New Trends in Campus Eats

Veggie Grill, Blaze Pizza, Panda Express

If you’ve made your way back to campus for the first time in a few years, you’re bound to have noticed some new faces in the food courts. In the past year, two new brands have come to campus signaling larger shifts in food trends, and both have Bruins at the helm. A leader in the made-to-order, artisanal pizza trend that includes competitors like Pizza Rev, Pieology and 800 Degrees, Blaze Pizza is run by CEO Jim Mizes, MBA ’80, a proud graduate of the UCLA Anderson School of Management who is quick to point out the value and variety of choices Blaze offers, including vegan and gluten-free pizzas.


After opening in the Court of Sciences Student Center (aka The Bombshelter) earlier this year, Blaze made a splash on campus when the brand celebrated co-owner LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers by offering free pizzas at all of its Los Angeles locations. Though he is wowed by how much the food landscape has changed in the four decades since he came to UCLA, this is actually not Mizes’ first foray into food service on campus. While a student, he managed the Graduate School of Management’s snack bar, Potlatch, which — happily for them both — is where he met his wife.


Your memory of pizza on campus might be dominated by Sbarro, a food court staple known for heavier, premade pizzas, but that space in Ackerman Student Union has been filled by Veggie Grill, a growing brand cofounded by T.K. Pillan, MBA ’96. Surprisingly, Pillan originally studied mechanical engineering at MIT (an East Coast school) but became passionate about helping people's health and the planet. In this pursuit, he discovered the myriad benefits of a plant-based diet and decided to create a fast, casual outlet to share this lifestyle with as many people as possible.


His research led him to Southern California, home to a number of successful vegan restaurants, and he came to Anderson to pick up the skills needed to make his vision a reality. Pillan says that — having never worked in a consumer-facing business before — his marketing classes were the most helpful for establishing Veggie Grill’s brand. Ironically, though, he says that the best plant-based food options for him on campus in the 1990’s were the salad bar, a far cry from the burgers, sandwiches, bowls and entrees that his brand now provides.


Veggie Grill's new spot in Ackerman Student Union was part of both the brand's expansion and ASUCLA’s continual process of meeting student needs. Entering its second decade, Veggie Grill is currently moving into new markets and trying different formats, and the Ackerman location is its first food court-style offering. Meanwhile, ASUCLA leadership had found a growing demand for plant-based food on campus and spent a year testing in-house options before sending out a request for proposals from third-party brands in a process that reflects the history of food on campus.


The first name brand outlet to open on campus was Panda Express. At the time, students were looking for a broader range of cuisines, and ASUCLA made several attempts to market Chinese food prior to deciding that Panda Express would be better able to deliver the highest level of food and customer experience. A natural fit, it’s been the most popular restaurant on campus ever since, and David Landsberg, MBA ’93, the current chief financial officer of parent company Panda Group, is a proud Bruin. Landsberg attributes this to the company’s “people first” vision, a reflection of its values as a family-owned and operated business.


Since Panda Express came to campus, a number of ASUCLA creations have given way to national name brands. The Treehouse was replaced by Rubio’s, the Coop is now a television lounge and a Carl’s Jr., and the juice bar Tropix was succeeded by Jamba Juice. Today’s students have grown up with these names, so competing with them often doesn’t make sense, but ASUCLA still decides what food options to provide on a case-by-case basis. The board of directors, which has a student majority, has remained committed — for example — to the college coffeehouse experience at locations like Kerckhoff, which doesn’t look much different today than from decades ago. While this means that you won’t be able to find a Starbucks kiosk anywhere on campus, as students’ taste in coffee has expanded, so have the available options. ASUCLA was serving Fair Trade certified coffee as far back as the 1980s, before most people were aware of coffee trade issues, but now it also boasts trendier nitro and cold brew coffees as well as offerings from third-wave coffee mainstay Intelligentsia at select locations.


Whatever brings you back to campus, be sure to grab some food the next time you are here. Chances are, it’s not what you remember.