After revamp, J Street rethinks image

Campus dining officials want students to know J Street has changed.

The often-criticized dining hub is seeking feedback from student leaders to redefine its brand, after one of the largest overhauls in the venue’s history last summer failed to increase sales.

The marketing revamp will become the second major change in a year to make J Street more appealing to students. With perpetual student dissatisfaction despite large-scale improvement efforts over the last six years, Director of Campus Dining for Sodexo Richard Yokeley declined to say how the latest strategy to rebrand J Street differentiates from past plans.

“We’re continuously trying to bring innovation to J Street,” Yokeley said. “We think that the more we can continuously change, the better we will do.”

After swapping out nearly all outside vendors for Sodexo venues in the most recent overhaul, the University reported a 25 percent drop in sales last fall that then flatlined early this semester. University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said Sodexo would not release information about its total sales this academic year, citing a policy change since The Hatchet last reported the numbers in February. She did not explain why the policy changed.

University officials lauded Sodexo for an 11 percent increase in student satisfaction with J Street in late January, but refused to provide past approval ratings – making it impossible to discern the impact of the summer overhaul.

GW Campus Dining formed five focus groups this month to strengthen outreach to students, looking to draw in upperclassmen that might overlook the menu options added last fall. The dozen-member focus groups met for the first time last week and will continue to identify solutions for problem areas, such as food quality and menu options, until the end of May.

When asked how this effort would produce better results than past endeavors that created larger changes but could not boost J Street’s image, Yokeley did not answer the question, instead saying this year’s new marketing plan is “standard procedure” for Sodexo.

He added that he is “not aware of any major changes in food set.”

The focus groups include students from the Student Association, the Marvin Center Governing Board and house staff. Working with students who are well known on campus will help enhance the dining center’s reputation and could create a potential partnership with student groups, Yokeley said.

“We all have a favorite restaurant, but if we ate there seven days a week, it wouldn’t be our favorite. We’re trying to keep our customers interested in what we’re doing so they keep coming back,” Yokeley said.

The marketing plan relies on creating partnerships between campus dining and major student organizations, helping the University advertise to students through organizations’ listservs and group leadership and creating “communication avenues to students through their organizations,” Yokeley said.

Campus dining underwent a landmark change in 2006, ditching longtime food vendor Aramark for Sodexo, which added multiple new venues including Quiznos and Chick-fil-A. J Street’s massive overhaul last summer again welcomed new vendors.

Chair of the Student Dining Board Ben Leighton, who has worked with the campus dining office this year to coordinate programming, said the marketing campaign could help defy negative stereotypes about Sodexo’s food – a perennial student complaint.

“People have written it off. It’s about opening peoples’ minds to eating at J Street,” Leighton said, adding that some upperclassmen do not realize there are healthier and fresher eating options at the venue since last summer’s revamp.

Students will also see more themed programming during the year, which Yokeley said has increased sales and is “more memorable for our customers.” The plans will expand events like last fall’s crab boil, the annual Thanksgiving meal before break and Freshman Feast earlier this month.

The campus dining team will step up its use of visuals online, adding more photos of food options on existing social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, in addition to e-mail newsletters.

“We have heard back from students and staff that students often don’t know about programs, events and daily information that they might find relevant,” Yokeley said.

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