By George Tatoris
Updated on Jan. 30, 2017 with statistics.
Every year is the same. December comes around and finals week hits, the air grows colder, the nights longer and each day another cluster of students escape to the warmth of their homes, leaving an increasingly empty campus behind them. It’s higher education in hibernation.
While the campus may sleep over winter break, Campus Town does not. This past break, the new businesses that opened primarily to provide convenience to students were inconvenienced themselves after their primary customers went home for the next month. During the fall semester of 2016, 3,752 students lived on campus, according to Associate Director of Housing Emily Lleo. Over winter break, approximately 100 students lived on campus.
Evan Yap, the manager of Yummy Sushi, witnessed her once-bustling Asian restaurant grow quiet. On Sunday, Jan. 22 — move-in day for most students — the winter struggle is invisible. Students and families alike were seated for dinner that night.
“You hardly see anyone walking around anymore,” Yap said.
Kevin Meneses, who works behind the counter at Mexican Mariachi Grill next door, supported Yap’s claim, stating there were less people at the restaurant over winter break. With Mariachi Grill and Yummy Sushi having just opened in September and October, respectively, this was their first time experiencing the winter lull — neither establishment knew to what extent the lack of students would hurt business.
At Yummy Sushi, a majority of the clientele were students, Yap said. Those few that weren’t students were mostly regulars at the first location that lived closer to the new one. These few extra customers were not enough to overcome the lack of students.
Escalating the problem was the winter weather, Yap said. The few students on campus for winter session preferred to stay indoors or eat in on-campus facilities, which are closer to residence halls. During winter session, Eickhoff Hall remains open, albeit for limited hours, as well as the Lion’s Den, according to tcnj.edu.
Presentations held by Campus Town before companies moved in stressed the importance of not relying too heavily on students, however, many businesses seem to have underestimated by just how much.
Greg Lentine, the director of Campus Development and vice president of sales and marketing of the PRC Group, the private partner in the Campus Town project, said the public didn’t realize the stores were open to them as well as students.
“When we first opened this, there seemed to be in the public some confusion on whether or not the public was allowed here,” Lentine said.
Campus Town is currently working to reach out to the public through advertisements and articles in local papers. There was some improvement — Lentine said some restaurants are reporting half of their customers are locals, however, the winter lull still stings.
“If you have 100 percent customers and then half your customers leave, you feel it. You see it. It’s obvious,” Lentine said.
RedBerry Frozen Yogurt saw a lot of business from the public over the summer, but they benefit most from students, owner Sherry Havier said.
“When the students are here, we definitely do much better business, so it’s more students than community,” Havier said.
Lentine also mentioned that the first year for these businesses is learning the ropes of the new location and adapting the next year. While Mariachi Grill and Yummy Sushi wrestled with their newfound winter worries, RedBerry, which opened the year before, had already learned to cope.
“Business drops off dramatically,” Havier said. “But to cope with it, we shortened our hours, my husband (Art, who is also an owner) and I worked most of the shifts by ourselves without paying labor and we didn’t order as much product and we held our breath until it was over.”
In addition to the lack of customers, less students meant limited staff. To prevent understaffing on days neither Havier nor her husband could work, they hired high school and community college students to help out.
Both Lentine and Havier hope that, as new businesses open, the public will have more incentive to visit Campus Town. According to Lentine, Campus Town expects to open a hair cutter, an InFocus Urgent Care, a gourmet hot dog store, a yoga studio, a nail salon and a PostNet, which is a printing and mail store, in the next six months.
Much like other Campus Town establishments, RedBerry had some idea of what might happen without students to give them business, but underestimated just how hard it’d hurt.
“We were panicked last year,” Havier said. “We didn’t know that was going to happen,” Havier said. “We didn’t realize how big of an effect it was going to have.”
They spent the rest of the year preparing for the following winter. Yummy Sushi is currently doing the same for the three-month long summer break.
“We still have to try our best to stay open,” Yap said.