Sushi is better than a sandwich
Beijk’s cafeteria struggle
The cafeteria in the Academy building’s basement is nearly empty. The bar and cash register are no longer being used. While some of the tables are occupied, it’s mainly by people eating sandwiches they brought themselves. The cafeteria hasn’t served meals for nearly a year. According to Beijk, the UG’s contracted catering company, it’s because they were losing money.
‘The building is great, as is the location’, says Beijk director Fokko van der Velde. ‘But if you don’t know there’s a cafeteria down here it’s not easy to find. Besides, there are dozens of great food places right around the corner.’
In other words, they’ve got stiff competition.
‘Some days, we only had four customers’, says Van der Velde. ‘We couldn’t make money like that.’ Changes to the menu didn’t help, so after years of talking to the UG, there was only one option left: close down. Anyone at the Academy who does want soup or a sandwich can still go to the coffee corner on the ground floor, although the range there is limited.
The large Kapteynborg cafeteria at Zernike campus suffered a similar fate. Just twenty metres outside the door, the Foodcourt, actually set up by Beijk itself, has been stealing business. At the Foodcourt, local businesses sell sushi, falafel, and pizza, among other things, giving part of their revenue to Beijk in lieu of rent.
Some days, we only had four customers
Using the profits from the cafeterias that are doing well, such as the one at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, or the one at Nijenborgh 4, as well as catering meetings and events, meant Beijk was able to keep the loss-making cafeterias in business. Until the Covid pandemic.
Due to the increased popularity of working from home, the students and staff that used to be on campus everyday didn’t all return. This only compounded the losses. Even the Harmonie cafeteria, one of Beijk’s biggest locations, lost half its revenue.
All of this meant the cafeteria at the Academy building had to close. Turkish sandwich shop The Hungry Mishka took over the spot in the 2022-2023 winter to try and sell sandwiches but was unable to make a profit because they were tucked away out of sight.
The Kapteynborg cafeteria also shut down, until The Hungry Mishka came to Beijk once again. Taking over the poorly visited cafeteria halfway through November was a gamble, says owner Aleona Danilova. But she could afford it thanks to the low cost. ‘I man this spot myself and I already had a shop at the Foodcourt. I was able to reschedule my staff, so we didn’t have to hire any extra people. We’re also using a lot of stuff from Beijk’s old cafeteria.’
It’s certainly running much better than the Academy location, says Danilova. After a quiet start, it got busier just before Christmas, and it’s currently running pretty well. There’s even a short queue most lunch times. It helps that The Hungry Mishka is a subcontractor, which means they can make their own menu. They mostly sell Turkish sandwiches, which were already a hit at the Foodcourt, but after the UG asked for soup and coffee, they now sell those as well.
Beijk’s contract with the university states that the former had to take over all cafeterias. ‘But we’ve also noticed that ever since the pandemic, there are fewer people in the buildings’, says campus & community director Jorine Janssen. ‘That’s why we made a new location plan back then, and we’re constantly checking feasibility.’
Foodcourt businesses sell only one product, with low overhead
Janssen has an explanation for why the cafeterias are struggling and the Foodcourt isn’t. ‘The Foodcourt businesses only sell one type of product. That means they’re very good at it and they have low overhead. But customers expect Beijk to have a wide range of products for very little money. That makes it hard to compete for quality.’
A classic cafeteria is expected to sell soup, ham and cheese sandwiches, salads, and cartons of milk. These are partially products from the basic range, a list of foods the UG has agreed with Beijk will stay cheap. Beijk is only allowed to adjust the prices once a year, and only to match inflation.
Decline in demand
Beijk is not allowed to independently implement any price increases beyond that, for instance necessitated by increased personnel or energy costs. That makes it difficult to earn any money on the basic range. If the prices do increase in consultation with the UG, like they did last summer, demand declines.
While the price hike was explainable, it didn’t make it any easier, says Beijk director Van der Velde. ‘Customers have a certain idea of what a cafeteria is supposed to be. They want soup and sandwiches and they don’t want them to cost very much. But we can’t give them that. We have to be able to make money.’
While they’re still contractually obligated to provide the basic range, UG contract manager Mark Barlinckhoff says they won’t necessarily hold Beijk to those agreements. ‘We don’t want any products to be wasted or deliberately cost Beijk money. During the next tender process, in 2028, we’ll take a careful look at our product range. I expect we won’t make anyone sell individual slices of bread and tiny tubs of butter.’
For any changes they’ll be making to their current cafeterias, Van der Velde is looking at the Foodcourt and businesses in the city centre. ‘They really focus on the atmosphere and the experience of their customers. Starbucks charges 5.50 for a cup of coffee, but when we raise the price of our sandwiches, it’s too much. But I think that if we change the overall experience, people will start to see cafeterias differently.
People want cheap soup and sandwiches in a cafeteria, but we can’t give them that
One of the ways Van der Velde wants to change people’s experiences is by making changes to the way they present their products. ‘You can put a few apples in a bowl, but you can also display an entire crate full of apples for an entirely different look.’
He also wants to make changes to the product range. ‘That’s going to require some trial and error. We’ll add a new product for a week and see how it goes. Like hot meals, or fancy hot sandwiches. We want to prepare them in our own central kitchen, to avoid overworking our staff on location.’
Van der Velde can’t reveal what the cafeterias are going to look like. ‘These plans are very new. We can’t just change the interior design, that’s something we have to talk to the UG about. But we might be able to implement some changes before the summer.’
Anything beyond 2028, when the Beijk contract ends, is up in the air. Making the cafeterias cost-effective will never be easy, emphasises Janssen, which means catering businesses aren’t lining up around the block.
Van der Velde recommends doing things differently during the next tender process. ‘I would split up the UG cafeterias into different plots. You could group the Foodcourt with the Kapteynborg, and the Bernoulliborg with a few other smaller ones. That would make it more attractive for local businesses to join the tender process.’ According to Janssen, this proposal is ‘definitely an option’.
Beijk currently pays the UG a fee of 365 euros in order to provide catering for them. The parties are currently still negotiating this sum. Barlinckhoff says paying this fee is slowly becoming outdated. ‘Catering businesses are having a hard time making money. I think the next tender process will result in a different contract.’
As far as the UG is concerned, one thing is now clear: not every building needs a cafeteria. ‘The coffee corner in the new Röling building, for instance, isn’t doing too great’, says Barlinckhoff. ‘There’s a sandwich shop right around the corner. People assume there’s a cafeteria everywhere, but sometimes it’s just redundant.’