On a recent morning in a St. Joseph’s University classroom, professor George Latella posed a question to his students. If a new Wawa opened on campus, where might it go? Would it be wise, for example, to put it next door to Larry’s Steaks, the late-night sandwich shop that St. Joe’s denizens have patronized for years?

One student said it would be a good way to target newcomers on campus, those unfamiliar with Larry’s. “We already know and love Wawa, so we’re probably going to pick that," he said.

Latella’s retail marketing class, where students use analytics to understand purchasing trends and learn strategies for what Latella called “the shopper’s path to purchase,” is part of a program that for decades has been a source of pride at St. Joe’s: the food marketing major.

Part of St. Joe’s Erivan K. Haub School of Business, the undergraduate food marketing program is among just a handful in the country. (The school also offers what faculty members call the world’s only such executive MBA program). Students who enroll study manufacturers, supply chains, branding, sales, and more.

Like universities nationwide, St. Joe’s in recent years has had to contend with declining enrollment, and many students who attend the Haub Business School may do so with the goal of selling stocks, not sandwiches. But as administrators look at how to recruit more students to the food marketing program, they are doubling down on one of its strongest selling points: Most graduates leave with job offers from industry giants like Hormel, Walmart, and General Mills, doing everything from retail to sales, market research, or brand management. Some have even been hired by pharmaceutical companies to work on healthy-eating initiatives.

"We can pretty much tell parents, if their kids come here and work hard, they’re going to get a good job.”
Joseph Bivona

“Very few people are familiar with food marketing," said Joseph Bivona, executive director of the Academy of Food Marketing, the support arm for the program. "We have to explain what it is. But we can pretty much tell parents, if their kids come here and work hard, they’re going to get a good job.”

Professor George Latella teaches a retail class.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Professor George Latella teaches a retail class.

For decades, the food marketing program has been supported by the St. Joe’s Academy of Food Marketing, established in 1962 to promote careers in the industry. Its board of governors is made up of representatives from food and retail corporations, and the academy funds scholarships, training opportunities, and the Campbell Collection, a section of the library that faculty members say is one of the nation’s largest sources of food industry information.

The key to the department’s success is its collaboration with the industry, said Joseph DiAngelo, chair of the program. Most faculty members have worked in the food business and bring with them firsthand experience as well as access to a network of companies. Classes include trips to retail conferences, factory tours, and projects that encourage collaboration between students and corporations.

“The companies do it because they want to give back," said Latella, who spent 22 years working at Tastykake. "But make no mistake, they also do it because they want to get a first look at these kids. That’s where the recruitment starts.”

In Latella’s retail marketing class, the question about Wawa led to a discussion of how companies grow their customer bases. Latella and his students talked about how the image of a Whole Foods customer has morphed from a tree-hugging hippie to include preppy college students, families, and young professionals. He told them about a peanut butter company that recently started stocking its products near the international aisle in supermarkets to appeal to customers from different backgrounds.

A food marketing professor for 25 years, Latella said some students who enroll in business school don’t know right away where the degree will take them but find their way to food marketing once they look into the job possibilities.

“Students today are much smarter than I was,” he said. “I think a lot of them are coming into school very prepared to think about their careers. But probably less than 20 percent of them understand what food marketing is, so it’s up to us to explain it.”

There were once as many as 600 food marketing majors at St. Joe’s, though that has fallen in recent years to between 400 and 500, DiAngelo said. Many students are legacies, children of parents who went through the program, and some others have relatives who work in the field. Some have been former chefs or are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America.

About 18 percent of students currently in the program are minorities, said Bivona, who is in his second year leading the program. He acknowledged that for the department to keep its competitive edge, it must start attracting students from more diverse backgrounds. More than 85 companies regularly recruit on campus, but the school is looking farther afield for companies that can offer student internships and is talking to trade organizations that may not have worked with St. Joe’s in the past.

"We’re looking at ways to talk to other industries that have a food side to them,” Bivona said.

And with meal-delivery kits, fast-casual restaurants, and technological advances changing the way people eat, the coursework itself will undergo major shifts in the years to come, administrators said.

“Our nightmare, of course, is that what we teach them freshman year is obsolete by senior year," DiAngelo said. “We need to be training them for jobs that don’t exist yet.”