5 trends driving college foodservice
Dining service programs on many college campuses have evolved so much over the past decade that they have begun to rival retail foodservice establishments. From five-star worthy international buffets to retail food courts to white tablecloth restaurants, some university settings operate like restaurant companies--and have revenues to match.
Millennials and Gen-Zers are driving many of the changes in college foodservice with their expectations for high quality and authenticity, and their passion for saving the environment. But their desires are also placing a strain on foodservice programs. Here are five major trends shaping college foodservice today.
College students expect their dining programs to satisfy an ever-widening scope of sustainability. When the word was first coined in conjunction with food, it primarily meant locally raised produce, meats and dairy items. Now, it encompasses so much more: species of fish and seafood that are not endangered, proteins from animals raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones,
organic foods and those free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
"Local" has even morphed into "hyper-local" on some campuses as more universities set out to create their own mini-farms on campus. At Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, Dining Services not only grows lettuce and some herbs right in the campus's main dining room, it also raises shiitake mushrooms on farmland adjacent to the campus. Dining Services at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, has set the standard for hyper-local with its award-winning permaculture gardens.
"With a high concern for the environment, students want to see and experience composting and recycling," says Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. "They want to consume locally produced products, simpler production and fewer ingredients, and items with cleaner labels.”
Russ Meyer, director of housing and dining operations at the University of Nevada at Reno, believes that as more students push dining services providers to adopt the this broader definition of "sustainable," foodservice operators could be the tipping point toward cleaner food.
"I think as more and more operators demand that [of growers], you’ll see more local providers expand and embrace the organic, non-GMO, hormone-free model as well," says Meyer.
2. Food when and where students want it
"Students want to be able to eat 24 hours a day and they want it fast and convenient," says Joe Mullineaux, senior associate dining services director at the University of Maryland. "They tend to eat a lot of meals, but with smaller portions."
Although only a few campuses, like Maryland and Vanderbilt University, offer foodservice around the clock, many universities operate some venues 18 to 20 hours a day. They are also expanding the breadth of coverage, setting up coffee bars or snack shops in libraries and academic buildings, and using food trucks to reach the more remote areas of campus, or where students tend to hang out into the evening and late night.
Students' hectic schedules require quick meal options throughout the day and evening to accommodate their busy lifestyles," says David Friend, director of dining services at West Virginia University, in Morgantown. "While community dining is still available on campus, students wish to supplement those meals with quick service options as needed."
College foodservice programs, at the request of students, have gone way beyond Burger King's old "have it your way" campaign. Students are looking for an unheard of variety of dishes to satisfy not only different tastes cultural heritages but also religious or dietary restrictions. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free, kosher and halal are just some of the types of menus students say they want to see.
"Students are expecting the ability to customize menu offerings incorporating just in time culinary production," says West Virginia's Friend. " Cooking to order has provided students the ability to select many of the vegetables, proteins and sauces they would like to incorporate into the finished product. This trend is particularly successful at pasta bars, stir fry stations, pizza, delis and grill operations. Students are often willing to wait if an item can be prepared to their specifications."
They also want to be engaged as they wait for their food, according to Samuel Samaan, director of dining at southern California's Azusa Pacific University.
"They ask our chefs, 'tell me the story of what you are cooking for me," says Samaan. "They like to see how you cook the food and why you do it [a certain] way."
Today's college students are the most tech-savvy generation ever, and they expect campus foodservice programs to reflect that. Foodservice directors not only have to learn how to market to students using social media, they have to bring their programs up to speed with all the latest technology.
"Students want to be able to pre-order menu items using phone apps or pre-paid order kiosks," says Pete Napolitano, director of auxiliary services at Binghamton University in central New York. "This leads to shorter lines and faster service.
"Some universities have developed apps that will even show students, on a campus map, which dining facilities are open in real time.
Zia Ahmed, senior director of dining services at The Ohio State University, in Columbus, predicts that universities will soon begin experimenting with "geo-fencing," a location-based mobile service that marketers can use to send promotions and other messaging to users' smartphones when they enter a certain geographic area to attract them to a particular food venue.
5. Shrinking labor force
Unfortunately, as college food programs expand and diversify, a growing number of directors struggle to attract qualified employees. Shawn LaPean, dining services director at the University of California at Berkeley, says finding kitchen help is becoming more difficult.
"There are many chefs out there," LaPean says. "But the lack of people to cook, prep and do other kitchen functions is troubling."
Lisa Wandel, director of residence foodservice at Penn State University, says her problem is particularly acute in the area of part-time staff, leading her to become more creative when creating service modules, setting hours and even designing facilities that can be more labor-efficient.