Elevate meal plan falls short for Oakland restaurants


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Milano’s Pizza is one of 12 local restaurants partnered with Elevate Meal Plans.

By Alaina Vento, For The Pitt News

In its first month on campus, the Elevate Meal Program has left Oakland restaurant owners uncertain about its potential. 

The off-campus dining plan partnered with 16 local restaurants to offer students at nearby universities meal swipes and discounts starting at the beginning of January 2020. Niko Akar, owner of Oakland Milano’s Pizza, partnered with Elevate to attract more student customers, but said the plan hasn’t been much help so far.

“Nobody has showed up,” Akar said.

University of Virginia graduates Seth Kramer and Josh Cohen launched the company in 2016. It currently offer meal plans to 10 college campuses in the nation — now including Pitt and other Oakland colleges. The company gained momentum at its first launch location, UVA, and just opened in Oakland a few weeks ago. Elevate offers customers the ability to purchase semesterly meal plans, from a five-meal “starter pack” for about $33 to 105 meals, or seven meals per week, for $1,112. 

“Our goal is to create the most convenient and affordable meal plan solution for students across the country. We’re focused on providing the best experience possible at our current college towns, but we are also looking at new opportunities for the future,” Kramer said in an email. 

While Pitt students who live off-campus or in University apartment-style housing are able to purchase an Elevate plan, those who live in a resident hall are required to purchase a meal plan through the University. According to Pitt’s current dining services meal plan guide, each swipe into a dining hall is priced between $9 to 12.

Besides Milano’s pizza, other restaurants near campus like Forbes Gyro, Lotsa Pizza, Treats ’n’ Beans and JJ Poke Bowl partnered with Elevate in the hopes of attracting more students. But Akar said he feels like students do not know what Elevate is.

“[Elevate] need to get in contact with students and families to get things started,” Akar said.

Forbes Gyro owner Yakup Unlu agreed with Akar about the need for greater communication. He stated no one has used Elevate at his restaurant either. 

“They should send an email to every student to make them aware. Promote at the dorms,” Unlu said.

When asked how many students purchased Elevate at Pitt, Kramer stated they do not publicize their customer numbers. 

Unlu also said Elevate’s launch might not have been timed right. Students at Oakland schools already chose their meal plans at the start of the school year, prior to the January launch.

“They have to really show themselves, especially next school year,” Unlu said. “It’s too late this year.”

In response, Kramer said sales will improve following this school year. 

“A lot of students have told us they’re locked into the school plan this semester, but that they’re planning to switch next semester,” Kramer said in an email. “We just launched at Pitt a few weeks ago so we’re still brand new to the City. I would expect sales in all our restaurants to be significantly higher after a full semester for Elevate to grow in Pittsburgh.”

Kramer also said he wants to expand the company’s marketing strategies. They currently utilize online advertisements, promotions around campus and offer a new member 40% discount for five meals. He and Cohen are also looking to hire brand ambassadors in the future.

Dziyana Zubialevich, a sophomore politics, philosophy and Russian major, agreed with business owners in that students know little about the company. Zubialevich is an employee at Treats ’n’ Beans, another one of Elevate’s Oakland partners.

Zubialevich lives off campus without a Pitt meal plan, but has hesitated at buying an Elevate plan because of the cost.

“It’s more convenient to make food at home,” Zubialevich said. “I would end up spending less money using my own money without a meal plan.” 

Elevate is still an enticing option to other Pitt students, according to Heather Dillman, a sophomore information science major. Dillman is interested in purchasing an Elevate meal plan for next fall. But her decision is contingent on her housing location. 

“I have definitely strongly considered buying the Elevate meal plan. It depends if I get off-campus housing for the next school year,” Dillman said. 

With an off-campus apartment, or on-campus apartment-style housing, Elevate may be her dining reality. The company drew Dillman in with features that Pitt’s meal plan lacks, like the ability to roll over meal swipes from one school year to the next. 

“I love the idea that you can use this plan to go and venture to different local venues and restaurants, because it’s annoying how we are very limited in dining dollars, and even with Panther Funds at Pitt,” Dillman said. “I feel a lot of my money — whether it be Market swipes or dining dollars — goes wasted or unused every semester.”

Kramer said this tends to be one of the students’ favorite features, along with advance ordering.

“Advance ordering is one of our most popular features, making it easy for students to grab and go when they’re in a rush. We’ve also heard great feedback about the fact that unlike dining halls, Elevate meal swipes don’t expire until students graduate,” Kramer said in an email.