UC San Diego ups its dining offerings by going local
Fast food, tacos and pizza may be the go-to staples of a college student’s diet, but at UC San Diego, the campus population is craving more cutting-edge options from local restaurateurs.
In a move to satisfy students’ evolving palates, the university has hired a San Diego real estate firm, Next Wave Commercial, to forage for local operators willing to bring their culinary concepts to the campus. The idea is that using a commercial brokerage will allow prospective tenants to bypass what is normally a cumbersome, bureaucratic process for submitting a restaurant proposal.
While the university’s dozens of food and beverage spaces are currently fully occupied, some new venues will likely arrive on campus this year as leases come up for renewal, said Jeff Graham, executive director of real estate for UCSD. On top of that, the university is preparing to break ground this June on the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, a $608 million mixed-use project that will include 10,000 square feet of space for retail uses.
“We had created focus groups last spring that included students, staff and faculty,” Graham said of the process leading up to the selection of a local brokerage.
“I remember a comment from one student, who said, ‘A lot of us are only in San Diego for three to five years, we get a job offer and never come back. While here, we would really like to have an experience of living in San Diego on campus instead of spending the money on Uber or Lyft to go to North Park or Little Italy.’ That really summed up what we were already thinking.”
New restaurant offerings will be available to students, as well as 24,000 faculty and staff members working on campus, not including UC San Diego Health.
It’s not like the university doesn’t already have a variety of dining choices. UCSD’s housing, dining and hospitality department manages 17 different venues, including those in the dining halls, that students can go to under their dining plan. There are also close to 30 eateries run by third-party operators, largely located in the Price and student centers.
Students and faculty can choose from Rubio’s and Burger King, for example, or Lemongrass (as in Asian barbecue) or Bombay Coast (curry).
Going forward, though, the emphasis will be much more on higher profile local eateries.
First up will be Soda & Swine, which already has two San Diego locations (North Park and Liberty Station) and is run by prolific restaurateur Arsalun Tafazoli. The decision to bring the meatball-centric eatery to UC San Diego, though, predated the hiring of Next Wave.
Were it not for the fact he is a UCSD alumnus, Tafazoli said he probably would not have gone through the labor-intensive process of submitting a proposal to take over the campus’s former Porter’s Pub space. He said he had to hire consultants, create renderings and provide detailed financial information before being selected to open a restaurant on campus.
“If you’re an independent operator, you’re not going to have the resources the bigger corporations have to jump through all the hoops,” said Tafazoli, co-founder of CH Projects, whose restaurants include Born & Raised, Craft & Commerce and Underbelly. “So I think it’s the right movie to have Next Wave facilitate that.
“And the campus is going in a much more positive direction in terms of the kinds of places they’re bringing on campus.”
Tafazoli said he expects to spend about $900,000 on transforming the old Porter’s Pub into Soda & Swine, occupying about 2,200 square feet.
Recognizing that students are budget-conscious, he believes the menu, with meatball sliders starting at $3 apiece, should be affordable.
Nate Benedetto, co-founder of Next Wave, agreed that now that prospective tenants will be freed of the university’s formal solicitation process, he will be able to market on-campus spaces to the “best groups in town.”
“But our marching orders are to keep price in mind as we put together our tenant mix,” he added.
In the interest of managing future retail leasing more like the private sector, the university last year solicited proposals and received four interested bidders and ultimately selected Next Wave, Graham said. Next Wave will focus not just on food and beverage tenants but also urban retailers, like clothing boutiques and hair salons.
The highest priority, Graham said, is for the Living and Learning Center, which will include classroom space, lecture halls, housing for 2,000 students and 1,200 parking stalls.
“Part of our vision is to create spaces that help students escape the intenseness of studying, so having nice places to go that make them feel like they’re in a different space for a while is what we’re trying to do,” Graham said. “It’s also about convenience because most students live on campus or commute in by bus and once on campus they really don’t want to leave.
“We’re not trying to compete with the Westfields, but convenient services and food is what we’re trying to do.”