Cool Guy on Campus
By Renée M. Covino
Zack C. Voelker and his Co-op Market cater to the college crowd with a hip, urban vibe
You can't be a staid old convenience store and be successful on a college campus, especially one as hip as the University of Texas in Austin. That's why the 4,000-square-foot Co-op Market, which opened in October 2011, maintains a cool, urban vibe – one that is always open to change and improvement, according to its manager Zack C. Voelker, affectionately known as King of the Drag (the "drag" being Guadalupe Street, a main Austin strip that runs through campus and where the Co-op Market is located).
Voelker was instrumental in shaping the Co-op Market from the ground up after he was hired away from another store on the drag, a sandwich joint where he was very well-known for his friendly, interactive salesmanship (hence, his "King" nickname).
Before the Co-op Market was born, Voelker and his store's parent company The University Cooperative Society, which also operates traditional college bookstores, queried students about what was missing in their campus lives.
"We were inundated with responses," Voelker relayed, noting that most students answered in a similar way. "They needed a sustainable market/c-store somewhere near campus that would make their lives easier."
So, the university's former outlet store – which sold previous year's T-shirts and other Texas-themed trinkets at discounted prices – was demolished and the Co-op Market emerged from the dust, equipped with skylights, a low-cost "green" lighting system, a patio featuring free Wi-Fi, and contemporary music. The store also has an "amazing" assortment of food and snacks to fulfill every college co-ed's taste – some conventional, some organic, some gluten-free, some dairy-free, some vegan and some ethnic.
"It has the convenience of a convenience store, but it takes it a step further for our market. It's almost like a midway point between a c-store and a grocery store," Voelker told Convenience Store News for the Single Store Owner. "I set out to bring in not only popular items found and expected on a college campus, but strange and unique products to complement them."
"In the bottom of the glass bottle is about a half-inch of live culture. You drink it and get a positive probiotic effect. It's supposed to make you feel better and lighter on your feet," explained Voelker, adding that it's an acquired taste, one he has not yet mastered.
"But the young and old alike go for it here," he maintained. "I was truly shocked when we set up the store and I was talking to some friends from all walks of life, [and] they were telling me it's the best thing ever made. So I started stocking it and one case was gone in the blink of an eye."
Now, he carries many different flavor profiles of the Synergy brand of kombucha, and said the teas are still receiving praise from new customers, who are pleasantly surprised to find them in the store.
Items like kombucha are just a part of the Co-op Market culture (no pun intended). From conception, the parent company decided to refer to its new store as a "market" due to the fact that it sells a large variety of fresh fruits and vegetables – a specific request from its mostly student customers.
It opened selling "mega-dozens of eggs and hundreds of pounds of bananas" right off the bat, according to Voelker, but he quickly learned it also needed to offer an expanded produce assortment, including salads, onions, celery, carrots and various fruits. And it merchandises them in a somewhat unexpected way.
"We have such a hybrid assortment. We wanted to give it the allure the products deserve," Voelker explained. "Most first-timers are expecting it to be an in-and-out shopping experience, but many have told us they were blown away by the selection and the presentation." For instance, the store displays its fruit offerings on upscale wooden fruit stands and wooden fruit trees.
The Co-op Market additionally boasts the largest self-serve beverage bar in its part of town, with slushies, 16 fountain flavors, 11 flavors of coffee, fresh-brewed yerba mate, six different hot teas, five cappuccino flavors, and fresh-brewed tea daily.
The college store is also not shy about its cooler units. It has a 20-door, rear-entry cold vault that holds soda, juices, sports and (many) energy drinks, beer and some wine. It also has a large seven-door refrigerator where it merchandises milk, dairy, yogurt, lunch meats, cheeses, guacamole, hummus, etc. Its two open-air coolers house salads, high-probiotic yogurt, tuna fish kits and the famed kombucha.
Finally, the store's nine-door freezer unit stocks bagged ice, ice cream, frozen chicken, frozen tilapia filets, frozen snacks such as Hot Pockets, and frozen dinners from companies such as Amy's and Michael Angelo's.
In the way of fresh, the Co-op Market offers locally made breakfast tacos, doughnuts and pastries, gourmet sandwiches and vegan wraps. "There was an overwhelming desire for breakfast goods," Voelker said. "It was a piece we had not initially thought of, and it turned out to be an immediate necessity."
A Tale of Tacos
So initially, the store partnered with two different breakfast taco vendors who made meatless breakfast tacos wrapped and delivered to the store fresh – the first from a popular local taco establishment, and the second from an El Salvadorian restaurant.
Voelker found himself back at the taco drawing board, though, after each vendor subsequently decided to get out of the breakfast business. He did a little more research and decided to take a hit on margins (he typically likes to be in the 35-percent range on most items, but is well below that on tacos), and ventured down the more expensive route.
"But it all resulted in positivity for us," he said. He now has a taco vendor that delivers shelf-stable tacos that last longer (about 24 hours) and are USDA-approved. And not only does this latest vendor provide tacos with sausage, bacon and chorizo, it also provides other daypart items such as beef and bean burritos and beef and chicken fajitas.
The beauty of the shelf-stable method, Voelker said, is that "I can warm them and put them out as business ebbs and flows. Plus, someone can come in on a Friday night and we can sell them an egg and sausage taco if they want one. So now, a breakfast necessity turned into a breakfast and lunch gold mine."
Giving up even more on margin, Voelker will offer his customers a better deal on two taco items, but he said the tradeoff is well worth it. "I have grown my breakfast traffic significantly, which is what I intended to do. My food traffic is up, awareness is up. This is clearly more beneficial to the store," he said.
Beyond food and drink items, the Co-op Market also caters to its campus clientele with an assortment of school supplies, including blue books, pencils, pens and calculators. Voelker said these items come in handy for early-morning students who often do not plan well.
What the Co-op Market doesn't have is gas or tobacco. The store goes out of its way to offer healthy options and didn't want to contradict itself, according to the manager. Also, Austin is quickly becoming a non-smoking city with limited designated smoking places.
"Even though the Co-op Market is a separate entity, we are so entrenched with the university and it took a huge step in making the entire campus non-smoking," Voelker noted. "It did this shortly after we opened and it was coincidental to our decision, but it turned out to be a good move on our part."
Merchandise from a More Visible Cooler Lineup – When the Co-op Market originally opened last year, the freezer and refrigerators were configured in an "L" shape and were not visible to customers when they walked in.
"We took advantage of the time we had over the Christmas break and we paid to have them moved to the left wall so they could be seen under LED lights immediately upon entering," explained Voelker. Before, chips and bread were merchandised on that wall. "By far, it was the [biggest] improvement we've made thus far. Customers can see that we're not just your average c-store," he added.
Keep Coffee at Modest Prices – Because the Co-op Market is surrounded by high-end coffee houses like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean, Voelker decided to "take the high road" and sell coffee at a modest 79, 89 and 99 cents for small, medium and large cup sizes, respectively.
"I like to make sure our students know that I respect the brand names, but here I'm supporting them. I want them to tell their friends I have cheap coffee, and then when they come in, they see the breadth of what we have."
Utilize Vendors to Bolster Business – The Co-op Market learned to take advantage of all that its vendors have to offer and perhaps inspire them to give a little extra, too. "I ask them, ‘How can you improve traffic at my store for your product?' and as a result, we do lots of demos, sampling and promotions," Voelker relayed.
He uses the store's patio to attract passersby to the happenings.
Pay Attention to the Days of the Week – The days of the week do matter to Co-op Market as it quickly learned after opening. "Mondays and Wednesdays are my golden days," said Voelker, who further explained that Mondays are usually very strong in morning sales and late afternoon sales, when students stock up for the week on their way home from class.
Wednesdays are when there are only 50-minute classes, so before every turn of the hour, the store is crowded. Tuesdays and Thursdays, on the other hand, are 90-minute class days so the traffic is fewer and farther between. Fridays are the slowest because Thursday nights are "college nights" or party nights, and students tend to sleep in on Friday mornings/afternoons.
Saturdays can be busy days, especially on home college football game days, but Sundays are typically quiet. Voelker stocks and merchandises according to these days of the week, but is always ready for changes to take place.
570 Lake Cook Rd, Suite 310
Deerfield IL 60015
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