Navigating through the pandemic required restaurants to explore innovative new ideas for engaging and serving customers and ensuring their continued patronage. According to The Wall Street Journal, Federal Reserve economists suggest that although fewer small business failed due to COVID-19 than expected, still 200,000 closed in the first year of the pandemic. This, coupled with the dependency upon students for small businesses in a college town, presents what I believe is an obligation for companies like Sodexo to partner for town-and-gown success in the communities where we live, work and serve.

Sodexo recognizes the value that local restaurants bring to their communities and encourages students on campus to support these small businesses. Our data and expertise show that more and more students crave experiences that are unique to their campus, town and region, and the best way to infuse campus dining programs with local flavors is to partner with unique eateries, vendors and producers from the surrounding community, something that became even more important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent Groupon study, the average American plans to spend nearly $100 a week at local businesses post-COVID-19, up 16% compared to before the pandemic, in the hopes of boosting the local economy.

Working to create safe new dining options on campus throughout the pandemic, Sodexo discovered opportunities to partner with local and national restaurants in new ways that students embraced. These new approaches will forever evolve our programs. One example is a partnership with Postmates that enables users to order food through Sodexo’s proprietary Bite for Universities mobile app and have it delivered to their location on campus. Through an expanded affiliate model, students can use the app to order food from restaurants on campus, as well as participating restaurants in the surrounding area. At select locations, they can even use dining/flex dollars to pay for orders from off-campus restaurants.

This unique operating model highlights the value of creating positive relationships between campuses and the surrounding community, and it exemplifies how those relationships can help small businesses succeed while also improving quality of life for college students, faculty and staff. As consumer expectations continue to evolve, Sodexo plans to further develop this program and identify additional opportunities to bring local businesses onto college campuses through affiliate models and other innovative partnerships.

September 15, 2021