College Dining: Educated Palates – US Food Trends

10 July 2008
College Dining: Educated Palates – US Food Trends

College students graduate with high dining expectations. Is foodservice ready to please them?

This article first appeared in the 1 June 2008 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 Aaron Baar, a Chicago-based freelance writer

More than 1.2 million young adults will enter the U.S. job market this year carrying newly awarded bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They represent a welcome pool of potential customers for foodservice operations, which are working hard to attract new guests in a difficult and highly competitive marketplace.

But college students graduate not only with degrees but also with expectations, and for many of them their foodservice expectations have been raised by years of high-quality and highly customized and varied food offerings. The days of limited-selection cafeteria dining are over. Instead, campus dining programs have adopted more-personalized approaches with smaller settings, individualized food-prep stations and choices from around the world.

"Ten or 20 years ago, there was much more of a cafeteria essence," says Patrick Hannan, corporate executive chef of Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Chartwells (a unit of Compass Group, The Americas Division), which manages dining programs for more than 875 college and university campuses, as well as public and private schools. "Now, it might look more like a food court."

Last month, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., closed 50-year-old Tarkington Hall Dining Room, its last traditional cafeteria-line dining hall. A 500-seat stand-alone dining court will take its place this summer because Tarkington no longer met student desires and expectations. "We used to hear, ‘Why can't you make your meatloaf like my mom?'" says Sarah Johnson, the university's director of dining services. "In recent years, students tell us they want their pasta like Olive Garden and their burgers like Chili's."

What will graduates now demand of Olive Garden, Chili's and other chain and independent restaurants? Consider that breakfast options at the University of Iowa's Burge Marketplace recently included Texas French Toast, Southwest bread pudding and vegan sausage; or that dinner entrées at Reed College in Portland, Ore. (a Bon Appétit Management Co. account) included Cuban Pulled-Pork Sandwich with black beans and mashed plantains or Flat-Iron Steak Quesadilla.

Be Green
Whether in the form of using locally grown vegetables or implementing environmentally friendly disposal practices, sustainability has become a huge movement for college foodservice operations. "Right now, it's much stronger on a college campus than in the operator market," says Rick Johnson, director of housing and dining services at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. "Part of it is our clientele. Our 18-to-22-year-old students are extremely environmentally attuned."

Philadelphia-based contractor Aramark marked Earth Day this year with special meals of locally sourced and sustainable foods. Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo eliminated plastic trays for the day, and more than 150 of the campuses it serves have since permanently eliminated trays.

College dining-services programs are looking at all aspects of their operations and especially are evaluating the sourcing of their food. Colleges such as Michigan State in Lansing, Mich., and Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., are using campus agriculture programs to produce food for their kitchens. "One of the largest factors is local produce and cutting down your carbon footprint," Chartwells' Hannan says. "Kids really want to see a commitment to your local community."

For many campuses, sustainability is more than locally grown produce; it's an entire environmental movement. Other campuses are looking at reducing their waste by promoting "trayless weeks" to reduce waste in dining halls and experimenting with to-go containers made from compostable cornstarch.

It's a trend that many campus foodservice providers say will grow when college students join the workforce. "If you talk to Outback [Steakhouse] and you say, ‘composting,' they'll laugh at you," says Johnson. "But I expect in 10 years, they'll have a national [composting] program."

Get Personal
With so many options available to them, this generation of college students has come to expect customization. And they're demanding increased individual attention from their dining halls.

Call it the Starbucks effect: Being empowered to order coffee drinks to their liking has emboldened students to go even further with their food. "They've become accustomed to personalization in everything," says Karen Parker, Aramark's associate vice president of marketing for higher education. "In essence, they're creating their own masterpieces."

Campus dining services have responded by creating as many individualized meals as possible, with customizable options such as stir-fries and sandwich bars as well as full-service restaurant concepts that make meals to order. Sodexo, which manages programs on about 600 college campuses, is implementing a just-in-time "My meal, my way" ordering system, which uses touch-screen kiosks for personalized orders and beepers to inform students when their food is ready for pickup. "You have to give them the sense of fresh and individuality," says Rob Morasco, Sodexo's senior director of culinary support and product specification. "The perception of made-to-order is huge."

Food courts and grocery marketplaces that offer a variety of individually prepared cuisines in one place are familiar campus sights. Such customized programs allow college dining services to appeal to as many different desires as possible at the same time, says J. Michael Floyd, director for food services at the University of Georgia in Athens. "Restaurants are going to have to say, ‘How can I attract college students who want to eat together but all want something different?'" he says. Colleges and universities have mastered that art.

Solicit Input
It may seem like a simple notion, but rarely is any dining-services decision-from a menu option to a design change-made final without significant input from the target consumer (i.e., students). "We first bring a new program to the student advisory council and then get the student government in support," says Virginia Tech's Johnson. "We build this base of support before we introduce it as a pilot program."

- Foodservice contractors are soliciting extensive input as well. Aramark surveys 120,000 to 150,000 students twice every year to determine the trends on college campuses. Since 2005, Sodexo has convened an advisory panel of 25 students from around the country to help determine how best to run campus dining programs. The group convenes online monthly and meets face-to-face twice a year. A recent workshop addressed how to work local ingredients and natural foods into recipes.

"Listen to what the customer wants," says Oscar Budejen, vice president of strategy and insights at Aramark. "The speed at which you can adapt to those needs is critical."

Embrace Technology (To a Point)
Taking advantage of technology-whether by adding touch-screen ordering systems, posting menus online or implementing biometric (e.g., finger- or hand-print readers) payment systems-can help operators more effectively reach on-the-go consumers. "The whole cashless revolution is more prevalent on college campuses," says Virginia Tech's Johnson. "They're more attuned to using a card than using a checkbook or cash."

And they're more willing to use their cards (or their cellphones, PDAs, etc.) to store operator coupons and discounts. Dan Dunne, vice president of marketing insights for Sodexo, suggests finding a way to load discounts directly onto a customer's payment card (rather than tracking purchases and rewards through a typical loyalty-card program) as a way to entice college students into restaurants.

However, although the appeal of technology to send a marketing message is strong, it should be used carefully. The current college student is often skeptical of marketing messages. If a foodservice operator wants to reach college students, it has to be on the students' terms. Michigan State University recently stopped creating podcasts about dining services and menus because students weren't tuning in. ("It received mixed results," says Bruce Haskell, associate director for university housing.)

And other campuses have only had middling success with e-mail blasts and listservs. "I don't know if you can push any [marketing] to them," Dunne says. "[Students] have to go out and pull it. I don't think I can send them a text to eat a turkey burger. I don't think it would be believable coming from us."

Cultivate a Brand (Carefully)
Despite being inundated with marketing messages throughout their lives, today's college students are not necessarily averse to brands or branded messages. "Providing a branded experience on campus [and] creating an image is critical," says Husein Kitabwalla, senior vice president of Sodexo's Retail Brand Group (which operates and franchises the Jazzman's Cafe, Pandini's and Salsa Rico concepts). "We need to relate to how people see themselves and that they see themselves in the brands."

As such, campus dining-services programs take care to develop different personas for each of their foodservice concepts. At Michigan State, concepts include Latitudes, an international bistro; New Traditions, a spot for contemporary cuisine; and the Aroma Borealis coffee bar. Local brands can appeal to students in a way that national brands sometimes have difficulty doing. "They don't like national franchise brands," says Aramark's Budejen. "[Students] don't necessarily feel [the brands] meet their needs."
And, as with any business, if operators don't provide a reason to go-whether it be an attractive brand, excellent service or bountiful options-customers always can go elsewhere.

"The notion of a university as a captive audience needs to be extinguished," says Scott Shuttleworth, director of hospitality for University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "They know a good brand when they see it, and they know a culinary experience when they taste it."

Adapt to 24/7 Dining
Students are used to keeping long and sometimes odd hours. But now, in keeping with their desire for customization and immediacy, they want their foodservice programs to keep nontraditional hours as well. It's not uncommon for dining halls to be open until midnight, and a few-such as Snelling Dining Commons at the University of Georgia-have moved to 24-hour services.

"Meal periods are blending; you have to be responsive to the ways things have changed," says Kitabwalla. "There's so many touchpoints throughout the day. If you don't have the right product in the right place at the right time, you'll lose the sale."

Sodexo Café a la Cart kiosk
Sodexo Café a la Cart kiosk

That means college foodservice programs have had to adapt menus to meet these different meal times. Late-night students may be looking for more of a grab-and-go option rather than a full sit-down meal. To accommodate the off-hours eater, Sodexo developed its Café a la Cart concept, which stocks foods on a wheeled cart that can be moved to different locations depending on foot traffic and times, says Kitabwalla. "Consumers will not cross the street to get a specific product," he says. "[Café a la Cart] creates a convenience opportunity. It creates a bridge that matches the traffic pattern."

Make it About the Experience
For college students, dining is becoming more about the experience. With a greater knowledge of food preparation (thanks in part to the Food Network and cooking/dining shows on other networks), students are looking at their dining halls as more than a place to gain sustenance before studying. "The whole marketplace in how food is viewed has changed," says Kitabwalla. "The sensory experience has become as important as the food that's consumed."

In response, campus dining programs have moved the preparation front-and-center. At Sodexo accounts, some concepts put chefs on stage so students can see their meals being finished, Kitabwalla says. Compass Group's Chartwells has employed Iron Chef-style competitions and created a pantry concept that makes the dining hall feel more like home, Hannan says. Michigan State and other universities have added full-service restaurant concepts.

Even small touches, such as couches at coffee bars, can make a difference for students. "Our dining commons have become student centers with food," says the University of Georgia's Floyd. "People are using it as a place to come together."

Explore Global Flavors …
Given their diverse travel experiences and cultural backgrounds, today's students have a greater understanding of and desire for more international dishes created in an authentic manner. "If we're doing a Lo Mein, and we put spaghetti noodles in it, we'll get written up in the school newspaper," says Sodexo's Morasco.

Like the general American public, college students now are more open to trying more exotic flavors from other cultures. Menus also are beginning to move beyond standard Mexican, Chinese and sushi offerings to explore deeper global influences, including pan-Asian, Indian and Latin American cuisines. "As the world gets smaller, the exposure gets greater," says USC's Shuttleworth. "There is the expectation we should be able to deliver exceptional quality and service on all types of cuisines."

But students are willing to accept-and even expect-a little familiarity, says Morasco. "It doesn't have to be 100 percent," he says. "I think people are okay with a little Americanization."

… With a Regional Bent
Although college students are more receptive to international flavors, they also appreciate a taste of home. On college campuses, the comfort-food trend of the past few years has evolved to highlight regional flavors, as by adding a local vegetable or spice to a meatloaf.

Chartwells' Hannan notes that on Southern campuses, Latin foods and Cuban sandwiches are popular, but the items don't fly as well in the upper Midwest. "It really depends geographically where you are," he says. "Some of these applications might not work."

Giving menu items a regional flair often is a matter of practicality, however. Demand is up for organic and locally grown foods, but providing these items is more easily done in California and other states with a temperate climate as opposed to, say, Minnesota or Michigan, says Aramark's Parker.

Janeace Slifka, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of Sodexo's advisory council, puts it this way: "I'm looking for something traditional with a bit of a twist. I think upon graduating that's even more what students are looking for."

Focus on Health and Wellness …
College students, like the rest of the population, are increasingly aware of the value of well-balanced meals. And increasingly, they're asking for healthier items on menus. According to Aramark's Parker, 60% of students at Aramark-account schools say they're interested in eating a well-balanced diet. For dining-services programs, part of meeting this demand means offering more items.

"One of the biggest things is they want healthier and fresher options," says Michigan State's Haskell. "What they perceive as fresh equates to healthy."

Access to nutrition information also is key. Virginia Tech lists calorie information and other nutrition counts in its dining halls and on the Web. Online, customers can tally numbers for individual menu items and figure out the exact nutritional value of their meal. Providing such detailed information on the Web "is a given because of our population," says Johnson. "We need to serve their needs in all different ways," he adds, "and one of the ways we do that is through education."

Sodexo and Chartwells have added point-of-sale kiosks at which students can access health and nutrition information. Students may not use the kiosks for every meal, but the information is available for whenever they want to seek it out. "We're not going to have our attention grabbed by a sign, but if we want to know something, it's got to be there," says Slifka.

… But Don't Ignore Favorites
Growing interest in global and more-healthful college cuisine doesn't mean students don't still want their pizza and fries. "When someone wants a hamburger, that's what they're going to eat," says Sodexo's Morasco. "That may or may not be good for them, but it's what they want." (Aramark, for one, will launch a burger concept this fall, says Budejen.)

At Colgate University, Sodexo added a customized dining concept that features every meal made to order. On an 80-item menu, says Dunne, the top seller was a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Because of the customer's age and self-perception, foods that are not necessarily healthful will still be the top sellers. "I don't care what trends are out there, pizza still rules," says Haskell.

One Grad's Opinion
Matthew Sochat recently completed a nearly two-year run as student ambassador for dining services at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (Ivy '08). Sochat, a 2008 graduate, offered UMass Dining a guest's perspective by attending special dining events and submitting his observations as an event report.

R&I asked Sochat for his thoughts on what restaurants can do to attract him and his fellow graduates.

"These days, restaurants are obligated to innovate regularly in order to attract customers and hold their attention. The competitive foodservice market necessitates this adaptability, because customers-many of whom seek changes from the long-standing norms of mainstream restaurants-crave something new.

"For a restaurant to be successful in such a market, it must first be willing to adopt a flexible menu that can adapt to customers' varying tastes. All menu items should be infinitely customizable, be it via the simple omission of a seasoning or the substitution of a meat component for a vegetarian one. Equally important is that every menu item be freshly prepared for each customer using wholesome ingredients. With so many options to choose from today, customers are often keenly aware of the qualitative differences between home cooking and ‘fast food.'

"Above all, however, the customer service must be impeccable; service staff should be charismatic and fully knowledgeable of the menu. Even a restaurant with a vibrant dining environment and a diverse menu will struggle if its staff cannot relate well to the customers."

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