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Students Swipe IDs for Food at Square Eateries

By Derek A. Vance, Crimson Staff Writer

For Moira R. Finicane ’06 and her friends, a Harvard ID card means access to late night snacks at businesses around the Square—often on their parents’ dime.

“I do have some friends who ask for some more book money for their Crimson Cash card and it just kind of turns into pizza money,” she says.

It has almost been a year since Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) has made it possible for students like Finicane to use their “book money” to boost food sales throughout the Square.

Since HUDS extended the Crimson Cash program to five off-campus businesses last July, there have been roughly 27,900 transactions totaling about $178,000 in sales, according to HUDS Director of Finance Raymond R. Cross.

The Crimson Cash Off-Campus Merchants Program now services a total of 12 locations including Pinocchio’s Pizza & Subs, The Wrap, Broadway Market, two nearby Domino’s Pizza locations and—since last week—Johnny’s Luncheonette.

But the program has gotten off to a slower start than expected, according to HUDS Executive Director Ted A. Mayer.

And while some vendors praise Crimson Cash for bringing in new customers, others complain that the start-up costs, transaction fees and time it takes to process sales are too much to bear.

‘HAPPY MARRIAGE’?

Crimson Cash transactions account for about $7,500 to $8,000 in sales each week, and several of the businesses in the program say this translates directly to a boost in profits, according to Cross.

“It’s increasing every day,” says Richard Sabounjian, store manager of Broadway Market at 468 Broadway. “We’re noticing especially in the evening more students and more young faces than before.”

Broadway Market only started accepting Crimson Cash last month, and Sabounjian says sales have been “better than expected” but that it is too soon to have exact figures. He says students coming into the store have told him they appreciate the convenience of being able to swipe their cards.

“It’s great for students and it’s great for businesses,” he says. “It’s what I call a happy marriage.”

Several other businesses estimate that Crimson Cash transactions account for 2 to 5 percent of their total sales. They say they hope this modest amount will increase as the program becomes more established.

“I’d like to see more students use it—more of an awareness with students,” says David P. Champeau, general manager of Bertucci’s at 21 Brattle St.

HUDS officials emphasize that it will take time for students to become familiar with the program.

“It’s a learning thing as well; this just started last year,” Cross says. “You’ll see participation slowly rise as it becomes an expected part of what’s available around campus.”

The program began last July after more than a year of lobbying from Undergraduate Council members, including several presidential and vice-presidential candidates who made the initiative part of their campaign platforms.

Shira S. Simon ’04, a former council member and vice-presidential candidate, says she pushed for the program because of its convenience.

“When students go out on a Friday or Saturday night they don’t have that much cash on them, but they need to have their cards to get into buildings,” she says.

PRICED OUT

When a student pays for a slice of pizza with Crimson Cash, though, the vendor does not see as much money as it would if the student had paid with cash. In fact, HUDS currently collects between 5 and 8 percent of every off-campus Crimson Cash transaction, in addition to other start-up fees.

Some popular eateries around the Square say this commission is too much for certain businesses to squeeze under their profit margins, and that they have not been able to accept Crimson Cash because of its cost.

Felipe Herrera, co-owner of Felipe’s Taqueria in the Garage on Mt. Auburn Street, says that he thinks it is unlikely that he will accept HUDS’ offer to extend the Crimson Cash program to his restaurant. Herrera says the 7 percent fee he would have to pay HUDS is too much for him to stomach.

“We’d have to raise our prices,” Herrera says. “A lot of people come with the Crimson card and it’s hard to tell them we don’t accept it, but on the other hand it’s not worth 7 percent.”

Gurcheran Gill, the manager of Tommy’s Pizza on Mt. Auburn St., says that he also finds the program to be prohibitively expensive. According to Gill, HUDS offered to extend the program to Tommy’s for an initial $400 plus an 8 percent fee on every transaction. Tommy’s would also have to pay $570 for a Crimson Cash machine, says Gill.

“The charges were too high,” Gill says.

Cross says that the fees are just high enough so that the program does not lose money, which he says is critical to keep the program alive.

“You look at it in a sense that what’s the least amount we can charge and still break even,” Cross says. “We’re trying to keep [the program] very stable.”

Cross also says that Harvard’s fees are not exorbitant when compared to what other universities charge for similar programs.

“We’re not at the high end,” Cross says.

And other Square business managers say they do not find the fees to be too high.

“For them it’s a business. Harvard makes money off of this,” says George M. Sarkis, manager of C’est Bon Convenience at 1436 Mass. Ave. “For us, we just look at it as an avenue to get more business.”

Other businesses see Crimson Cash as a way to gain an advantage over their competitors.

“Felipe’s only takes cash,” says Nabin Sapkota, team leader at The Wrap on Mt. Auburn St., referring to neighboring Felipe’s Taqueria. “When you come here you have an option. It just makes things easier for students.”

Another factor that may be inhibiting the spread of the program is the slow speed of Crimson Cash transactions.

According to Sabounjian, the machine at Broadway Market takes about 10 to 15 seconds to process a sale, compared to about eight seconds for other credit or debit cards—a small difference, but one that adds up when the line is long.

While Sabounjian says it is worth the wait, Gill says he considered how much Crimson Cash would slow Tommy’s down when he refused HUDS’ offer.

“We don’t want to stop and use the machine for $1.75,” he says.

But Cross says this slow transaction speed is an inevitable consequence of the technology that the machines use.

“The technology being used is dial-up, and that’s just slower,” he says.

STUDENT ACCESS

While some businesses raise concerns about the fees and the wait to process transactions, Justin R. Chapa ’05, council press secretary, says the only downside for students is that it is not more widely available.

Chapa, who helped to lobby for the program as a council member and vice-presidential candidate, says that word will continue to spread among students.

“I think that this is a program that students will become aware of only as they actually use it themselves,” Chapa writes in an e-mail. “I’ve been to C’est Bon a couple times and people came in and were like, ‘Hey did you know you we could use Crimson Cash here? That’s cool.’”

He says he would like to see the program expand to all restaurants and convenience stores around the Square, and he adds that HUDS could do more to advertise to students.

“They make nice, slick ads begging us to come see one of their ‘Master Chefs’ and extolling the virtues of 50 kinds of nuts, surely they can advertise about the Crimson Cash program,” he writes.

While Simon echoes Chapa’s desire to expand the program, she also adds that “a lot of students are frustrated” that they can’t use Board Plus—$50 placed on ID cards at the beginning of each semester—at off-campus locations.

Cross says HUDS does not plan to expand the program beyond Crimson Cash.

“There’s tax reasons, there’s other implications about it,” Cross says. “The answer’s no, it’s not being considered at this time.”

But buying food with Crimson Cash will soon become easier, as HUDS has recently allowed merchants to accept Crimson Cash for food deliveries to dorm rooms. Mayer also says students can expect to find Crimson Cash machines in more Square eateries in the near future.

There are no plans, however, to extend the program to stores that specialize in non-food items.

“Currently we are limiting our expansion to food outlets only,” Mayer writes in an e-mail. “Originally we offered it to pizza and convenience stores. We have received requests from other types of stores in the Square but at this point we are looking only at food.”

But Cross says that students may determine whether Crimson Cash will make the jump to other types of stores.

“It’s really demand-driven by the students. We’re really right now just dealing with food,” Cross says. “We’re not getting a lot of demand for non-food items right now.”

“If the student body decides there are places they really want to use it, I’m sure that would be considered,” Cross adds.

—Jessica R. Rubin-Wills contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Derek A. Vance can be reached at vance@fas.harvard.edu.

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