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The Caterer

Best in Class

09 November 2006
Best in Class

On college campuses, the calls are for products local, organic and "clean" exotic and authentic; and healthful but flavorful. Oh, and they still love a good burger and pizza.

This article first appeared in the 1 August 2006 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

When fall semester kicks off at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, students will get a taste of college life that is decidedly exotic. On the menu for the school's freshmen orientation picnic: three-bean dal, vegetable kebabs, roasted-red-pepper hummus and samosas.

"In the past we would have done hot dogs and burgers or barbecue, but students today are much more accepting of getting out of the comfort zone," says Bill Moloney, senior director for dining enterprises. "Twenty years ago, the job of campus foodservice director was to try to recreate Mom's cooking. Today, even if you wanted to do that, what would it be?"

With tastes that range from authentic, regional ethnic fare to vegetarian and vegan choices, college students are leading campus foodservice down paths that are worldly, health-minded and environmentally aware. One of the industry's most significant demographics, college students are known for evolving, adventurous and opinionated appetites that bear watching not only by those who serve them today but by the foodservice segments whose menus they will shape tomorrow.

Trends bubbling up on campus encompass not only recipes, flavor profiles and ingredients, but interest in where products come from and how they are made. Echoing the influences of their commercial counterparts, campus kitchens more often are turning to local and/or organic produce and proteins where available. Small but vocal student minorities champion such causes as sustainably raised produce and proteins, fair-trade products and cage-free eggs.

"If it fits our resources, improves quality and we can find the product, we'll try to meet those requests," says Stu Orefice, director of dining services at Princeton University in New Jersey, which menus free-range chicken breasts, cage-free shell eggs and fair-trade products such as coffee, fruit and grains.

Healthful dining remains a theme as colleges move forward with trans-fat-free oils, whole grains and a broader range of vegetarian and vegan recipes. But as is true of students through history, they remain prone to indulge, whether in pizza, hot dogs, chicken wings or french fries blanketed in a thick coat of gravy.

The fast-food model once dominated college and university retail concepts, but as the general population has discovered quick casual, so have college students. On-campus concepts inspired by leading brands such as Denver-based Chipotle, Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread and Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Pei Wei Asian Diner now find audiences attuned to their offerings. Such operations speak directly to many of students' top dining criteria: fresh ingredients, ethnic fare and broad variety.

Right Time, Right Place

The idea of three set meal periods a day is pretty much a relic in the college world. For foodservice, meeting needs means providing the foods students want and also making sure they're available when and how they want them.

Late-night choices beyond pizza are growing as well. At the University of California-Berkeley, several dining halls now stay open later, some until 2 a.m., and offer everything from hot quesadillas and falafel sandwiches to premade panini sandwiches and salads.

"We did research on the housing side and found that of 6,000 residents, 4,000 are often awake at midnight and only half of those might be in bed by 2 a.m.," says Cal Dining Director Shawn LaPean. "Students are up at night, and that's when they want to eat."

No matter the daypart, campus foodservice operations continue to rely on the cost- and labor-saving convenience products integral to high-volume kitchens.

Bill Reich, director of dining services at the University Center of Chicago, looks forward to working with a line of ethnic spice blends and sauces he discovered at a recent industry trade show, while Cal Dining Associate Director and Executive Chef Chuck Davies will incorporate purchased sandwich condiments in flavors such as horseradish mustard, chipotle and pesto.

Eric Cartwright, executive chef at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is partial to herbs he buys cleaned, chopped and frozen. "Instead of paying someone to clean and chop them, I can go into the freezer with a measuring cup, scoop up what I need and achieve the flavor I want, knocking 30 minutes out of our prep time," he says.

At Close Range

Where it makes sense, campus operations are introducing more fresh ingredients including local produce, house-made sauces and marinades and proteins cooked to order to maximize flavor and quality perceptions.

A close look at cost effectiveness, labor requirements and perceived value helps operators decide between fresh and prepared products. Cartwright says students don't taste a difference in the frozen pizza dough he buys to proof and bake on campus, for example, but the authentic flavors they demand from Asian cuisine are better achieved using house-made sauces even though they take more resources to produce.

Rising demand for organic options goes hand in hand with this shift toward freshness. While most products remain difficult for campuses to source in the volume required for large-scale production, foodservice directors find ways to introduce them in smaller measures.

Cal Dining is in discussions with a local consortium of 50 organic farmers that could offer the university one-stop shopping and shipping to expand the breadth of choices on its certified organic salad bars, the first in residential dining halls at any U.S. college. At the University Center of Chicago, offering at least one 100% organic dish per meal period as part of student board plans is Reich's main goal in the year ahead.

"Students are more aware of pesticides, antibiotics and other aspects of food that potentially could impact health," he says. "The other issue is a greater awareness of farm practices and their impact on the environment."

Even more top of mind than organics and sustainability are locally sourced products. With volume also an obstacle in this arena, Executive Chef Glenn Taylor hopes to expand local offerings beyond the potatoes and apples he serves at the University of Maine by featuring less-ample supplies of broccoli, lettuce and tomatoes in monthly rotations. Locally caught seafood often is featured on the school's smaller-scale catering menus as well.

The network of farmers near Brown University in Providence, R.I., isn't large enough to provide daily supplies for the campus, but Executive Chef John O'Shea can buy enough fresh eggs and milk to serve every Thursday. Students, faculty and staff also can purchase their own produce, bread, cheese and jam at a weekly farmers market on campus during the fall months, a tradition shared at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where the Tuesday market sells certified organic produce as well as locally made pastries and pies.

World's Fare

The rich tapestry of cultures on today's college campuses translates to diversity in the classroom and the kitchen, as a generation raised on salsa, stir-fry and curry graduates to more-exotic ethnic fare. Authenticity in flavors and ingredients is the common thread running through the hottest up-and-coming cuisines, among them Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Nuevo Latino and Vietnamese.

Director of Culinary Operations Martin Breslin at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., hopes to capture authentic flavors by sourcing non-frozen or processed components for recipes including Spanish paella Valencia and Brazilian feijoada, a stew-like dish of pork and black beans. Chef Christian Fischer, corporate executive chef for Woodbury, N.Y.-based contractor Lackmann Culinary Services, says regional staples such as eggplant, artichokes, figs, grapes, pine nuts, couscous and seafood, will drive authenticity at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., where he plans to highlight Mediterranean locales from Spain and Morocco to Turkey and Egypt.

"Kids today understand the flavor profiles of the different ethnic regions," he says, "Being generic just doesn't work anymore."

Standards such as hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush salad and kebabs provide familiar entry points to Middle Eastern cuisine on many campuses. Cal Dining's Chuck Davies looks forward to delving into Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Components such as Syrian Aleppo chile powder, Turkish urfa chiles, sumac and spice blends dukkah and za'atar will flavor spreads and dips students can sample with pita bread, olives and vegetables.

Nuevo Latino-style dishes also are gaining traction. Recipes built around tropical fruits and their juices, light oils, black beans, pork and seafood offer fresh, bright flavors sought by students. Shrimp sautéed with olive oil, lemon juice, red onion, cilantro and chipotle is a popular option from Executive Chef Craig Mombert at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., while Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., menus grilled, Cuban-spice rubbed pork chops and plantain chips.

Asia: The Next Frontier

With stir-fry and sushi stations now common on campuses, foodservice teams are turning to India and Vietnam to sate appetites for Asian fare.

Bold, spicy flavor profiles and bountiful vegetarian-friendly options characteristic of Indian cuisine help fuel the growth of favorites such as tikka masala, vindaloo and tandoori chicken. Moving beyond these dishes will be the theme moving forward, with recipes such as chickpea stew with garam masala at Middlebury College in Vermont, potato-and-pea samosas with cilantro chutney at The Ohio State University in Columbus, and black-bean dal at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

The cuisine has become so pervasive-due in part to the large influx of Asian-born students at American universities-that the country's top contractors are developing Indian-themed retail concepts. Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group soon will launch Dosa Delhi, offering the thin crÁªpes with fillings such as roasted vegetable bhaji, mango-coconut shrimp, and masala potato. Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho's Retail Brand Group LLC subsidiary is considering launching an Indian concept as well.

Less progress into the mainstream has been made by Vietnamese cuisine, but its profile is rising. Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., is developing Tamarind Café and Sushi Bar, featuring fresh vegetable spring rolls and pho, the traditional rice-noodle soup.

"Vietnamese food is like the new Chinese for our students, but with a lighter and more healthful perception," says BC Director of Dining Services Helen Wechsler.

Fragrant bowls of pho will begin with purchased chicken or vegetable base, rice noodles, green onions and bean sprouts; students will add their own accents from a selection of cilantro, Thai basil, Thai bird chiles, saw-leaf (a cilantro-like herb) and fresh limes.

A Vietnamese concept also is in the works at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., where Executive Director Rafi Taherian is collaborating with Mai Pham, chef-owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento. Recipes including spring rolls, banh mi and pho will showcase traditional ingredients, similar to those offered at Boston College, as well as kaffir-lime leaves, anise pods, roasted chile paste with tamarind, and dried shrimp.

"Our R&D can be 48 hours from the time we decide we want to do something to the time we serve it," Taherian says. "We have that flexibility. Tell me what casual-dining chain can do that."

Kitchen Cravings

Campus chefs share the equipment additions helping broaden their menus, make staffs' lives easier-and provide students with the on-trend meals they look for.

  • The new pizza/pasta bar at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va., will include a stone-hearth pizza oven with an output of 120 12-inch pizzas per hour. Wood chips can be added to the gas-fired machine to provide extra flavor. The oven also can be used to prepare such things as breakfast breads and roasted chicken. "In the morning when the kids are barely awake before class, how great will it be for them to walk in and smell fresh cinnamon buns or banana bread?" says Executive Chef Bo Bernard.
  • Joining the line at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., is a high-speed, compact oven that uses a microwave system to cook food from the inside out while heated air circulating around it cooks from the outside in. Executive Chef Craig Mombert plans to use the ventless, programmable unit for pizza and hot sandwiches.
  • The 2007-2008 school year will find a new generation combi-oven on campus at the University of Maine in Orono. The self-cleaning machine requires no input for time, temperature or humidity; instead, the operator programs the product and desired outcome. "It does everything from seafood to beef to fries to vegetables," says Executive Chef Glenn Taylor, who will use a blast chiller to quickly cool prepared items for holding.

Why Don't You . . .

Let students drive menu development?

  • Taste Test Tuesdays at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, let students decide what recipes will join the menu. Every week, diners score four to six new items on ballots, and the most-popular choices become regular offerings. So far, 50 recipes have been sampled; 21 have been or soon will be added to the menu, including pork tenderloin with warm peach chutney, portobello burger with roasted-red-pepper mayonnaise and baba ghanoush with toasted pita.

Get cutting-edge with cafe stations and retail concepts?

  • Playing on the explosion of Brazilian steakhouses, The University of Missouri-Columbia will launch a churrascaria concept in the 2007-2008 school year. A self-serve dosa station is in the works for residential dining at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., where Director of Culinary Operations Martin Breslin envisions students choosing among fillings such as mango-coconut slaw, garam-masala chickpeas and chicken vindaloo.

Bring the fast-casual dining experience to campus?

  • Last year, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, introduced a sit-down retail concept called Panache. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant lets students pay in cash or use board plans to purchase menu items including cheese fondue with honey ciabatta bread, New York strip steak with garlic mashed potatoes, and Black Forest Torte with cherries and buttercream icing. Customers order at a counter and receive pagers that alert them when their meals are ready. Tables are bussed by restaurant employees.

Update comfort-food favorites with custom presentations?

  • University Center of Chicago, a residence hall serving three city universities, is introducing an action station with cupcakes baked and customized to order with toppings such as chocolate chips, fruit, nuts and whipped cream. Students can even mix batter choices, among them chocolate, vanilla, lemon and pound cake. The facility also will offer french fries baked to order, with toppings such as bacon, Cheddar cheese, gravy, scallions and sour cream.

Develop a dedicated halal station?

  • Last spring, the University of Connecticut in Storrs answered student requests for a dining station that adheres to the laws of halal, which forbid the consumption of pork, pork products and alcohol and require that animals be slaughtered using specific methods. The menu includes traditional choices such as tandoori chicken and beef in curried yogurt sauce as well as American-style dishes such as lentil soup and Sloppy Joes.
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