When asked to describe a stereotypical college student, for many, the image of a student making Ramen noodles in the microwave of their fluorescent-lit dorm room comes to mind. The phrase "college student" is being increasingly prefaced with the word "broke," but in actuality, the American college population has some serious spending power.
The University of Maryland community alone spends 650 million dollars annually in the surrounding community, 72 percent of which UMD students say they use on food and beverage. With over 100 restaurants within a ten minute drive from campus, and more on the way, choosing to dine out instead of cooking or eating a school-provided meal plan is becoming an increasingly common decision for many.
Senior Eric Higgins primarily only strays from cooking when eating out with friends. “It’s a lot cheaper for me to grocery shop but College Park has a good mix of fast-casual restaurants which I really like,” he said.
Higgins lives in an apartment and has a full kitchen available at all times. On the other hand, the majority of the fraternity and sorority houses on campus, a full meal plan is only offered on weekdays, leaving those living there with limited food available on weekends, leading them to dine out for the majority of them.
"Even though living in the house came with a meal plan, I ended up buying at least two or three meals every weekend,” said senior Danielle Cohen. “All the different options on Route 1 definitely made it more tempting too,” she added.
And Cohen definitely isn’t the only student doing this. In fact, the average college student spends $765 on food and beverage each year, aside from groceries or their school-provided meal plan, according to a 2011 Student Monitor survey. That’s around $25 each week that school is in session.
This goes to show that while grabbing a cup of coffee before class, eating a few meals out each week with friends and grabbing a slice of pizza on the way home from a night out may cost seemingly-insignificant amounts of money individually, they can add up quickly.
With this in mind, two Bethesda businessmen joined forces in 2014 to create the app Spotluck. Spotluck gives users the chance to spin a virtual wheel every day, with each space representing a discount for a different locally-owned restaurant. Instead of encouraging people to eat out less, Spotluck provides them with a means of eating out smarter.
Just by downloading the app, users automatically save a baseline amount of at least 10 percent off any participating restaurants in College Park, regardless of whether the spinner lands on it that day or not. After landing on a restaurant during the daily spin, savings rise to upwards of 20 percent off, varying depending on what time of day the discount is redeemed.
For each restaurant, Spotluck provides their hours, menu, phone number, reviews, website and even a direct link to call an Uber from your current location. This is especially useful for underclassmen living on North Campus, looking to get a break from dining hall food without taking an hour out of their day in travel time, such as Joe McGowan.
“It’s very inconvenient to get food outside of what’s school-provided because I’m not near Route 1 very often,” he said. “I’ve only gotten to try a few restaurants so far but I really would like to explore all of them.”
College Park’s participating restaurants include Looney’s, Ledo Restaurant, Pizza Kingdom, Board & Brew, Krazi Kebob and many more. However, Spotluck does not include offers from any national chain restaurants, and for good reason.
According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, local businesses are more likely to make decisions benefiting the well-being of the community, as they will feel the impact of these decisions themselves. Furthermore, local businesses, on average, return a significantly larger proportion of their revenue back into the local economy. Among multiple other benefits, local businesses add character to College Park that chain restaurants cannot match. From Marathon Deli’s famous gyros to Mamma Lucia’s authentic Italian, College Park would be incredibly limited without local food options.
And as the city continues to expand it's diversity of businesses and restaurants as a part of the larger plan to make the city a highly ranked college town, this will only be possible if students continue to engage with both chain restaurants and local businesses alike.
“Since I downloaded Spotluck, I’ve tried a lot of restaurants that I never would have known about or considered just because I land on them on the wheel.” Cohen said. “It’s honestly been a really fun.”
While Spotluck originated in the Washington area, it has expanded to hundreds of cities across the country, so you can still save a few bucks in your hometown over breaks or when on vacation. The app is available for download on both Apple and Android devices. For more information, visit spotluck.com.