Menus make the grade

Menus make the grade

Stealth health, sustainability, variety drive campus foodservice changes

Chances are that many college students already are your patrons, and if they are not, they will be soon.

Whether you’re a commercial restaurant operator, an on-site contractor, or you aspire to open nontraditional locations on college campuses, you need to know what’s on the minds of the 18- to 25-year-old set.

For insight into the trends influencing foodservice sales at colleges and universities, we talked to foodservice directors around the country. Following are the biggest sales drivers as well as a few up-and-comers. Because as one college operator succinctly put it: “We’ve got to listen to what they’re saying. [Then] we’ve got to address that.”

Stealth health

Gone are the days of the “freshman 15” — when every freshman put on 15 pounds after spending a year of college consuming a steady diet of burgers, fries and pizza. Today’s college students are more conscious of the foods they eat and the impact they have on their health and well-being.

While they haven’t given up classic fast foods, this generation also is looking for more healthful options, including non-fried, transfat-free, low-calorie foods and those that address dietary needs and lifestyle choices, such as vegetarian, flexitarian and gluten-free options.

“Well-balanced choices — they want to know these choices [exist]. They want to be able to make these choices,” said Rob Morasco, senior director of development, campus services for Sodexo. 

Sodexo wants all its patrons to eat healthfully, but as Morasco said, “We can’t dictate to the crowd. They’re college students. [So we take a] stealth-health approach.”

For Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo, which provides foodservice to more than 650 campuses in the United States, the stealth approach means providing healthful options at every meal, but not marketing them too aggressively. For example, while pizza with whole-wheat crust might be available, there is not necessarily going to be a label touting its healthful benefits. 

“We don’t want to say our whole-wheat pizza crust is all-natural,” Morasco said. “It might turn them away from pizza because they’re not eating it for health. You can’t make wellness a program. I think it has to be a part of our DNA.”

Fast and fresh

For students at The College of New Jersey, or TCNJ, in Ewing, N.J., eating healthfully means eating fresh, prepared-in-front-of-you meals.

“We know based on feedback from students that they wanted fresh food prepared in front of them and destination dining,” said Karen A. Roth, director of dining services. “The biggest thing they wanted was access to the fresher foods.”

To meet students’ desires, in 2008, TCNJ, along with dining partner Sodexo, embarked on a complete renovation of its main dining hall, transforming its traditional cafeteria into a trayless food court featuring destination “restaurants.” Today, at the new Atrium at Eickhoff, as the dining hall is called, students can visit any one of 10 restaurants featuring everything from pizza and pasta to salads, sandwiches and vegetarian cuisine prepared in front of them. 

“That’s a big cultural change from where we were before, where food was prepared behind closed doors in a mystery kitchen,” said John P. Higgins, general manager of dining services for Sodexo.

The revamp has been so successful TCNJ plans to take it to the next level in the coming years, expanding seating and bringing food prep — from chopping vegetables to preparing pizza dough to making fresh mozzarella — to the front of the house as well.

At Villanova University, students have shown so much interest in healthful, freshly prepared fare that the university has transformed an entire dining hall from all-you-care-to-eat to made-to-order, and is rolling out the “Cooking with the Stars” program, which features university chefs cooking up dishes from a select cookbook. The cookbook program launches in August with recipes from Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer known for healthful minimalist recipes. 

“We’re bringing the menu from the back-of-the-house to the front-of-the-house and featuring local foods from CSA,” or community supported agriculture, said Timothy Dietzler, director of dining services at Villanova in Villanova, Pa. 

Another big concern for Villanova students is portion size, especially when it comes to desserts, said Dietzler. So instead of offering an array of decadent, full-sized desserts, the university offers a wide selection of indulgent sweets with downsized portions.

“Students are still enjoying that decadent dessert, but they feel they’re being healthy,” said Dietzler of the response to the new portion sizes.

Restaurant nostalgia

In what amounts to good news for restaurateurs, college kids aren’t craving Mom’s home-cooked meals as much as they are the restaurant fare they grew up on.

For Janet Paul Rice, president of the National Association of College and University Food Services, healthful eating dovetails with the call for quality foods heard on campuses nationwide.

“The top trend in college and university dining is … a clientele that expects authentic ethnic flavors and restaurant-quality, good-for-you comfort food at low prices, labeled clearly for allergens, ingredients and nutrients, while keeping a keen eye on sustainability,” said Rice. 

At Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. — a sister city to Fargo, N.D. — where Rice serves as the associate director of dining services, she is working toward addressing the student body’s entire culinary wish list.

“We are focusing our recipe-testing efforts on more scratch cooking, using healthier components such as whole-wheat pasta in place of white pasta and more whole grains,” said Rice. “Because our labeling program indicates fiber content, customers can tell at a glance if a recipe is better for them.”

Locally sourced

Today’s college students not only are gaining knowledge from their classes, but they also are growing more educated — and more passionate about — sustainability and locally sourced foods. 

“This generation … they want the best of everything,” said Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They know we’re using only sustainable seafood, supporting local farmers.”

In addition to serving only sustainable seafood, UMass is offering more local produce through a partnership with a local farmer commissioned to grow all the university’s lettuce, and its menus emphasize seasonal vegetables.

Local, sustainable food is among the top foodservice concerns for the more than 8,400 students on a meal plan at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. To meet students’ increased interest in local foods, the university recently began purchasing from a produce auction made up of a group of local farmers. On a weekly basis the university culinary team attends the auction, purchases fresh food and then loads it in the truck and brings it back to campus to be prepared. Often, local produce makes it to students’ plates the same day it was picked.

“We are purchasing from local farmers because students are asking for more local and sustainable products,” said Rich Neumann, director of residential dining at Ohio University. “Southeast Ohio is a very poor area where over 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Purchasing locally supports the economy, creates jobs, provides students with a fresher product and reduces our carbon footprint. … Purchasing locally supports our president’s sustainability initiative, as well.”

At Villanova, students’ feelings about food have been influenced by such documentaries as “Food Inc.,” a 2008 film narrated by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser that seeks to show the environmental, human and animal abuses involved in factory farming, said Dietzler. As a result, they are pushing for the school to serve more local, sustainable fare, he said.

While Villanova has been buying local produce since the 1950s, it consolidated to a single vendor in the 1990s as a means to trim food costs and obtain foods year-round from all over the country. Recently, however, Villanova began working with its primary vendors to purchase more local produce and dairy. Currently, about 52 percent of university foods are purchased locally, about 10 percent higher than 15 years ago.

“The emerging trend is local foods,” said Dietzler. “That is exploding.”

Whenever you want it 

Like most restaurant patrons, on-campus diners are time strapped and looking for convenient access to the foods they love.

“Customers want everything, any time of day,” said UMass’ Toong. “The convenience is so important to them.”

To provide more convenience to students, many universities are adding more locations or simply extending hours of operation of existing facilities. For example, last year Ohio University extended dinner service in its main dining hall from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

“They want maximum flexibility and more hours of service,” said Ohio University’s Neumann.

UMass has taken the idea of convenience a step further, embarking on two innovative initiatives that borrow ideas from the campus dining service’s commercial restaurant competitors: meal-delivery services and a food truck.

Previously, when campus dining halls closed, students would order delivery from off-campus restaurants. However, late last year UMass began keeping several dining facilities open late for on-campus deliveries of pizza, wings and other popular late-night snacks. To compete with outside restaurants, the university priced its offerings slightly lower than its competitors and hired students to make the deliveries on foot. 

“It’s been very successful,” Toong said. “At the end of the day, if you can provide good-quality products, good services, sustainability, a student will buy from you.”

To further meet students’ desire to grab a bite wherever they happen to be, UMass is in the process of rolling out its first food truck. When it hits the road this September, the truck will serve yet-to-be-announced cuisine at rotating locations around campus from noon into the wee hours of the morning. 

Up-and-coming trends

While healthful, sustainable and convenient are the foodservice buzzwords on most college campuses, foodservice directors point to others that are gaining traction:

Authenticity. Whether it’s because they grew up in the age of the Food Network or have the world at their fingertips via online devices, college students possess a high level of culinary literacy and an expectation of authenticity. They know authentic food, especially ethnic foods, and how it should look and taste. They won’t settle for imitations, and they’ll let foodservice providers — and their thousands of Facebook friends — know exactly what they think when an item is not real.

Self-imposed dietary restrictions. From nut free to gluten free, more and more students are declaring that they have dietary limitations. They expect foodservice operators to understand their restrictions and offer options that meet their individual needs.

Flexitarianism. Influenced by such trends as eating better and more-sustainable living, a growing number of students are following the flexitarian diet, meaning they are largely vegetarian, yet occasionally consume meat. They want more vegetarian options, but expect those options to be more full-flavored, complex and satisfying than traditional vegetarian offerings such as pasta or veggie plates.