The retail food choices on many college campuses are dominated by a handful of large, national brands.
Richmond resident Jim Gregory is trying to change that with his startup company, OnCampus Brands.
The budding business connects unique restaurant offerings with universities to give students more food choices.
“We feel there is a great opportunity to bring more authentic, higher-quality options to students on campus,” Gregory said.
He founded the Richmond-based company in 2016 after working for more than two decades in the nontraditional and co-located retail business, including working for Steak ‘n Shake restaurants to establish locations on college campuses, at airports and other nontraditional retail channels.
With his startup, Gregory draws on that deep experience to help clients in the restaurant business navigate the complex world of campus dining, which often involves negotiating with large, contract food-service providers such as Aramark, Compass and Sodexo.
Gregory developed a database of more than 700 college campuses, the food options available there, and when new opportunities will become available. OnCampus Brands uses that database to help clients find the best opportunities to get their brands into food courts and other campus dining locations. The company also will help clients make connections and negotiate with contract food-service providers and college administrators.
Dining choices tend to rank second or third among reasons why students choose a school, Gregory said.
“Dining choices have a really disproportionate impact on their choice of schools,” he said. “Even more important, it has an impact on students’ engagement with the school, retention and, ultimately, student outcomes.”
OnCampus Brands clients include Smoothie King and Firehouse Subs, the Florida-based sandwich chain with 1,144 restaurants in 47 states.
Greg Delks, vice president of global and nontraditional development for Firehouse Subs, said he met Gregory at an industry trade conference and has since worked with OnCampus Brands to establish a presence at two colleges, with potentially eight more college locations in negotiations.
OnCampus Brands “has been a tremendous resource for us,” Delks said.
“Jim has a database that would have taken me years to assemble,” he said. “Using technology, he has data that I just did not have access to before, and certainly we’ve used it to our benefit.”
Gregory said he decided to take the leap of starting his own company in part because he believes in the mission of creating a better environment for college students.
A second driver was the business opportunity. “Campus retail dining is stuck in what we call Retail 1.0,” he said.
A handful of incumbent brands — Starbucks and Subway, for instance — have a dominant share of the campus market, he said. “Meanwhile, there are dozens of great brands killing it on the street, but they’re on the outside looking into the campus market.”
Recently, OnCampus Brands announced its newest client, Star Ginger, which is one of those upstart brands. Founded by celebrity chef and award-winning restaurateur Mai Pham, the chain has more than 20 locations and serves Pan-Asian dishes such as Vietnamese pho, Thai chicken green curry, banh mi sandwiches, stir-fry rice bowls and fresh salads.
OnCampus Brands has an office on West Main Street in Richmond, where Gregory works along with Allison Deerr, the company’s director of marketing and operations.
Gregory, who has lived in the Richmond area for 18 years, said the region is a good location to build the startup company because it is not far from the headquarters of major contract food-service providers, and not far from many college campuses.
“We’ve been able to develop a terrific network of small-business partners — accountants, attorneys, printers — and also friends who are willing to coach us through the tough spots,” he said.
“There’s a tremendous sense of community here, small businesses supporting one another,” he said. “Richmond also has that undeniably cool food scene. It keeps us inspired.”