Some Like It Hot: Trends in Campus Foodservice

There are three characteristics of today’s higher-education students. First, they’re more sophisticated, as they’re better traveled than students of previous generations.“They’re more aware of foods and flavors, and have been exposed to regional and international foods,” said Kambiz Khalili, deputy director of Housing & Dining Services at the University of Colorado at Boulder.“It puts a lot of pressure on foodservice people to come up with products that are palatable to them.”

Second, today’s students are students of convenience, so foodservice location is critical to its success. “Coupled with convenience is that students are making their choices not just on a school’s academic prowess, but whether the campus will be a great place to live,” said Jim Sukenik, FCSI, president of Grand Rapids, MI.-based The Baker Group Foodservice Consultants. “If you respond with a strong foodservice plan, you’ll attract students, increase marketability, and reduce attrition, because food becomes fun and attractive.”

Third, today’s students spend a lot of time with technology. “Websites like Facebook and MySpace, and the ability to instant message from a cell phone, have undermined students’ ability to gather in face-to-face ways,” said Sukenik. “Foodservice creates a place where students can meet and talk about things they’re experiencing in life in a less cryptic way than technology offers.”

These three characteristics are driving foodservice trends to meet students’ needs. Here are some of those trends.

Trends in Business Operations

Administrators at the University of Colorado at Boulder are continually looking for ways to meet students’ needs while also creating efficiency and cost savings. It only makes sense, because the institution has 6,000 of its 28,000 undergraduate students living on campus and 1,000 of its 4,500 graduate students living in off-campus family apartments but eating on campus. Right now, administrators are making a number of improvements in the area of business operations. For example, in the next two to three years, they hope to implement a cook-chill system of food distribution. Sauces will be prepared on third shift at a commissary, then flash frozen and sent to the various foodservice venues where they will be rethermalized and served.

“The main dish can still be prepared in front of the customer,” said Khalili. “The benefits are labor savings in producing all the sauces in one location, equipment savings in not duplicating equipment in every location, consistency in taste, and meeting health department regulations.”

Another improvement coming this summer is prime vending, a.k.a. just-in-time delivery. It’s a process that uses just one vendor. Every campus foodservice venue places its food with the vendor’s warehouse so that food is not stored at the back of the house, but put to immediate use at the display cooking stations in the front of the house. “We save in terms of having different locations placing orders at different times with different vendors and in lower storage costs,” Khalili explained.

Connecting these two trends is raw product preparation. It will be delivered by the prime vendor to the commissary to be prepared. Then it will be delivered to the display cooking stations where it can be cooked in front of each student according to his or her order.

Sukenik, too, has noticed a trend affecting business operations. “Students are interested in something other than the three-meal approach that defined America for so many decades,” he explained. “We amusingly say they like to eat seven square meals a day.”

The trend, then, is for extended meal hours and, at times, continuous service. “This addresses the hunger pangs of studying students; socializing students; and students who want to eat more, smaller meals,” said Sukenik.

Trends in Design and Construction

All of the above-mentioned trends affect facility design and construction. For example, in meeting the needs of students who desire extended meal hours, nonprime meal venues must be attractive and exciting. They must appear to be open, but not open in the shadow of a bunch of venues that are closed. To that end, Sukenik’s firm often creates stand-alone eateries that can function for extended hours, yet feel good, have their own identity, and are self-contained.

Similarly, in preparing food in front of students at display cooking stations to meet their sophisticated tastes and desire for entertainment — which Khalili calls “eatertainment” — dining venues need to be designed as marché market systems as opposed to the traditional serving line. Each station has a grill and refrigeration unit so that food can be produced at the station per individual order or put on display for students to take. “Each station is self-sufficient for freshness and palatable presentation,” he said. “Also, the marché reduces waste because you only cook what you need.”

Yet another design trend has emerged as students are now interacting in groups of eight to 12. They want to sit and interact together during their meal. “The solution,” said Sukenik, “is to create a more varied dining experience. The large dining area with regimented seating, long tables, and inflexible arrangements is dead. In its place are dining environments with a more residential scale.” This means designing one dining area with quiet space for small groups, and more stimulating space for larger, more active, and loud groups.

Trends in Food

What would foodservice trends be without a discussion of food itself? Here, Sukenik sees two things happening. The first is that students want a blend of traditional cuisine, like pizza and pasta, with nouveau cuisine. “If you can blend those two together,” he said, “you create a more diverse and interesting experience for students that is more sustainable from the perspective of maintaining student interest.”

The second food trend is a heightened awareness of, and desire for, organic food. The challenge with organic products is price and appearance. Often, the organic tomato arrives with a blemish that is not typical of more conventionally processed tomatoes. The student who is aware that organic produce may have a blemish is unconcerned. However, the student new to the experience may view it as a less-than-perfect product.

Trends in Sustainability

Sustainability in foodservice is another trend. “It’s broad in that it means a lot of different things,” said Chape Whitman, FCSI, a principal with Potomac, MD-based Ricca Newmark Design.

For example, his firm is working with more and more campuses that are interested in LEED certification for their dining facilities. “While there currently aren’t any standards from the USGBC on LEED certification for dining facilities,” said Whitman, “there are lots of things that can be accomplished within a dining facility to contribute to sustainability.” One is using energy sensibly and efficiently.

Yet another example is the concept of sustainable food, which is supporting local food producers. The idea is that food produced in smaller quantities and by hand is something that we should treasure and work to retain. Whitman cautions that, when working with local suppliers, administrators should be prepared for a Plan B in case crops fail because of adverse weather conditions or other unforeseen circumstances.

The concept of incorporating sustainable local and regional food products in the context of being a good global and community citizen circles back to LEED, said Whitman.

The next logical question in terms of an energy-sensitive building is what to do with the prep and plate waste? “Instead of putting it down the drain, which is not green, administrators are thinking of other things they can do with it, like composting,” he said.

“A lot of good things happen when you start thinking along those lines,” Whitman observed. Water use is dramatically reduced because you’re not putting waste down the drain, which, on a long-term basis, has the added benefit of preventing plumbing problems. Also, you’re keeping it out of the sewage system. And, finally, you’re creating a bio product that you can use.

The challenge is in the logistics of turning food waste into compost. It involves land, people, and vehicles, as well partnerships with the facilities and building grounds departments. It is especially challenging for urban institutions to find the land on which to do it and where it’s acceptable to their neighbors. “The question of composting is not simple to answer or implement because of all those things,” said Whitman.

Keeping up with foodservice trends has the potential to drive administrators to the cookie jar for comfort. Fortunately, there’s an easier way, said Sukenik. “If you’re able to create a varied menu and a varied dining experience, and continually refresh that through clever design and planning, you’ll have continual student interest in the facility, which is the magic formula for campus success.”


Tips for Updating Your Foodservice

University of Colorado at Boulder’s Kambiz Khalili offers practical advice for administrators wanting to update their foodservice operations.

1. Survey the students to find out what they want.

2. Next, inventory what you have, as well as your ability to deliver what you don’t have.

3. If you can’t deliver what the students want, then you have a gap and need to figure out how to deliver it.

4. If your facilities are old it’s more difficult and complicated to meet the needs of today’s students.

5. If you don’t have enough money, try to purchase multifunctional equipment to begin, and put some money into making the food look more palatable and sophisticated.

6. Bring the cooking forward from the back of the house. “No more mystery meat,” said Khalili. “Let the students see that you are using fresh food.”

7. If you have the money, invest in renovation and new construction for a marché system and, as much as possible, customize the food to promote freshness.

8. “It needs to be as good as, if not better than, the private industry next to us,” Khalili said. “Otherwise, the students don’t need us.”

9. Recognize that there’s more to foodservice on campus than just serving food. It’s about promoting inclusivity and making it appealing for students and professors to come in and build relationships, to stay and study. It’s about building a welcoming environment so students can get out of their residence hall rooms and feel comfortable.