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College Towns Drive Dining Growth

Lila Margalit
December 5, 2022
College Towns Drive Dining Growth

College towns are bustling once again. After two years during which COVID significantly impacted student routines, most campuses are back to business as usual. And with classes winding down and winter break just around the corner, many students are availing themselves of the various amenities their cities have to offer – both on and off campus. 

To explore the impact university life has on local businesses, we dove into the data for nine well-known college town CBSAs, where students and other university-affiliated people make up a significant share of the overall population: Ithaca, NY (Cornell University); College Station, PA (Penn State); Bloomington, IN (Indiana University); Lawrence, KS (University of Kansas); College Station-Bryan, TX (Texas A&M); Columbia, MO (University of Missouri); Champaign-Urbana, IL (University of Illinois); Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan); and Gainesville, FL (University of Florida).

The Rhythms of Life in a College Town

The monthly population fluctuations in these nine CBSAs reflect the comings and goings of a university-centered community. Following smaller drops during the winter holiday season, the towns start to really empty out in May, as many students pack their bags and head home for the summer – and by August, the cities’ populations start to swell once again. But how does the autumn student influx impact visits to local hangouts?

To answer that question, we analyzed visit data for three leading dining chains – Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Texas Roadhouse – all three of which have been outperforming their respective categories nationwide (Coffee, Quick-Service Restaurants (QSR) and Full-Service Restaurants (FSR)).

College Towns Outpacing Nationwide Baselines

When school is in session, these locations significantly outperform their already strong nationwide averages. In September, for example, college-town-based Starbucks locations enjoyed 38.4% more visits per venue than the company’s national benchmark, while Chipotle restaurants in the same areas got a whopping 51.7% more visits. Texas Roadhouse, for its part, exceeded its nationwide average by 25.1%. These trends continued into October and November, albeit somewhat more mutedly, as students settled into their study routines.

Outpacing National COVID Recovery Trends

Universities are also driving particularly robust COVID recovery for restaurants and other dining venues – even for brands such as Starbucks, Chipotle, and Texas Roadhouse that have already rebounded in other markets. 

All three chains have experienced significant recoveries nationwide. But in college towns, their comebacks have been even more impressive. Over the past four months, Starbucks’ college town venues experienced 4.7% more foot traffic than they did in 2019  – despite a nationwide visit gap of 3.6%. Chipotle and Texas Roadhouse – both of which have already exceeded their overall pre-pandemic numbers – also saw greater increases in these locations.

Key Takeaways

The overperformance of these chains in college towns shows that university communities can be major drivers of recovery for a broad range of dining categories. Despite continuing inflationary pressures, which lead many consumers to cut back on discretionary spending, students remain willing to pay for good food and for the experience of eating out. 

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