Shah: It's Been a Slice

Here’s what local restaurants in a college town can teach us.

by Rachna Shah | 2/13/18 12:30am

Affordability and accessibility are particularly valuable for college students, especially when it comes to food and dining options. With busy schedules and varying needs, students seek out options that are convenient. To make the most of Dartmouth Dining Services’ meal plans, students tend to eat at places that accept College dining dollars, like the Class of 1953 Commons or convenient campus snack bars. Many first-years rely on venues that accept meal swipes, particularly during their fall terms when the SmartChoice 20 plan is mandatory. As a result, local restaurants, which rely heavily upon student engagement, can be crowded out. Dartmouth and its students should support local restaurants through building community character and economic advantages.

Many student-athletes, visiting families, alumni and large student groups were known to have heavily frequented Everything But Anchovies. The local pizzeria’s late-night food and delivery options were hailed as incomparable. EBAs operated for 38 years — and suddenly, last year, on 8:38 a.m. on a Tuesday, the venue was closed. As CNN anchor Jake Tapper ’91 tweeted, “It was a small pizzeria, but there were those of us who loved it. RIP EBA’s.” EBAs closed for three main reasons: high rent payments, changes in business and competition. Operating in college towns, which are densely populated with students, is a major benefit for local restaurants. However, rent in areas such as Hanover is higher than that of neighboring towns, such as West Lebanon. Business and competition also go hand in hand. Competition from Domino’s (and from Dartmouth Dining Services’ food truck, the latter of which accepts DBA and meal swipes) likely contributed substantially to EBAs’ downfall. From the time the Domino’s franchise opened in West Lebanon, Hanover’s EBAs saw a 20 percent decline in late night deliveries. This may have occurred because Domino’s has a shorter delivery time or because of its better name recognition for students.

C&A Pizza and Ramunto’s Brick and Brew remain as Hanover’s pizza shops. Perhaps due to a different branding strategy or customer base, these venues have not closed their doors. While all three restaurants primarily sold pizza, EBAs was specifically known for its late-night delivery options, not for its superior quality — some have designated Ramunto’s as the “best slice of pizza.” Domino’s recently announced that it applied for a building permit to open a restaurant in Hanover.

In considering the impact of such a move, we can turn to a similar relationship between local cafés Dirt Cowboy Café and Starbucks. Dirt Cowboy claims on its home page that it serves over 600 customers every day, while the average Starbucks store serves 500. Dirt Cowboy serves freshly roasted and individually brewed coffee and has been voted the “Best Gourmet Coffee Shop” in the region for the past seven years. Coffee shops play a unique role in a community — they connect people through conversations and interaction during hangouts and study or work sessions. However, shortly after Starbucks opened in Hanover in 2012, Dirt Cowboy — which has been operating since 1993 — reported a drop in business. Starbucks opens at 5:30 a.m., 1.5 hours before Dirt Cowboy; moreover, Dirt closes at 5 p.m., and it does not offer Wi-Fi. By 2020, Starbucks is projected to serve 750 daily customers per store.

The local versus chain restaurant debate extends beyond Hanover. Across the country, nearly 7,000 independent restaurants closed for financial reasons. This is particularly problematic as local restaurants contribute three times as much money into the local community than chain restaurants. Local restaurants also often support local vendors. They arguably strengthen the middle class in their regions. Nonetheless, most chain restaurants offer more consistency and a wider range of options, deeming them convenient options for consumers. For instance, the Domino’s products one may eat in California will most likely be similar to those one can order in West Lebanon. These national franchises, with efficient production structures and distribution channels, may also offer costs that are low enough to offset even great reputations of local restaurants.

Dartmouth prides itself on a “vibrant community.” Supporting local restaurants is one way to work toward the College’s mission. Unlike students at many other colleges, students at Dartmouth can access off-campus restaurants and businesses within a five-minute walk. Dartmouth could encourage students to explore these options, perhaps by initiating agreements with local venues to accept college dining dollars. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, only students can really make a difference in whether a local restaurant or business stays up or goes down. It is up to us to choose.

Correction Appended (Feb. 13, 2018):

The Feb. 13 column "Shah: It's Been a Slice" has been updated to reflect that, according to a written statement from West Lebanon Domino's owner Keith Bell, Domino's pizzas are not premade.