To the college dining staples of Salisbury steak and shepherd's pie, students at George Mason University can now add a $16.99 rack of barbecue ribs, an $18.99 filet mignon and soon, if they are of age, a shot of tequila or a vodka martini, and charge it all to their college meal cards.
When a branch of Damon's Grill opened at the Fairfax City campus Oct. 3, it was more than a response to student requests for more dining options. It launched the chain and George Mason food contractor Sodexho USA into an experiment at moving college dining a step upscale, adding a full-service restaurant with a bar to the fast food franchises and burger joints that are standard on college campuses.
It is the latest development in a trend that began more than a decade ago when national food retailers including Starbucks, Taco Bell, and Subway started occupying real estate in student centers, dorms, and even campus libraries.
Instead of wandering elsewhere when they want to splurge or catch a college football game in a sports-bar setting, George Mason students could go to Student Union I, order a Damon's Mean Green Tea (rum, vodka, gin, Midori melon liqueur, triple sec and Sprite) and settle in.
A liquor license is pending before the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. University officials expect it to be approved, and they say they will allow alcoholic beverages to be purchased with "Mason Money," the campus debit card system that students use in dining halls and fast-food outlets on campus.
"Alcohol will be served at Damon's, just as if it was located at Tysons Corner Center," said Daniel Walsch, a university spokesman.
George Mason, a public university with three campuses in Northern Virginia, serves beer at some Patriot Center events, but is alcohol-free otherwise.
"When I first heard about it, I was shocked they were going to have liquor on campus," said Peter Fisher, a 21-year-old junior. Fisher sat with two friends last Wednesday afternoon at Damon's bar, which is stocked with shot glasses, plastic jugs of margarita and pina colada mix, and a blender, all largely sidelined until the license is approved.
But the platters of ribs are being served freely in the meantime, and if the Damon's at George Mason succeeds, Gaithersburg-based Sodexho USA said it might put similar branded restaurants on more of the 900 colleges and universities where it runs food services.
Marketing research by campus food-service companies has showed a consistent demand for more options in a campus environment that has moved well beyond the traditional dining hall, with set hours and limited menus.
"The audience of students is not quite as captive as they were in the past," said Jodi Smith, marketing manager for the National Association of College & University Food Services. "There has been a cultural shift. . . . Students of today view dining as entertainment."
"We have a far more sophisticated student than ever before," said Vicki Dunn, a senior director of marketing services for Sodexho. Requests for Qdoba Mexican Grill, Einstein Bagels and Jamba Juice have overtaken those for traditional fast-food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald's, she said.
That demand is only now beginning to translate into the arrival of restaurants like Damon's on campuses. Sodexho competitor Aramark Corp., which has food contracts with about 400 colleges, operates Chili's Too, a modified version of the Southwest-theme chain restaurant, at Clemson University and Baylor University. It serves alcoholic beverages at Clemson.
Sodexho executives said they contacted Damon's after surveying George Mason students and concluding that, in a high income area like Fairfax County. the many commuter and graduate students coming to the campus would have money to spend and would respond to something more than another fast food outlet.
"One of the solutions was to put in a sit-down restaurant so students would not walk off campus for an evening meal," said Tatjana Keuper, Sodexho's senior vice president of marketing for campus services. "Part of the experience for students is that they can get alcoholic beverages at those restaurants."
While beer and wine are served in some local college dining facilities, the availability of mixed drinks for purchase with a campus debit card is unusual.
George Washington University, in downtown Washington, franchised its entire dining service: Students put money on meal cards, which they can use at a food court, some off-campus delis, stores and restaurants, and ice cream and sandwich franchises tucked into a dormitory. However, "Colonial Cash" and the school's "GWorld Card" cannot be used to purchase alcoholic beverages or tobacco.
The University of Maryland operates its own dining halls on the College Park campus and also has franchises in some locations. The school serves beer and wine at a Student Union eatery, but only during the day, when many non-students eat there, and at the school's golf course grill.
Georgetown University serves beer and wine at its Hoyas Restaurant, but students cannot use their campus debit cards to buy it.
For Damon's, a sports-theme chain based in Ohio that has more than 100 restaurants around the country, the branch at George Mason is a chance to tap Sodexho's deep reach into the college food business.
"We are always looking for new venues that would make sense," said Shannon R. Foust, Damon's president and chief executive. "Getting into their portfolio of brands as a strategic partner was very impressive."
The students are impressed to contemplate the addition of fire-roasted Atlantic salmon and mango mai tais to George Mason campus offerings.
"This beats a lot of the food on campus," said Sameen Kashfi, a 20-year-old business management major who ate lunch at Damon's this week. "The Burger King tastes like cardboard here."