In an email to on-campus students on Sept. 11, Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma announced that the college would launch a new partnership with Delivery Express, a local food delivery service akin to Uber Eats, DoorDash and other competitors. Apart from expanding dining options for students, the program has bolstered business for restaurants in town, many of which have experienced a loss in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The program allows students to order from over 20 in-town restaurants from 5 to 10 p.m. on designated days of the week, and looks to both improve the student experience on campus . In his email to students, Kozuma wrote that the initiative was a response to student feedback regarding the administration’s policy prohibiting students from leaving campus to get takeout food or having food delivered to campus. “We are interested in providing the best experience possible to our students,” said Joe Flueckiger, director of dining services. “Delivery Express was a natural partner: they service over 20 local restaurants and their drivers work directly for Delivery Express, the service is appealing to students for the range of choices, and it economically benefits the maximum number of local restaurants.”
Local restaurants in Amherst weathered severe economic devastation starting in mid-March of this year, when the colleges and university sent students home and Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker prohibited indoor dining soon after. The sudden developments forced businesses into survival mode, with many laying off staff, scaling back operations, and even temporarily closing down. Those that stayed open faced new challenges in shifting to a takeout and delivery model that could keep staff safe and service the residents who remained.
In allowing students to order food to campus, the new initiative aims to bring Amherst restaurants back some of that business from students that they depend on. “The impact is very real,” Flueckiger said. “Supporting these businesses is one of the ways in which we are good citizens in our community, supporting staff, businesses and the town. The arrangement with Delivery Express is beneficial to students as well as the restaurants they represent by providing access to markets that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
The program has been well-received by students, many of whom remarked that they had a good experience with the service, despite never having used Delivery Express in the past. Mary Kate McGranahan ’23 said that the service exceeded her expectations in getting food to students in a timely and organized manner, and Bridget Cassata ’24 said she preferred the greater variety of options that Delivery Express offered in comparison to Val. McGranahan also said she had been disappointed that, prior to the launch of the partnership, the college was “bringing students back but failing to let them support the economy of the town in any way.”
The effect of this response from students has not gone unnoticed. “It’s my understanding that last week, over 150 dinners were delivered to Amherst College four nights in a row,” said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, which works to promote business and cultural activity in downtown Amherst. “That right there is phenomenal.” Crazy Noodles owner David Dali also called the new initiative “a great step,” referencing the influx of orders to the college that his business saw in the last week. “It’s definitely working,” he said.
Operating in a college town dependent on students to drive the local economy, Amherst businesses were hit hard by the pandemic when students largely vacated the area last spring.
“When the colleges and the university around us shuttered and sent the students home, that was like a light switch for our business area,” Gould said. “Thirty to 35 thousand people removed them from this area and from being patrons of our businesses within, what, four days? … It really was a multi, multi, multi-million dollar effect on our business community here.”
In the face of these new challenges, the restaurants of Amherst were quick to adapt. Crazy Noodles, for instance, got extra phone lines to keep up with the replacement of indoor dining with takeout, while Antonio’s Pizza created a delivery service from scratch to cater to people as they stayed at home. The Town of Amherst also offered aid, disbursing relief and resiliency micro-grants, purchasing PPE in bulk for workers and furnishing outdoor dining accommodations to help restaurants reopen safely.
But while restaurateurs have expressed appreciation for the town’s support, Dali spoke of the unpredictability that persists without the full return of the student population. “It’s just chaotic. Some days are very busy, some days are not, and we just can’t tell,” he said. “That makes it really tough to staff people, to just get all the ingredients correct, and not have vegetables and meats and everything go bad. It’s just tough all around.”
Gould estimates that most of the businesses downtown are only sitting at 20 to 25 percent of their normal business and notes the sustained effect that the colleges’ limited reopening has had and will continue to have on businesses.
“Even [with UMass being] online, we have about 7,000 students living off-campus. So [for the first couple weeks of Amherst College and UMass coming back] we had parents here, we had a nice uptick in business,” she said. “But with the college and the university closing early, and all the students being expected to depart pre-Thanksgiving and not coming back until after the holidays, it’s going to be a long, hard, hit for our businesses.”
Dali also touched on the financial challenges created by having to rely on a delivery service to do business. “If an average dish costs $10, you have the ingredients [costing] about a third of the price, then you got to give up another 25 to 30 percent of that for deliveries, [so] we’re not making much,” he said. “The margins are very slim, but you know, there’s nothing you can do.”
Aidan Lyons, a shift manager at Antonio’s Pizza, noted as well that although the new business from the college’s partnership has been great, it would be more beneficial to Antonio’s if they were allowed to deliver directly to campus, rather than through a third party. Nonetheless, he acknowledged the importance of the care and caution that the college is taking to minimize the possible spread of the coronavirus, and urged Amherst students to continue taking advantage of the partnership with Delivery Express.
Gould echoed this sentiment, adding, “That is probably one of the best things we can do … to support and maintain our community and our town, so that when the Amherst College students return in a post-Covid world, they have the vibrant downtown that they love and support and enjoy.”