Central’s Food Factory struggles to stay afloat

The Food Factory, which replaced Devil’s Bistro this year, has experienced low student turnout since the Fall semester began.
The Food Factory, which replaced Devil’s Bistro this year, has experienced low student turnout since the Fall semester began.

One of Duke’s newest on-campus eateries may not be around much longer.

The Food Factory, which moved from Cary, N.C., to Central Campus, has experienced less than optimal sales since opening at the beginning of the academic year. The Food Factory generated greater revenue in October compared with September—a month during which owner Jim Schmid said he lost approximately $15,000. Although the situation is improving, Schmid said he not sure whether the Food Factory will stay on campus.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a long time,” he said.

In early October, the eatery reduced its hours so it no longer serves lunch on weekdays. It also began offering food delivery services through the Merchants on Points program and tailored its menu to student preferences for particular food items, Schmid said.

“We’re trying to change. It’s getting better—we’re learning,” Schmid said.

Key issues for the venue include the need for updated signage and parking spaces accessible to customers without parking permits, he said, adding that the business originally intended to increase profits by attracting non-student customers.

Rick Johnson, assistant vice president of housing and dining, said the changes have upped sales in the past week.

“This is the second partner we’ve had that’s really struggled during the day, and they might have hit the nail on the head by closing during the day,” Johnson said. “They’re starting to understand their primary market is Duke students.”

Poor sales are partially a result of the Food Factory’s location. Central resident Isabelle Brogna, a sophomore, said she has never been to the eatery.

“I’m on West [Campus], so it’s easier to get food conveniently,” Brogna said. “Food Factory just doesn’t seem worth a special trip.”

The Food Factory is not the first eatery on Central Campus to struggle in sales.

Central’s previous restaurant—the Devil’s Bistro, run by Bon Appetit Management Company—opened in April 2010 in conjunction with Mill Village. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said the Devil’s Bistro was ultimately unprofitable.

When the Devil’s Bistro opened, the now defunct Campus Council hosted an event called “Grand Central” to celebrate the opening of the entire complex.

The Food Factory opened with little fanfare, though Duke Dining invested about $30,000 to support the Food Factory, Johnson said.

“The building had already had a grand opening, and it was up to the Food Factory to do as little or as much advertising as they wanted,” Johnson wrote in an email Monday.

Andrew Schreiber, former Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee co-chair and Trinity ’11, sent an email Oct. 5 to Moneta and Johnson, detailing his disappointment with Duke Dining’s handling of the Food Factory. The venue was first proposed as a potential new eatery to DUSDAC and some members of Duke Student Government in November 2008.

“Many of us, within both DSG and DUSDAC, worked for years to make this vendor’s appearance on campus a reality.... I am deeply disturbed that the administrative support that was lent to Devil’s Bistro has not been afforded to Food Factory,” said Schreiber, also former DSG chief of staff. “I urge you to direct administrative funds to promote or prop up Food Factory until it has been given a fair chance.”

Schreiber said in an Oct. 20 interview said he never received a response from the email recipients.

The University has the same incentive to ensure the success of the Food Factory as it did with Devil’s Bistro, Moneta said.

“There is no venue that I would prize more highly than another,” Moneta said.

Communication with Duke Dining has been difficult since Jim Wulforst—former director of dining services—stepped down from his position in August, Schmid noted.

“When Jim Wulforst left, I really lost my only friend here,” Schmid said. “We had had a lot of verbal agreements and that all went away.”

The University is currently conducting a national search for Wulforst’s replacement. Johnson is overseeing dining in Duke Dining in the interim, with assistance from Barbara Stokes, assistant director of dining.

“We were dealing with a headless entity in dining services,” Schmid said.

Sanette Tanaka contributed reporting.


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