Wildcat Meal Plan forges student-community bond

Anne Broache

Evanston eateries are anticipating a cozier connection to several hundred Northwestern students this year, thanks to the launch of the new Wildcat Meal Plan.

The 15 currently participating restaurants have installed the software needed to begin accepting the Wildcat Meal Plan card. The businesses range from Quizno’s Classic Subs, 812 Davis St., and Dunkin’ Donuts, 1728 Sherman Ave., to Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, 1557 Sherman Ave., and Trattoria Demi, 1571 Sherman Ave.

Run by Off Campus Access, a Virginia-based student meal-service company, the plan presents an alternative to traditional on-campus offerings. Students can sign up for an account by phone, mail or online at www.wildcatmealplan.com. They then receive a Wildcat Meal Plan card, which costs nothing and functions as a debit card at selected restaurants. Cardholders add money to their account and replenish the funds as needed.

The plan is entirely separate from NU’s on-campus food services, run by SodexhoUSA.

“We’ve had a little bit of confusion about whether the (Wildcat Meal Plan) card is separate from the WildCARD,” said Leigh Jansson, Communication ’02 and market manager for the Wildcat Meal Plan.

But once students learn what the plan involves, Jansson said, they have been enthusiastic. Using the card to purchase meals also gives students access to members-only discounts and “restaurant of the week” promotions. LePeep, 827 Church St., this week’s featured restaurant, is offering “buy one entree and get the second one half price” discounts for cardholders.

Because of its discounts, Jansson said the card makes financial sense even to infrequent off-campus diners.

“I wish it had been there when I was at Northwestern,” she added.

Not all students share her sentiments. Morgan Weed, a Communication freshman, viewed the alternative meal plan as unnecessary.

“If you’re already paying for a meal plan, how many meals are you really eating?” she said. “Why not just pay with cash?”

Still, Mike Dolezal, regional director for Off Campus Access, reported that a “big mix” of the population — on- and off-campus residents, freshmen and seniors — signed on for the plan after receiving brochures the company mailed out this summer.

Similarly positive responses have come from the businesses participating in the program, both in Evanston and around the 23 other campuses where Off Campus Access operates.

The businesses pay nothing up front for the meal plan software but deliver a commission on all sales made to Wildcat cardholders.

At Chili’s Grill and Bar, 1765 Maple Ave., general manager Kevin Olson has not yet seen anyone pay using a Wildcat card, although the restaurant is ready to accept them. He said he was optimistic about the extra opportunity for students to spend meal money off campus.

“I’m sure the meals get kind of boring on campus, right?” he said.

Off Campus Access has marketed the plan to parents as an additional way for them to ensure that their children are allocating money for food. And for Daniel Kelch, owner of Lulu’s at 804 Davis St., marketing to parents is what makes the program viable.

“That’s an avenue that local businesses don’t necessarily have access to,” he said.

Kelch saw joining the off-campus plan as a way to strengthen the community’s relationship with NU.

“For us, it’s a real simple way to get to the students,” he said. “It’s a no brainer.”