Hodson Swipes Business: WC Dining Affects Local Food Economy

Pete Brocker, owner of Play It Again Sam, converses with a local at lunch hour. Brocker has reduced his work staff and raised food prices to compensate for the dip in business, which he attributes to the campus dining hall. Photo Courtesy of Alice Horner.
By Alice Horner

It’s the center of the college social circle that most students take for granted, and it’s hurting downtown businesses by no fault of the college.

Local eateries have seen their business drop since the beginning of the winter because of the low-priced buffet-style dining offered at Hodson Hall.
Even the most popular downtown spots are feeling a pinch. Pete Brocker, who has owned Play It Again Sam for five years, blames both the dining hall and the colder weather for the drop in business. “After Thanksgiving, everything just went down. It’s killing people around here. Anyone from the public can get a meal for $7, and nobody can compete with that,” he said.

Residents alone can’t keep the downtown businesses alive. According to a recent economic impact study, off-campus spending by WC students generates 14.9 million dollars, while visitors to Washington College generate 2.9 million.

Brocker said his food prices have increased by 25 percent. In order to compensate, he took away his full lunch menu for the month of February. “This is the first time I’ve raised them[prices] in a year-and-a-half, by a whole fifty cents,” he said.
Brocker has kept a few workers for the weekend shifts, but has let go of seven or eight employees. “I’m the only one here, eleven hours a day,” he said.

Smaller businesses like Herb’s Soups and Such on High Street, which only offers carry-out service, have felt the pinch as well. “We see the same customers but a lower frequency. We have definitely been affected,” said Christine Will, co-owner of Herbs.

Jeff Carroll, owner of The Fish Whistle, noted a dip in business around the same time as Brocker. “We really didn’t notice a decrease until this past winter, before the holidays. And it’s the lunch trade that’s affected the most,” he said.

Carroll expressed frustration that there’s a larger audience for a dining facility that he believes is lower in quality than his restaurant. “I don’t think the quality is as good as what I offer. It seems like its wrong for the college to offer that,” he said. “If you average it out per meal of what they pay for a dining plan it’d be much more than what local people pay. Somewhere along the line, somebody’s subsidizes the fact that they can sell food for that cheap.”

The popularity of the dining facility is no fault of the college. Donna Dhue-Wilkins, director of Dining Services, said that the impact on downtown businesses was a feat accomplished exclusively by word-of-mouth.

“Our sole focus is the student here. I’m not advertising, I’m not seeking the outside people, they’re coming here,” she said. “From what I understand, it’s always been the policy to make this part of the community.”

Brocker is at a loss for how to fix the problem and increase student traffic downtown. “I don’t know what to do to get kids to come downtown. I mean, what are they going to buy? Chestertown is definitely a town with a college,” said Brocker.

Additional Reporting by Lindsay Haislip

February 25, 2011
Volume LXXXI Issue 16

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