Student turnover, not economy, frustrates 2-9 Café owner

imageWhen employees leave him high and dry on a busy Friday night, the restaurant manager of the 2-9 Cafe does not think twice about picking up the slack. He quickly clears a table, places an order for patrons, and delivers food to a group of hungry customers. For Garinn Morton, this is just one of the many obstacles he has overcome as the owner of this establishment.

The 2-9 Café sits at the intersection of the University of Southern California’s Greek Row, the University Village and one of the largest areas of off-campus student housing. To many, the location would seem like a jackpot for a restaurant owner, but the restaurant’s demographic has been its biggest worry.

“I don’t know if you’ve been here in the summertime, but it’s a ghost town around here,” said Morton.

Aside from holiday breaks, every year, Morton loses 20 percent of his business. That is because every year, and often every semester, students that live near the café move further away or graduate. Something as simple as a move to the other side of campus can keep a student from returning. According to Morton, graduates also steer clear of the restaurant because there is a stigma associated with visiting USC right after graduation.

“You can’t get caught up in making profit,” Morton said. “It’s a very simple game. You’re either not making money, you’re breaking even, or you’re making money.”

Morton plans to combat these problems by starting a “Trojan Country Card” for students. USC students would give their email address, local street address and year in school. In return, they would receive special deals for cardholders only. The cards would be scanned on all purchases at the 2-9 and it would help Morton track his regulars in order to entice them to come more often.

Parker Finley, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, began frequenting the 2-9 when he lived nearby during his sophomore year. Once Finley turned 21, he said he went weekly. Now that he lives on the Row, he goes once every couple weeks. His reason for going is simple.

“It’s convenient and has cheap beer,” said Finley.

Morton bought the 2-9 in August 2011 as part of the T.K. Burgers group, which also owns six other restaurants in Orange County. T.K. wanted to expand their reach into Los Angeles. According to Morton, when scouting possible expansion sites, the group looks for buildings with a natural and hip feel, like the 2-9. Morton’s short-term goal is to just break even. Five years from now he hopes the location is still operating.

“Trying to find excuses isn’t going to bring one more person in here,” said Morton. “You just gotta find your best way to navigate through it.”

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