Unique products, great prices essential for Green Street restaurant success


Vishesh Anand

A cashier helping a customer at Signature Grill on Mar. 7.

By Visesh Anand, Contributing writer

The restaurants on Green Street change fairly frequently, with new ones opening and closing every school year.

Last year, Antonio’s Pizza and Papa D’s closed, while Cracked opened. This year, Azzip Pizza closed, but restaurants like Slice Factory and Teamoji were added.

Green Street offers a terrific and steady flow of customers as long as the students are on campus; however, the competition is intense, said Samuel Ham, part owner and general manager of Caffe Bene.

Caffe Bene is a European-style coffeehouse, which also serves a variety of food. It’s a successful franchise from South Korea and has locations across the U.S., including two in C-U.

Ham graduated from the University and has lived in Champaign for 20 years.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“Back then (when I moved here) there were not that many restaurants or anything like that. But when I look at it now, it’s pretty hot. It’s full of different cuisines and different cultures,” Ham said. “The competition is high too, and businesses need to make themselves unique in comparison to the competition and do things that others don’t.”

Caffe Bene attracts customers with its variety of offerings. They try to keep everything in order to make the customers stay for a long period of time.

They also offer the Acai bowl, a delicacy that Ham said nobody else in Champaign provides, which sets them apart from other coffee shops.

Ham also believes businesses on Green Street need to have creative ideas, discounts, combos and deals to keep old customers interested and to attract newer ones.

“I think it’s all about the concept,” said Kartik Thota, Signature Grill owner.

Thota is also the owner of two businesses in Bloomington, Illinois. He expanded to Champaign with a new concept in Signature Grill. It had a soft opening March 1 and officially opened March 12.

Signature Grill is a fast-food restaurant that offers Indian, Mexican and Mediterranean fusion, an idea Thota developed after a year of research and tastings with his partner and chef.

“It’s the first fusion of its kind in the entire country,” Thota said.

He likened it to Chipotle but with an Indian flavor.

Thota has targeted his unique concept toward students and downtown areas. He believes Green Street is an amazing location, which requires a lot in addition to consistency and creativity.

“It is all about targeting a cheaper cost, better quality and more quantity (of) food over here,” Thota said.

For the March 1 soft opening, Thota said they engaged in zero marketing efforts but still received an amazing response from the students, with an average of about 400 customers per day since.

Thota attributes Signature Grill’s positive response to word-of-mouth marketing. He believes that type of marketing is not easy or controllable but can have the most extraordinary impact.

Thota plans to sustain the incredible footfall by maintaining the quality of their food.

“We get the avocados and make the guacamole ourselves. Everything we have is fresh. It’s prepped here, and we prep every morning,” Thota said. “Lots of other restaurants, why they fail is that they store their food and reuse it, so they’re not maintaining their quality.”

Thota wants to cultivate brand-loyalty and then gradually expand. He said Signature Grill was designed as a franchise model, and multiple locations are already preparing to undertake their franchise.

Shaun Craig, assistant manager at Potbelly Sandwich Shop, stressed the importance of maintaining quality and a unique concept, like Thota.

Craig started working at Potbelly while he was a student at Illinois State University. He moved up in management, helping them open stores in Colorado, Indiana and Washington. Eventually, he moved to Champaign to become the assistant manager.

“It’s a higher volume shop and more intense compared to other Potbellys,” Craig said. “The volume is the main difference. There’s just a lot more people here.”

As Craig adjusts to the Potbelly Green Street’s continuous flow of customers, he treats it like any other location. He relies on basic business fundamentals: having the right people and the right product.

Craig believes it takes more to be successful on a college campus. Potbelly leverages the momentum and energy students have to drive business and sales.

“We talk to schools, we talk to student organizations to bring in business, and that’s where a lot of fundraisers come from,” Craig said. “A lot of our money is coming from the people coming into the store, but even a lot more is coming in from our back-line and our catering services.”

Potbelly reaches out to the University and leverages big events to drive its growth.

To sustain its steady flow of customers and to bring in more, Potbelly recently unveiled a new app. Craig said the company is making the move to the 21st century.

Craig believes the app will help with increasing awareness about promotions and deals, which are really important for bringing in new customers.

“When the students are off campus, business on Green Street takes a huge hit,” Craig said.

Ham also stressed the dire straits of on-campus business, especially during the summer.

“No customers means no revenue, which means no profit,” Ham said. “The rent here is pretty high too, and in order to stay here, to have a location, definitely lowering the labor costs is very important.”

Craig agreed cutting on controllable costs, such as labor costs and utilities, as much as possible is imperative.

What keeps the businesses running to full capacity comes down to students.

“If you ignore the students, and if you don’t work with them, then I don’t think you could be successful here,” Craig said.

[email protected]