Wisconsin Grocer Caters To Student Housing

by Katie Sloan

Madison, Wis. — Fresh Madison Market is hoping to serve students living close to campus. The company’s owner says the flexibility to suit any market makes the business a good tenant in mixed-use projects.

Madison, Wis. — Fresh Madison Market is a three-year-old store that grew out of a concept familiar to most student housing developers: Living close to campus is becoming more important to students every year.

The small store, owned by Jeff Maurer, operates out of the large urban-style Lucky Building, a mixed-use student housing complex near the University of Wisconsin. It’s a 22,000-square-foot grocery store that also serves hot meals, offers a soup and salad bar and sells beer and wine. The best part, Maurer says, is that students living above the store can, and often do, shop for essentials in their slippers. Residents take an elevator from their apartments to the store without ever having to go outside.

“It’s a good set-up for a place like Wisconsin, where today we have freezing rain and eight inches of snow on the ground,” Maurer says.

He plans to open a similar store, which will be called Fresh City Market, in a mixed-use project Campus Acquisitions is developing near Purdue University for delivery in fall 2014. The project, 720 Northwestern, is adjacent to campus. The five-story building will include 230 units, 490 beds, and 442 parking spaces.

One of the biggest off-campus development trends in recent years is to build as close to university turf as possible, with “walk-to-campus” frequently cited as the amenity in highest demand among students. As a result, mixed-use housing with retail is becoming more common, but balancing the right mix of tenants while also managing purpose-built student housing can be an operational challenge.

Fresh Madison Market’s investors are confident Maurer has zeroed in on addressing this challenge. With strong market research behind its development plans, the company designs and stocks its stores purposefully toward its target demographic. The small footprint of the store means customers generally buy smaller quantities, more often than a traditional grocery store.

“This is more of a European or New York City style market,” Maurer says. “It’s a very low transaction count. Our customers might be in dorms or sharing a refrigerator, so they can’t buy a lot at once, and their apartments don’t have a lot of room for storage.”

Maurer credits not only the compact square footage, but also the small size of the company itself as a source of strength in serving the student market. “When we first opened in Madison we had studied the market in terms of income, ethnicity and several other factors, except for religion,” he says. “I didn’t know there were 6,000 Jewish students at UW who would be shopping for Passover. Likewise, there are about 3,000 Muslim students, and Halal meat is important to have in the store.

“We’re not only serving students, but faculty and staff as well. We’re independent and we can change and evolve quickly, unlike a national chain. It’s amazing how much we’ve changed based on feedback from customers.”

Maurer says he is looking into new university markets for future expansion. Though he isn’t naming them, he says they are universities with large numbers of international students.

“International students are extremely important during the down time for Christmas when the majority of the students leave campus,” he says. “They are my primary customer during holiday breaks.”

— Lynn Peisner

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