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NPD: Industry must appeal to teens’ more sophisticated tastes

NPD: Industry must appeal to teens’ more sophisticated tastes

To appeal to the sophisticated teens about to flood college campuses nationwide, dining directors need to take the mystery out of mystery meat, put the customer back in customer service and offer students a total dining experience, say officials at The NPD Group.

The crop of incoming students—part of the Millennial Generation—are more restaurant-savvy, have higher expectations and are less satisfied with their overall dining experiences than teens the same age just five years ago, according to new data from the Port Washington, N.Y.-based global market research firm.

“Restaurants are really shaping teens’ expectations on what should be available to them when they are at school,” said NPD product manager Kyle Olund. “[Campus foodservice providers] have to cater to their expectations.”

Teens have become so savvy about dining out because they are doing it more often than ever before. According to the data, use of quick-service restaurants among teens aged 13 to 17 has increased significantly in the past five years. In the year ended December 2006, on any given day 42 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 visited a quick-service restaurant, an increase of 6 percent from 2001. In comparison, use by young people aged 18 to 22 has held steady, increasing just 2 percent from 2001 to 2006.

While teens are using restaurants more and more, their overall satisfaction isn’t increasing at the same pace as that of people who are slightly older. According to the data, in the year ended December 2006, about 40 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 rated their overall satisfaction at QSRs as excellent, an increase of just 1.2 percent from 2002. In comparison, approximately 36 percent of young adults aged 18 to 22 rated their overall satisfaction at QSRs as excellent, an increase of almost 4 percent from 2002.

When it comes to feeling like they are getting the most for their money, most teens aren’t happy with quick-service restaurants. In the year ended December 2006, only 38 percent of teens rated QSRs’ value for the money as excellent, a 2-percent decline from 2002. By comparison, 34 percent of those aged 18 to 22 rated QSRs’ value for the money as excellent, up less than 1 percent from 2002.

Despite their increasing patronage of fast feeders, teens said they also are less satisfied with the taste and flavor of the foods they eat at QSRs. In the year ended December 2006, about 49 percent of teens rated the taste and flavor of QSR food as excellent, a decline of nearly 3 percent from 2002. About 42 percent of those aged 18 to 22 rated taste and flavor of QSR food as excellent, an increase of just one-tenth of a percent from 2002.

Though they aren’t completely satisfied with restaurants, teens and young people are even less satisfied with school and college cafeterias. According to the data, on-campus eateries far underperform commercial restaurants in overall satisfaction. In the two-year period ended December 2006, only 17 percent of teens rated their overall experience at secondary school cafeterias as excellent, and only 17 percent of young people rated their overall experience at college/university cafeterias as excellent. Full-service restaurants performed the best, according to the data. Forty-seven percent of teens rated their experience at full-service restaurants as excellent, as did 44 percent of young people. QSRs came in second, garnering a rating of excellent from 40 percent of teens and 36 percent of young people. Restaurants at schools or universities, including branded concepts, also performed well, with 40 percent of teens and 29 percent of young people rating their experiences as excellent.

“Those aren’t numbers to ignore—those declines,” Olund said. “It’s going to be even more challenging for campus dining services to obtain levels of satisfaction with their consumer base.”

In the past few years, however, some colleges and commercial foodservice providers have overhauled their operations to better please their increasingly picky patrons.

Grinnell College, a small institution located about 50 miles east of Des Moines, Iowa, recently gave its two turn-of-the-20th-century cafeterias—and the meals they once churned out—an extreme makeover.

“It seems like every year the ability to satisfy is a bigger and bigger challenge as society offers more options to students entering college,” said Dick Williams, director of dining services for Grinnell.

To meet that challenge, last year Grinnell introduced a marketplace concept featuring authentic cuisine from around the globe that is prepared in front of diners. The college’s 1,500 students now can choose food from eight different stations such as grill, wok, pizza, vegan, pasta and “at home.”

“It’s been a big success for us,” Williams said. “Student satisfaction has skyrocketed.”

Williams said he believes the dining environment plays a big part in the whole package, so the school’s once dingy dining rooms also were transformed. Designed by architect Cesar Pelli, the space is now a modern, 850-seat dining room with a variety of seating options, including an open commons area with floor-to-ceiling windows, a space with cozy wooden booths and a second-floor mezzanine that overlooks the commons.

Similarly, in 2005, after three years of research to determine the dining needs and expectations of the Millennial Generation, Chartwells Higher Education—a division of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group—launched an interactive concept called Pulse on Dining.

“Resident dining had this stigma, institutional feeding,” said Holly Hart, director of marketing and communications for Chartwells. “It’s really more than great food—it’s a total experience.”

Pulse on Dining features, among other things, branded concepts, platform kitchens, retail components and high-tech elements, such as LCD TV screens and iPod docking at select dining tables. Instead of a cafeteria line or fixed concepts, a changing menu of foods is prepared by a chef or other foodservice workers at such stations as The Kitchen, an open-kitchen concept with most foods prepared to order; Fresh Market, Chartwells’ version of the salad bar; and myPantry, a self-serve, home-style kitchen.

“It’s been wildly successful so far,” Hart said. “Student satisfaction has risen significantly, and voluntary meal plan [enrollment] has risen significantly.”

Philadelphia-based Aramark Higher Education, which provides dining services to approximately 400 colleges and universities, has not only updated its dining concepts to meet the demands of Millennials, it also began actively involving students in concept development through online surveys, focus groups and participation in planning and testing stages.

As a result of the “by-students-for-students” approach, the foodservice giant has become more retail-oriented and has created several brands to mirror the retail and restaurant world, including Bleeker Street Cafe, a bakery-cafe, and Zoca, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant. The company also has introduced such technology as electronic ordering kiosks and a Web portal featuring on-campus dining menus, nutrition information, special events, promotions, healthy eating options and more.

“The key…is doing more and more of what they want,” said Naala Royale, Aramark’s vice president of marketing. “Programs developed by [students] will always be more successful than those developed in a vacuum.”

Since rolling out its student-centric approach, Aramark reports that students’ overall dining satisfaction has increased 5 percent from fall 2005 to fall 2006. In addition, in the past three years, Aramark said its “share of spend,” the percent of the total dollars students spend on food per year, has increased 7 percent.

“It’s forced us to be very different. It’s allowed us to be more innovative,” Royale said of the increased expectations and sophistication of young people.

When it comes to meeting the needs of the Millennial Generation, what foodservice providers need to understand is that it’s not just about the food, it’s about their attitudes and satisfaction rates, Olund said.

“Don’t just focus on what’s on the menu. Consider service…value…satisfaction,” Olund said.

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