Bulldog Burrito may soon begin accepting Flex dollars, a welcome boost to Yale’s Flex program that has been struggling in recent years with decreasing participation from students and area restaurants, officials said Tuesday.
The new burrito shop’s management is in talks with University Dining Services to expand the Flex dollars meal program to the restaurant in the coming weeks, Dining Services Executive Director Don McQuarrie said. The Flex program allows participating students to spend up to $100 per semester in Flex dollars at local restaurants via the Dining Services’ network, similar to the system found in campus dining halls.
Bulldog Burrito owner Jason Congdon said he has contacted Yale officials in the last few weeks about participating in the program, and said he has been encouraged by the restaurant’s existing relationship with the University, which owns the property at 305 Elm St.
“It seemed like a good fit for both sides,” Congdon said. “They understood my commitment and saw that I was a credible business partner.”
The Flex program currently only includes two restaurants — Naples Pizza and Restaurant on Wall Street and Yorkside Pizza and Restaurant on York Street — the fewest number of restaurants since the program’s inception in 1995. But McQuarrie said the University hopes to add other restaurants soon to expand the program.
“If there are businesses that want to participate, we’ll be happy to talk to them about it,” McQuarrie said.
But some business owners said the University’s 18 percent commission on all Flex transactions and lack of promotion of the Flex program limits its effectiveness.
“We find that it is not going to help us at all,” said Coreen Guo, owner of Ivy Noodle on Elm Street next door to Bulldog Burrito. “We cannot cover ourselves with it. If we raise our prices higher, maybe we’d think about it. The Flex plan helps a lot with the students, but if it doesn’t help us, we can’t do it.”
Au Bon Pain declined to renew its Flex contract last October for financial reasons.
McQuarrie said Dining Services has since begun subsidizing the cost for electronic card-readers for restaurants accepting Flex dollars.
“There were issues at Yorkside with the phone lines, which we replaced at our cost,” McQuarrie said. “We requested that a phone line be installed for them, so that they have ready access to the server and the transactions go as quickly as possible for them.”
Still, some business owners currently accepting Flex dollars said they do so largely as a service to the student customer base.
“Is it the best of deals? No, it does cut into the profit considerably,” Yorkside owner George Koutroumanis said. “But we’re offering the service to hopefully create a traffic pattern, where a group of five guys will walk in and maybe two of them have Flex, the other three have cash. Then hopefully when Flex runs out, they’ll all still come.”
Naples manager Rose Prifitera said she has supported the Flex program since its inception, but said profits from Flex have been waning in recent years.
But Ernst Huff, associate vice president for student financial and administrative services, said participating in the Flex program is advantageous to both students and restaurateurs.
“It was implemented to offer students some options, both in order to satisfy more late-night dining and experience — at least on some minimal basis — dining in the New Haven area,” Huff said. “We want to continue that as a service to students, and of course there’s a benefit to the local businesses in this relationship. But our primary program is maintaining the [residential dining] program on campus.”
Congdon said he is optimistic that the Flex program will be a boon for all involved.
“I think it has its ups and downs,” he said. “There’s a perception that it’s a little pricey, but it’s good that they’re trying to broaden the offering base to the students.”