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Opening New Doors for Small, Local Restaurants

Insights & Innovation |  4.13.2021
As the founder of Athenian Grill, Ilias Pappas prides himself on always thinking ahead. So, when we approached the Lexington-based restaurateur about developing food concepts for the University of Kentucky’s sports stadium in 2018, he jumped at the opportunity.

Athenian Grill was already a local staple beloved for its Mediterranean fare. But Pappas sensed students were seeking additional options for their game-day concessions—and this is where they could make their mark.

“Aramark knows how to do food, and they could do this themselves,” says Pappas. “For a local business to be included is a great compliment.”

Going Local, at Scale

Athenian Grill’s introduction to the higher education dining scene was part of an Aramark pilot program now called Local Restaurant Row. “We’ve long worked with local restaurants, food trucks, and chefs—but by formalizing these efforts, we can deliver even more on-trend, authentic food experiences for our clients while also alleviating some of the administrative burdens our operators face when managing these relationships,” shares Matthew Weiss, Vice President, Brand Development.

Local Restaurant Row combines global flavors with local favorites, such as Athenian Grill's Greek gyro.
Local Restaurant Row is a technology-enabled guest restaurant finder and management platform, available across our business dining, higher education, and healthcare lines of business. It allows teams to identify, evaluate, contract with, schedule, and manage local restaurant partnerships.

Not only are clients excited about the menu variety and authenticity, but supporting local businesses is important to our guests. Having these partners physically in our locations brings the flavors of the neighborhood to them.

The platform also gives businesses like Athenian Grill the chance to actively provide their information for consideration with regard to specific service opportunities, which several hundred have already done. Our process is selective, as prospective local partners must complete an initial qualification assessment. Once approved, partners are continuously evaluated across a variety of operational criteria, such as licensure and safety practices.

The small businesses gain new revenue streams they may not have previously considered, while our locations enjoy a variety of globally inspired cuisine that consumers crave.

“We’ve had partners thank us for introducing them—through Local Restaurant Row—to different accounts and possibilities,” Weiss attests. “That’s a good feeling.”

How Local Restaurant Row comes to life at a location is customizable, from a dedicated café space with rotating partners to a stand-alone food truck. A variety of branding packages allow our clients to showcase local partners in a way that aligns with the existing look and feel of the café.

Room to Grow

In 2015, Dr. Steven Bier and Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier founded Popcorn for the People to address the unemployment challenges facing adults with autism and other developmental disabilities like their son, Sam. Today, their more than 30 employees help create, cook, package, and sell the popcorn, which comes in gourmet flavors like classic caramel and dark chocolate espresso.

While Popcorn for the People is based in Piscataway and originated in East Brunswick, New Jersey, joining our Goldman Sachs account in New York City opened doors throughout the northeast. One of their newest markets is Lincoln Financial Field, home to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“Whatever city we are in, we are welcomed with a whole heart by all of our venues and customers,” notes Steve Frank, Director of Events, whose daughter Mia also works for the nonprofit. To Frank, the best part of the job is giving these young adults a chance to show their communities what they’re capable of doing.

Popcorn for the People serves delicious popcorn while also creating meaningful employment opportunities for those with special needs.

For Pappas, colleges and universities turned out to be the perfect match for his creative offerings, as students demand healthfulness, convenience and sustainability from their dining experiences. In addition to Athenian Grill, he operates a variety of concepts catering to different tastes: Greek, Mongolian, American comfort food, and a creperie, to name a few. From Southwest Mexican tacos to vegan meatloaf, each new menu item celebrates the fresh, high-quality ingredients he grew up with in small-town Greece, learning to cook alongside his grandmothers.

Building on his success, through Local Restaurant Row, Pappas has expanded his presence, making Athenian Grill a regional powerhouse with locations in Kentucky, Indiana, and South Carolina. 

Restaurateur Ilias Pappas with (shown right to left) his aunt, father, and mother. Sharing their authentic Greek culture is the heart of his family-run restaurant, Athenian Grill. 

Trying Times

Local Restaurant Row was already being established for several accounts across various metro markets when COVID-19 disrupted the dining industry. Almost immediately, Americans gained a renewed appreciation for local establishments, the people behind them, and the richness they bring to our communities.

While the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic vary greatly, our partners appear to be weathering the storm—although success looks very different than it did pre-2020. Popcorn for the People doubled down on online sales, while Athenian Grill’s carry-out and delivery income tripled to help make up for a 90% hit to their catering business.

As we adapt our global operations for a post-pandemic world , local partners may see their opportunities grow and shift. “We expect to see growing demand for contactless, online ordering and delivery from local partners within our locations,” says Weiss, adding that food trucks are particularly popular as alternative points-of-service in the higher education setting right now.

“A Gift That Keeps Giving”

The pandemic’s effect is predicted to be long-lasting, and consumer tastes and industry trends will continue to evolve. Through it all, we are committed to finding mutually beneficial ways to work with our clients and local partners—and contributing to a neighborhood feel that reflects each location’s unique culture and demographics.

“The partnership with Aramark has been a gift that keeps giving,” Pappas shares. “I can’t wait to see what else comes out of that relationship.”