The Illini Union in Urbana has been host to a wide variety of restaurants — many of which made a swift exit during the pandemic.
Six restaurants out of eight available spaces closed, leaving vacant spaces in the Illini Union, located on the north side of the Main Quad on the University of Illinois campus. The restaurants include national chains like Wendy’s, Blaze Pizza, Auntie Anne’s, QDOBA Mexican Eats and Einstein Brothers Bagels.
Einstein’s lasted the longest, closing in April 2023 along with its other campus locations at the Armory, Siebel Center and the College of Veterinary Medicine — and even at Willard Airport. Those closings ended a 10-year partnership with BOAST, LLC, the parent company of Einstein’s.
Illini Union officials at the time in a press release said the decision to close these locations came as the result of the new economic realities of the pandemic.
“We are saddened to lose such a strong partner because Einstein Bros. Bagels has worked diligently to support the U of I and the entire campus community,” Becki Salzman, director of the Illini Union, said at the time in a press release. “We will work to refill these campus locations as quickly as possible and wish BOAST, LLC the best in the future.”
The Illini Union provides various services for the campus community and its visitors. The building is host to a hotel, two retail shops, a bowling alley, an art gallery, event spaces, study lounges, ATMs, the Illini Credit Union and various restaurants.
While the pandemic was responsible for much of the demise of these restaurants, Illini Union officials said other ongoing internal issues also played a role, including food costs and supply changes.
“The restaurant industry has gone through a huge change due to the pandemic,” Assistant Director for Retail Operations Jim Trail said. “Many people work from home or brown bag their own meals from home to avoid paying the restaurant prices. We dealt with many of these issues during and after the pandemic.”
Tod Petrie, senior associate director of retail operations at the Illini Union, said another factor is that restaurants in the Illini Union only operate successfully for about 31 weeks a year, the course of a regular school year.
Trail said this is why the Illini Union tries to work with local vendors. He said those vendors understand their businesses would be most busy and successful during a school year as opposed to the summer and winter months when the majority of students and staff are off campus.
“They understand the school year calendar,” Trail said. “They understand the business model of operating a restaurant inside of a student union as opposed to national chains. With the local restaurants already in the Illini Union and more on the way, students and staff seem to enjoy them just as much as a national chain.”
Since the closings during the pandemic, the Illini Union has replaced the lost restaurants with local vendors including Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which opened in March 2022; Just Bee Acai, which opened in Jan. 2022; Maize Mexican Grill, which opened in Aug. 2023; Thai Fusion, which opened in Sept. 2023; and the future home of Mia Za’s with an expected opening in spring 2024.
Mia Za’s and Maize Mexican Grill already operate other campus locations. The one national chain that survived the pandemic and is still in the Illini Union is Starbucks.
In the 2022-2023 Illini Union Annual Report, officials said a total of 2,407,975 people visited the union during that time. Additionally, over 14,000 guests stayed in its hotel and over 46,000 people attended Illini Union Board events.
The report stated its retail operations served over 686,700 customers at its retail locations, providing required course materials, food and beverage operations, apparel, supplies, souvenirs and campus vending operations. The report said the top line revenue was over $15.1 million at all retail locations part of the Illini Union.
In comparison, the 2021-2022 Illini Union Annual Report said throughout the fiscal year, July to June 30, the Food and Beverage Operations team managed revenues of just over $2.2 million and served over 374,000 students, faculty and campus community members.
Petrie said the Illini Union sends out a survey to the University community via email about every three years asking what kind of restaurants should be included in the Illini Union. One fan favorite always voted in each survey is the Chicago-based restaurant Portillo’s, famous for its hot dogs and Italian beef.
One Portillo’s restaurant continues to operate in Champaign on Prospect Avenue. Petrie said they have been struggling to add that franchise to their Illini Union restaurant lineup for many years.
“Many students and staff here at the University are from the Chicagoland area,” Petrie said. “So it makes sense that they want to have that particular restaurant in the Illini Union. We would love for the chain to be a part of the Illini Union, but they are always hesitant in opening a campus location.”
Trail and Petrie said their main goal is always to fill all eight of the available spaces between the main level and the lower level of the Illini Union building. Another goal is to maintain the restaurants in business and popularity among the University community in those spaces.
The Illini Union also oversees the other Starbucks locations on campus, including the Union Bookstore, which opened in May 2014, and at the Sidney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building, which opened in Fall 2022. Over 134,000 people visited the Illini Union Bookstore in the 2022-2023 school year.
Trail and Petrie said the three Starbucks locations on the University of Illinois campus continue to be successful businesses and popular among the University community.
However, Trail and Petrie said there are still other difficulties with the Illini Union restaurants, including competition with the dozens of restaurants in campustown, on Green Street and in other areas.
The 2022-2023 Annual Report stated over 83,000 people attended Courtyard Cafe events, about 6,800 meeting rooms had reservations and over 28,000 people used the Rec Room in the lower level of the Illini Union. The Rec Room features a bowling alley, arcade, and other similar activities open to the campus community and visitors.
Trail and Petrie said the various events held at the Illini Union each year in addition to popular campus events like Dad’s Weekend, Mom’s Weekend, Homecoming and new student orientations continue to help the Illini Union restaurants.
“If you have events in a space like the Illini Union, the more likely more people are going to hang out and frequent the restaurants available,” Petrie said. “Think of it like Starbucks at Barnes and Noble. Not everyone who shops there will also purchase something from Starbucks, but they know it will also be there. At some point, they will be tempted to then purchase something from Starbucks while in the store.”
“The events at the Illini Union increase the volume of foot traffic in the building and then potentially increase business for these restaurants,” he added.