Tribe Square empty after The Crust’s Aug. 9 eviction

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August 23, 2017

7:44 PM

Four restaurants have attempted success in Tribe Square since its opening in 2011, and with The Crust’s eviction Aug. 9, all four have closed, leaving the entire ground floor vacant as the new school year begins. For students, the closures present a devaluation in their Dining Dollars. For the former owners and employees, and for the building itself, the future remains unclear.

I think it’s really troubling that there’s not going to be any places in Tribe Square for all the new students to go to,” Class of 2019 President Jonah Yesowitz ’19 said. “It’s important that the school understands that this is not something that they can just sit on. It’s an issue that demands immediate action.”

“I think it’s really troubling that there’s not going to be any places in Tribe Square for all the new students to go to,” Class of 2019 President Jonah Yesowitz ’19 said. “It’s important that the school understands that this is not something that they can just sit on. It’s an issue that demands immediate action.”

Yesowitz is one of many students who have raised concern over limited dining dollar options in the wake of The Crust’s eviction.

“The best thing people can do right now is communicate to the administration,” Class of 2020 President Kelsey Vita ’20 said. “Not only that we would like to see more Dining Dollar options, but also about what we would like to see replace The Crust and Pita Pit.”

William and Mary Dining Services has announced new Dining Dollar options for the fall, including late-night hours for Cosi and a permanent location for Qdoba, which previously was only available during late-night, in the Student Exchange.

While these changes have had a generally positive response from students, many are still unhappy about the lack of off-campus options. Members of the Student Assembly are planning to meet with Auxiliary Services once the semester begins to address student concerns.

Williamsburg City Councilman Benny Zhang ’16 expressed frustration with the vacancies as well.

I am deeply disappointed by the departure of the last remaining tenant from Tribe Square,” Zhang said in an online statement. “The [William and Mary Real Estate] Foundation should consider the impact their actions have on student residents. If they have imminent plans for filling these vacant spaces, they should release them as soon as possible.”

“I am deeply disappointed by the departure of the last remaining tenant from Tribe Square,” Zhang said in an online statement. “The [William and Mary Real Estate] Foundation should consider the impact their actions have on student residents. If they have imminent plans for filling these vacant spaces, they should release them as soon as possible.”

The William and Mary Real Estate Foundation is an independent 501(c)(3) that owns Tribe Square and partners with local broker RJS Associates, Inc. to find potential tenants and determine the rent. The Real Estate Foundation is run by Executive Director Nancy Buchanan and a Board of Directors that includes the president of the College, one vice president of the College, two members appointed by the Board of Visitors, two appointed by the Board of Trustees, and three appointed by the Board itself.

The reduced dining options have been a particular concern for students as meal plans remain mandatory for all students living in on-campus housing, a fact that has made it very difficult for third party restaurants to succeed, according to former Mooyah owner Alpen Patel.

Mandatory meal plans took effect on a rolling basis in 2011 to cover costs of the Sadler Center’s dining hall expansion, and by 2013 the effects were tangible.

“Before mandatory went into play, everyone was doing good,” Patel said. “Most everyone who lived in the apartments above were eating at Tribe Square. But then the next year, those same students were having to walk across the street and go to the cafeteria, and they were bringing back boxes of food … That’s the year that everything started going downhill.”

In 2014, the Tribe Square restaurants negotiated deals with Sodexo to accept Dining Dollars as subcontractors, but business had already dropped too severely for Subway, which closed that June.

For the businesses that remained, getting on the meal plan was a double-edged sword. Meal swipes were off the table, and Dining Dollar purchases meant that Sodexo would take a substantial cut. For Mooyah, 13 percent of all dining dollar sales went directly to Sodexo, while an additional 9 percent went to Mooyah HQ as a franchise fee.

Pita Pit, also a franchise, faced the same dilemma. The payouts were not the only difficult part of staying afloat.

“That’s the fun part that not a lot of people know, because a lot of people were assuming that we were happy that we were on the Dining Dollars,” Patel said. “But what happened was that at the beginning of that school year, the very year that we were able to take Dining Dollars, we were doing great. Up until winter break and everything, we were doing great. And then Sodexo realized that they were losing a lot of money to us with the Dining Dollars.”

In the spring semester of 2015, a number of changes to campus dining, such as the return of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches to Marketplace and increased hours for the two campus food trucks, made competition a lot stiffer, according to Patel. Between reduced patronage and missing out on 22 percent of student sales, the rent became a growing concern.

“My rent there for my Mooyah was almost $6,200 a month,” Patel said. “The rent they charge there is too high, especially with the kids paying on the meal plan.”

Former Crust owner Paul Marsh shared the same sentiment

“The rent’s extremely high,” Marsh said. “I mean, the rent per square footage is ridiculous.”

Marsh said that when The Crust was evicted, he and his partner were paying around $6,400 a month, more than 10 percent more than what they paid when they first bought the restaurant in July of 2015. Those rates became especially problematic during the summers, according to Marsh.

“When the summer gets here, it’s dead,” Marsh said. “We had days when we did two or three hundred dollars. I lose almost all my employees.”

It was these kinds of draughts that made The Crust fall a month behind on the rent, leading to an eviction notice that Marsh said came as a complete shock.

“We have a history of going down in the summer and coming back out when school gets back,” Marsh said. “We catch up. It’s not like this hadn’t happened before, and it was worse before. I mean this really floored us. It was unbelievable.”

According to College Spokesperson Suzanne Seurattan, the owners of The Crust had developed a pattern of being late to pay rent.

“[The owners] were behind in rent and this had become a pattern,” Seurattan said in an email. “The William and Mary Real Estate Foundation chose to repossess the property so that a sustainable business plan for the future can be developed.”

This idea of a sustainable business plan for third party vendors remains the goal, according to Vice President of Finance and Administration Sam Jones, who also sits on the Board of Directors for the Real Estate Foundation.

“My hope is we don’t sit there with vacant spaces,” Jones said. “We fill it with things, and we fill it with things that students are interested in.”

According to Jones, the failure of previous tenants is more due to unrealistic business plans than high rents.

“I think student demand for some of those products wasn’t as strong,” Jones said. “The site is still really convenient, so maybe we just had the wrong product lines.”

Jones said he understands student concerns over Dining Dollar devaluation, but he believes that ultimately the effect won’t be so dramatic.

“I’m not sure it’s as devalued as they think because if the student use of the facilities had been there, had been that aggressive, then maybe the businesses would still be there,” Jones said. “Maybe they wouldn’t have struggled as much … we miss it when it’s gone, but, well how frequently did you go?”

This theory and the drop in student business over the past three years clash with the apparent popularity of places like Mooyah and Pita Pit, both of which won national social media contests in 2013 for being fan-favorite franchises. Since moving to New Town, the Williamsburg Mooyah has seen an exponential boom in business, according to Patel.

“That franchise is doing unbelievable right now,” Patel said. “For the past month it’s been in the top five of all Mooyah’s sales.”

While the Real Estate Foundation has continued searching for tenants, none of the vacancies have been filled since the first closure in 2014, begging the question of whether or not anyone wants to take the place of a failed business.

“People say ‘what about’ all the time,” Jones said. “A lot of those are ‘what about if nobody wants to pay for it,’ so of course there’s that issue.”

With this possibility in mind, the College remains open to the idea of using Tribe Square’s first floor for different purposes, such as expanding the building’s student apartments.

“We’ve not rushed into any of those, because that’s not our preferred scenario,” Jones said. “You would think that their business plans could be more precise now … I think people will be more informed as they consider the site.”

For the former owners, the reality seems less optimistic.

“There are never going to be restaurants there again,” Patel said. “If you’re not having the business, you’ve got to come down on the rent, but they didn’t want to work on the rent with anybody.”

Marsh agreed that from his experience, something major needs to change before Tribe Square becomes a viable location.

“I mean, nobody’s made it in there,” Marsh said. “I think they wanted us out. I think they want everybody out.”

For now, the ground floor remains hollow, with no confirmation of what is to come.

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  • Rick Stevenson