Habaneros a Hit With HUB Diners

Fast service and large portions equal big business

Students in line at Habaneros

A crowd gathers at Habaneros in the Highlander Union Building during lunch on April 4, 2012.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — When Habaneros made its debut in the Highlander Union Building (HUB) food court in February, members of the UC Riverside Dining Services staff expected to see a nice bump in sales compared to the previous eatery, El Sol Cocina Latina. After all, their marketing research had told them that customers really wanted a Mexican-themed restaurant where they could choose their own ingredients and customize their meal.

But even the most optimistic on the staff couldn’t have foreseen the reality: Habaneros is a huge hit. In its first month of operation, it saw a 64% increase in sales and served 3,800 more customers compared to El Sol’s numbers in February of 2011.

“The success of Habaneros has been far greater than expected,” Retail Dining General Manager Cedric Martin said. “Students and staff are happy with the new ordering format and the menu selection. They also love the brightness and inviting colors at the location.”

Albert Portillo, a senior computer science major, said he preferred the new eatery to El Sol. “I grew up on Mexican food so El Sol was really not up to the standard of food my mom had set for me. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything special,” he said, adding that he likes the customizable menu. “Giving people the ability to choose from a variety of ingredients and base food choices allows them to try new things over and over again.”

At Habaneros, diners choose between a burrito, tacos nachos, salad or a “bowl,” then watch as servers prepare their meal in front of them. The meal is served quickly and is fully customizable, featuring a choice of meats including carne asada, barbacoa, carnitas, chicken, halal chicken or soy chicken. A variety of toppings and salsas can be added to make each meal unique. The portions are large, with burritos weighing in at over a pound.

The idea for the restaurant came from the Dining Master Plan Market Research Survey that was completed about a year ago. The commissioned study looked into the preferences of UCR diners, including what factors were important when deciding where to eat, which brands were preferred, which foods they liked to eat and at what times during the day they dined.

The master plan has been a roadmap for the department,” Executive Director of Dining Services Cheryl Garner said. “It was very inclusive, so we have used that as our guide as we have moved forward.”

And what do UCR students like to eat? From the first month’s results, the answer is “beef.” Specifically, the restaurant’s carne asada.

A server builds a burrito

Whether a burrito, taco, salad or bowl, each meal is made right in front of the diner and is fully customizable.

“Anything with carne asada,” Garner said. “The number one biggest seller is the Carne Asada burrito, followed by the carne asada bowl. They are into beef.”

Breakfast has also been a big improvement, with a first-month increase in sales of 98.8%. “We did well with burritos, but we added a big breakfast with pancakes, eggs, potatoes and a protein that is hugely popular,” she said.

Considering the amount of work that went into developing the menu, it isn’t surprising that it is popular. The Dining Services staff held more than a dozen menu development sessions where they invited students and staff to test and provide feedback on their culinary creations.

“Then, a couple of weeks before we opened, we set up the line and practiced,” Garner said. “We allowed guests in to sample the product and provide us with feedback. And every time we got feedback that showed us where we could improve our efficiency or product, we made the change.”

Garner said that continued customer feedback is welcomed, especially if the diner has a problem with their food or their experience.

“We want to hear the feedback, it’s the way we get better,” Garner said. “We have ‘Text and Tell’ at most of our restaurants. If something is wrong – your food is cold, for example – you can text us right from your seat and we’ll get back to you. We’ll even come find you, if you want.”

Garner said that Habaneros has a “tiered” menu with a variety of price points. “We did that on purpose, to allow for every financial situation,” she said. “For our students, it is a combination of price and portion. We are always trying to balance portion size and price point.”

Garner said that Habaneros prices compare well to the major chains offering similar fare.

“Most people don’t realize that our restaurants are break-even propositions. We just try to cover the daily operational costs – food, labor, overhead and supplies,” she said. “Ingredient pricing is based on volume, and while we are a large university, we don’t have the specific ingredient volume that a McDonalds or Chipotle might have. For us to get prices that are close to some of the chain restaurants is an accomplishment. Finding that sweet spot between a reasonable selling price and reasonable food cost is our goal.”

The next major improvement in campus dining will be the arrival of a Subway sandwich shop in September. The popular chain will be located next to Latitude 55 and across from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Stacked, the sandwich shop on the south side of the HUB will close when the new double-line Subway opens.

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