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A College Dining Special Report – US Food Trends

31 August 2009
A College Dining Special Report – US Food Trends

College and university dining operations are being squeezed by the economy but won't cut commitments to quality and the environment.

This article first appeared in the 1 August 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Scott Hume, Special to R&I

In a March 2009 letter to students, parents and alumni, Grant H. Cornwell, president of The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, outlined steps the 143-year-old college is taking in response to the "global economic turmoil" that had diminished its endowment by 17%.

Among the 1,800-student college's cutbacks would be the closing this fall of 320-seat Kittredge dining hall, one of only two on campus. "We know this change will put additional pressure on Lowry [Dining Hall], especially at peak hours," Cornwell wrote, "and we are working to add some seating capacity to address this."

"Additional pressure" is a mild description of what dining-services operations at colleges and universities are feeling in the wake of the economic downturn. To be sure, no college students will go hungry this fall and wood-burning pizza ovens and authentic Vietnamese pho-soup bars will continue to flourish, but the days of happy abundance are over at college dining halls, just as on Wall Street. Dining programs are being rethought not only at small schools such as Wooster, with its approximately $270 million endowment (pre-economic collapse), but also at the largest and wealthiest universities.

Harvard University's nearly $37 billion endowment has taken a nearly 30% nosedive. In June, President Drew Gilpin Faust announced that the school would lay off 275 employees, cut hours for another 40 and find other budget-saving efficiencies. The nation's richest university will replace hot breakfast items with continental-breakfast operations in some dining halls this fall. Several dining-services staff members have taken early-retirement offers, their positions unfilled.

Foodservice is a part of the university community, and as such it shares in the effort to respond to challenges, says Ted Mayer, executive director of Harvard University Dining Services. He, like others across academia and the foodservice industry in general, understands that the goal is to shift resources as needed but without compromising quality and service. At Harvard and elsewhere, new dining initiatives continue to be developed, but with closer attention to costs and revenues.

And if Harvard's hurting, it's a safe bet that everyone's feeling the pinch.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Planning is especially complicated with colleges' and universities' situations as uncertain as they are now. How many current students will be financially able to return in the fall? How many members of the freshman class actually will show? How much will not only students but also faculty and staff limit their food spending?

Many state schools are seeing budgets get sharply curtailed by legislators. California's economic woes have been widely reported, but the state is far from alone. Missouri's governor offered University of Missouri, Columbia, this ultimatum: If it did not raise tuitions, it would receive state funding at the 2006 level. Matching 2008 funding isn't in the picture under any scenario.

"We have to change the way we do business," says Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at Missouri, "but we're not going to do it by cutting menu items or quality. We have to become more effective and efficient, and we are doing that."

Kiehn already felt the squeeze this past year, when all Mizzou departments allocated 5.5% of their budgets to a rainy-day contingency fund. Now there's talk of also collecting from budgets for an emergency fund to help economic-hardship students.

Still, Missouri opened two new dining options last year-Baja Grill and J Café at its journalism school (see "Home-Grown Brands," above)-and Kiehn says she is hunting to find more savings. Dining services' handbook is now online rather than printed, for example. And last year, Kiehn and her staff developed their own culinary workshop rather than working with The Culinary Institute of America, saving the university $15,000.

"The college has come to us looking at a significant cut in foodservice, and we're looking at how we can do that," says Stuart Leckie, general manager of dining operations at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Standish, a Bon Appétit Management Co. account. "The good thing is that the president doesn't want to cut student amenities. You can't have students coming back [in the fall] and asking ‘What happened to the dining program?' He realizes that [student] retention is important and so is student satisfaction."

- He won't cut food or service quality, leaving labor as his only target, Leckie says. He doesn't want to eliminate a position and lose a serving station, so he has put all 20 dining employees on 37.5-hour weeks. "It's like we're saving one full-time position, but we're not eliminating something or cutting back the pizza station to three nights a week," he says.

Further, St. Joseph's this fall drops its flex-dollar meal-plan program. Students still will enjoy all-you-care-to-eat dining, but campus retail operations now will take cash or credit cards. "Just doing that will help our budget and the college's," says Leckie, who estimates the savings at $20,000 this year.

BARBELL STRATEGIES

There's a food chain to economic distress. When college and university administrators put their foodservice departments through the budget wringer, dining officials in turn put the squeeze on their suppliers.

"It's not so much that we have our hand out, but our [vendors] are aware of the realities, and they have been very good at bringing values to our attention," says Tim Dietzler, director of dining services at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa. "We've worked hard to negotiate prices and restructure menus so that we reduce expenses without impacting the quality of our services."

Moving to scratch preparation of such products as dough and chicken fingers has been one way to save. Creating a new discounted meal plan for faculty and staff at the university's all-you-can-eat locations has kept up participation and revenue.

Across the country, campus dining operations are being challenged to "make sure their money is being spent in the right areas," says Tom Post, president of the Campus Services division of contractor Sodexo in Gaithersburg, Md. "There will be more of a focus on hours of operation, catering and pricing. Students may have less discretionary income, so you'll have to fight a little harder to get it."

Discounts such as the $5 Footlong campaign from Milford, Conn.-based chain Subway affect college campuses as they do other competitors, says Naala Royale, vice president of marketing for Philadelphia-based contractor Aramark. "That sets price-point expectations, so what we're doing on campus is changing menus to a barbell strategy. That means making sure we have a discount value meal, an everyday-low-price meal and then premium products that cost a little more."

Like commercial quick-service operators, "We need to make sure every student can walk [into] every servery and get a complete meal for $5," she says. "That $5 number is huge."

One of Aramark's responses to the phenomenon of cash-strapped students preparing rather than buying meals is the new convenience-store concept P.O.D. (Provisions on Demand) Market. Where accounts have offered P.O.D., sales are up 30%, and the greatest area of growth is groceries, though prepared foods also are offered.

FRESH APPROACHES

"Fresh" and "local" continue to be important buzzwords, and nothing says local like on-campus farms. Beyond being a cheaper source of food, they enhance students' understanding of the farm-to-fork process.

Harvard's farm plot yielded 40,000 pounds of squash for campus dinner tables. St. Joseph's College of Maine's Thanksgiving dinner this year will feature turkeys raised in an on-campus coop. With funding from Bon Appétit and support from the college, St. Joseph's plans to expand to a 2- to 3-acre farm and has hired a farm manager.

"I'm lucky because I get to talk to parents and prospective students when they visit," Leckie says. "You say, ‘We have our own garden on campus,' and ooooh, their eyes light up."

But after the surprise, those parents increasingly are asking about special diets, such as gluten-free, Leckie says.

Aramark POD concept at Brundeis University, Massachusetts
Aramark POD concept at Brundeis University, Massachusetts
"I don't know if more people are having these food issues or if it's just that people are more comfortable making others aware of them, but they're more common," he says. He calls that both a burden and an opportunity. "It complicates things, sure. It takes one person the better part of an hour prior to lunch printing labels so that everything is correctly identified as gluten-free or whatever. But it's huge for students to be able to walk in and know everything is labeled and that there's no guessing. I think the ability for a school of 1,000 in our one cafe to individualize meals and diets makes students feel welcome."

BORDERLESS DINING

Interest in global cuisines hasn't declined, but there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional foods as well, foodservice directors say.

Italian foods such as pizza and pasta rank No. 1 in foods students prefer, according to Aramark's research. St. Joseph's last year created a new pizza station that was an immediate hit. Villanova's new concept, 1 Potato 2 Potato 3 Potato 4, features potato items from french fries to hash-brown casseroles. The Traditions line at Villanova's dining hall features "foods students are accustomed to," says Dietzler.

Aramark this fall will open a retail concept called Burger Station on a few campuses. It hits not just students' love of burgers but also their demand for customization and their embrace of technology, Royale says. Customers use a kiosk to make choices of meat, toppings, cheese and bun. A counter worker receives a printout of the order. "There is no set menu," says Royale. "One of the most important things for Generation Y is the ability to customize a meal the way [they] like it."

Dining-services operations at many colleges and universities use blogs or Twitter to solicit student opinion and disseminate information. Sodexo's Post says the contractor has started monitoring daily feedback through the Internet. "Our goal is to be as accessible and as real-time as possible," he says.

NECESSITIES AND DISCOVERIES

This generation of students also has a well-developed sense of social and ecological responsibility. Foodservice directors say that no matter how much budgets are cut, sustainability initiatives cannot be abandoned. They're as important to most students as anything else dining services does.

"We're trying very hard to stay on track with increasing our green-operations plans," says Villanova's Dietzler. "I hear a lot of students say they know they should recycle more but that it makes them feel good to know their dining program does. It's important for us to do it-for them and for us."

Recycling and reducing waste are students' main requests of campus dining, Royale says, citing Aramark research. Purchasing products that can be recycled and reducing energy use follow in importance among students.

Some campuses have adopted trayless dining halls to limit their use of water and chemicals for cleaning. Others are focused on cutting food waste by serving smaller portions and reducing packaging waste by changing their buying patterns (see "Reuse. Recycle. Sustain." for other sustainability ideas).

A pilot program at one Villanova retail operation has reduced the amount of nonbiodegradable trash by 98%. "We had to come up with five or six [new] vendors to supply everything we needed, from cups with compostable lids to cutlery that is compostable but that stands up to heat," says Dietzler.

He adds: "We couldn't serve cup yogurt because the plastic containers aren't recyclable. So we had to come up with our own yogurt parfait in compostable soufflé cups, which ended up being a big hit."

Many campuses are making similar discoveries, identifying new ways of operating that result from economic necessity and result in a benefit to schools and students.

"In general, we all have to rethink what it is we're doing, when we're doing it and whether it makes sense today," says Sodexo's Post-adding that that's not entirely a bad thing.

HOME-GROWN BRANDS

Saying Julaine Kiehn works in "noncommercial" foodservice is misleading-or at least incomplete-given that she has recently had a hand in creating and developing multiple retail operations. As director of campus dining services at the 30,000-student University of Missouri-Columbia, Kiehn managed the naming, branding (including logo development), and constructing of two new dining operations this past year. When the university's new student center opens in 2011, it will boast the six retail dining concepts she has spent the last four years planning.

Opened in August 2008, Baja Grill's specialty is Yucatan-style fish tacos with tilapia marinated in achiote, lime juice and garlic. The fish is grilled and served in flour tortillas with lettuce, pickled onions and ranchero sauce. The concept also serves beef, chicken or pork tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and Cuban-pork and Jamaican-chicken sandwiches.

J Café in Walter Williams Hall at Missouri's famed School of Journalism is a coffee-shop concept with a strong thematic sense and a dose of whimsy. "The look is all red, white and black, from the furniture to the counters," says Kiehn. "Food items are wrapped in paper designed to look like newsprint." Panini are listed on the menu under "Hot Off The Press." There also are "Off the Record Salads" and an "Edits" group of small items.

Developing those two brands has provided useful lessons for the multiconcept student center. "With these two concepts, we clearly defined the image and brand from the beginning, and the management teams did an excellent job staying focused and true to them. And that's very important."

While Missouri's previous student union featured such brands as Burger King, Chick-fil-A and Subway, the new union's foodservice court instead will feature home-grown concepts. "We asked students what they want, national or our own concepts," Kiehn says. "They told us they want quality and variety. We said we think we can do that better if we develop our own concepts that look, feel and act like national brands. We've had enough experience with national brands that we feel we can do our own."

The student-center operations will include Mort's, an homage to "Beetle Bailey" cartoonist and Mizzou alum Mort Walker; Pomodoro, a pizza and calzone cafe; the Kate & Erma's deli; DeMundo, celebrating global cuisines; Infusion coffee shop; and a sushi concept.

REUSE. RECYCLE. SUSTAIN.

Most campus dining operations have sustainability programs in place. These range from sourcing Free Trade coffee (a now common practice) to converting to all-green kitchen-cleaning products, as Boston University did this year. Here are other sustainability initiatives that remain priorities across academia:

  • Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.: Switched to trayless dining, which the school estimates cut food waste by 25% to 30% per person and that saved 1,900 liters of tray-washing water annually.
  • Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y.: Having made the change with resident-hall and retail dining already, the college extended use of Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) biodegradable/compostable cups to all catering as well. Clients are offered zero-waste plans with reusable china, glassware and utensils and cloth napkins or compostable products.
  • Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.: The "23 Pound Mug" program highlights the amount of paper trash one person saves by using a refillable mug. The university says the campaign kept 36,565 paper cups out of the trash stream last year.
  • Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio: Reduced average food waste from 230 pounds per day in spring 2008 to 73 pounds per day by March 2009 through student education efforts.
  • University of California, Los Angeles: Instituted "Beef-less Thursdays" not as a vegetarian initiative but as an effort to focus attention on eco-unfriendly aspects (specifically methane production) of beef farming.
  • University of Florida, Gainesville: Three campus dining locations piloted use of reusable, dishwasher-safe takeout containers that students use and return. A one-time, refundable $7 deposit was required for participation.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: Dining Services has converted 35% of all food packaging to corn-resin- or starch-based biodegradable products.
  • University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.: A pilot composting program resulted in 25,000 pounds of compost for program partner Freshwise Farms in Penfield, N.Y. Rochester also was the state's first college or university to join the Pride of New York program promoting state-produced foods.
  • Washington & Lee University: Dining Services' CFL (compact fluorescent lighting) program in its Marketplace and Café 77 operations reduced electricity usage by 10%. That equates to a $1,500 savings over the CFL products' lifetime.
  • Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.: Invested in an electric vehicle for campus food deliveries.
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