After a 10-year run in Huntsman Hall, Au Bon Pain (ABP) closed its doors and the Heathland Hospitality Group took over managing the on-site food services at Wharton this summer. The impetus for change was improvement — trying to build on areas where ABP fell short. But has the locally grown era of the Bridge Café, Wharton Express, and Plaza Café successfully distanced itself from the past, or was the grass just greener on the other side?
Although Heathland has secured the prime locations in Huntsman, they do face a tough market. Aside from the food trucks, and other non-Penn retail locations, behemoth Bon Appetit Management Company provides the bulk of residential and retail dining locations on campus including Joe’s Café, 1920s Commons, and Houston Hall. Against this competitive backdrop, Heathland is attempting to provide quality food at an affordable price.
Jared Johnson, General Manager for the Heathland Huntsman cafes explained “We try to be as competitive as possible in the Marketplace in terms of pricing. What separates us from our competitors is that we make everything from scratch. We also buy from 24 different local farms in an effort to bring the freshest products possible into our establishment. We use only cage free eggs; free-range, antibiotic-free, hormone-free and 100% grain fed beef and poultry that come from Lancaster County exclusively. We also only use pole-n-line caught tuna fished just off the coast of San Diego from six different 2nd and 3rd generation family fisheries.”
Although Heathland has had less than two months to cast a long shadow, the early student sentiment has not been overwhelmingly positive. In a recent Wharton Journal online poll, almost 70% of the 141 MBAs surveyed indicated their preference was to “Bring back Au Bon Pain” as opposed to “The New Bridge Cafe/MBA Café.”
The results seem surprising considering the process to award Heathland the business, which lasted over 18 months with 6 different companies competing and specifically included the students in the decision process via focus groups and surveys of both the class of 2012 and 2013.
Some of the positives highlighted by the survey comments include, “Love the staff!” “The yogurt is amazing.” “I appreciate that both cafes have soy milk…a major plus!” “Breakfast sandwich is great.” Yet, many of the comments did gripe about the lingering smell of eggs.
In response to the “smell” problem, Jared provided “We have state of the art, hoodless vent systems installed in both the Bridge and Plaza Cafés. However, we are doing actual cooking, exhibition style, right in front of our customers and there’s no denying the wonderful aroma of brown butter & garlic that permeates the halls and entrance.”
One thing that remains consistent between the ABP and Heathland is the nature of student complaints. “Long lines.” “Limited Selection.” “Overpriced.” Of particular note is the lack of condiment packets at self-service kiosks. Heathland’s manager also addressed this issue: “As part of our commitment to our 4 Core Values – Fresh, Local, Personal & Responsible – we are doing whatever we can to help minimize waste. Having as few single service or portion control items as possible is just one example of being environmentally responsible.”
However, one key point possibly overlooked is that locally produced, organic foods are generally viewed as luxury goods. When an MBA student wants a hot sandwich between mid-terms, it appears taste and convenience trump the desire for sustainably sourced food.
First Year Ryan Vass shared his impression of the survey feedback, “I think it is moreover an effect of being the only food option in Huntsman. People will always complain regardless of who is in there…it’s a zero sum game.”
Based on the sheer volume of survey responses, it’s clear Wharton students are passionate about the food in and around Huntsman Hall. Likewise, many MBAs were happy to share excellent ideas for process improvements. The good news for all students is that Heathland is listening. Jared explained “We’ve just recently debuted our new website designed specifically for our operations at the University of Pennsylvania – www.HeathlandatPenn.com. In time we will have a comments/feedback page to help us develop a better understanding of our customer base here on campus. In the meantime anyone can feel free to email me or any member of my management team with questions, thoughts or concerns. The names and email addresses of my entire management team are easily accessible from the website.”
Other friction points seem to exist around the monopoly advantage Heathland enjoys in Huntsman Hall. MBAs generally see the Huntsman cafes as a service provided to them instead of just another player in a competitive market, which they can choose to patronize or not. Students feel the responsibility for the quality of the cafes rests not only with the vendor, but also with the Wharton Administration.
The Journal connected with Wharton Operations and learned that “Although Heathland contract is managed by Penn Dining Services – Wharton as the primary user of their services is represented by Wharton Operations. Wharton Operations serves as the primary point of contact for concerns, recommendations and we monitor day to day operations within the cafe. In addition to the focus groups you can always send comments/concerns to the Wharton Operations email address firstname.lastname@example.org.”