Making the Grade
Colleges and universities take bold strides in appeasing the evolved student palate.
Washington State University’s three-tier Residence Dining Accounts offer students dietary and financial flexibility.
The Harvard Crimson reports meal sales at the school’s renovated Quincy House Dining Hall have increased 35% over last year.
Flamenco dancers and Spanish guitarists have a place in the dining halls of Boston’s Northeastern University. The school’s annual Educate Your Palate night, a foreign cuisine and culture showcase, is one example of how colleges and universities are piquing the interest of students and competing not only with other foodservice options but also with other schools.
“These kids have grown up eating in restaurants,” says Rich Neumann, director of dining services for Ohio University in Athens. “Moms don’t cook like they used to, so it’s a huge challenge for us.”
In what Ted Mayer, executive director of Harvard University Dining Services in Cambridge, Mass., calls a matter of having “an evolved palate,” today’s college students expect more from dining halls than the bland, predictable institutional fare once a hallmark of university living. Creative presentations, multimillion-dollar renovations and interactive events are used as adroitly as any spice to define the new college foodservice experience.
Show and Tell
Pan-seared sesame salmon. Turkey tenderloins with pineapple-chipotle salsa. Thai spare ribs. This is the face of contemporary university cafeterias.
“You’ve got students from all over the world and they’ve already had exposure to different cuisines,” says Victor Younger, general manager of the newly renovated Trillium restaurant at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “It’s a very competitive market, and dining services is taken into consideration by some students during the campus selection process.”
For Younger, competing means listening to students about what they crave in addition to meeting their basic foodservice needs.
“We designed Trillium based on feedback, not on what we thought would fit the concept,” he explains. “Students told us they wanted high-end, fresh menu items and custom-prepared ethnic foods.”
Consumer demand for high-quality product on college campuses is no different than in commercial settings. Some schools have learned that providing visual presentations goes a long way in impressing students.
“We bring food preparation to the front of the house to give our dining halls a restaurant feel,” Neumann says of Ohio University’s cost-effective approach.
Carving stations have proved a hit and Ohio University and Cornell provide such options to students. Neumann says student perception changed once they saw “a big chunk of meat” being cut in front of them.
“They think that because it’s similar to service in restaurants that it must be good,” he says.
As much as food quality remains a draw for students, schools have discovered that other factors are at work when it comes to eating on campus.
“The undergraduate years are a time for experimentation and to establish independence,” says Mayer. “Often we find that students select an item based on whether we’ve bought organic. These are important issues that mean something to them.”
Percent of college and university students who regularly skip lunch while 8% forego dinner and 15% take a pass on breakfast; 28% of students find time for late-night snacks.
In response, dining services have become more socially and environmentally aware and admit that in many respects it is an effective marketing tool with young consumers.
“Students are savvy,” says Jeff DeMoss, executive director of dining services for the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He reports that introducing “Kentucky-raised and grown” products at one of the school’s retail spots has been a huge success.
“Students think buying locally grown products is a great idea,” he explains. “Our deli sells jams and cheeses from area farmers.”
Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman developed an on-campus organic farm run by a university-employed farmer who works with dining services to provide organic produce for the school’s food market.
“It’s a two-way street,” says Executive Chef Doug Murray of the impact such efforts have on students’ choice to dine on-campus. “We’re proud of what we’re doing and think organics and sustainable farms are important issues for students, but we also know they’re marketing opportunities.”
Being proactive where such matters are concerned has paid off at Cornell, where foodservice employees partnered with student groups to work on responsible methods of operation for Trillium.
“We added biodegradable packaging at this venue and look for every opportunity to be environmentally responsible,” Younger says. “There is a marketing element to this, without a doubt.”
Making the Commitment
Murray never saw himself as a college man, so to speak.
“I came from the restaurant side of the industry,” Murray says. “I never considered a school setting as a career.”
All that changed, he says, when WSU presented its $20 million dollar commitment to campus dining. “They know people want to eat good food and we need to make it known that we are no different than any mainstream restaurant or commercial operation,” he says. “What schools used to do in dining halls isn’t good enough anymore.”
Hiring someone educated at The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., and who has only fine-dining experience, Murray says, is testament to the school’s dedication to change. “One of WSU’s biggest initiatives is to work the dining rooms and visit every student’s table,” he says. “These are our guests, not just a bunch of kids.”
Maureen Timmons takes a similar approach to her school’s popular cooking events. “Students today are more interested in cooking and food,” says the director of dining services for Northeastern University. “We’re known for our practice-oriented education and I call our programs practice-oriented eating.”
With renovation that included an exhibition kitchen, Northeastern expanded its dining program to include cooking classes such as “How to Make Sushi” and “Demystifying Indian Food.” Spots for the classes fill immediately.
“With so much to do in the Boston area we’re amazed that the classes are always full,” she explains. “Everybody is a foodie these days.”
Dealing with a sophisticated, educated audience presents an ongoing challenge, but Timmons says it allows college programs to play more active roles in student education than ever before.
“It’s as important to learn about different cultures as it is to know how to dine out in a nice restaurant,” she says. “It’s my job to educate them about all of this through our food.”
Gone are the days when students signed on to mandatory meal plans with limited options for dining out. Today, students spend their food dollars at dining halls as well as retail operations to get the most of their money.
“Students were running out of cash for retail purchases because the money parents gave them to eat in the dining halls was spent on other things,” says Jeff DeMoss of the University of Kentucky, Lexington. The result, he says, was unhealthy eating by students trying to stretch their funds.
The flex-dollar trend is catching on, schools say, because students are accustomed to a variety of eating options.
“We give our students a certain amount of ‘Big Red Bucks’ that they can use as a part of their meal plan,” explains Victor Younger of Cornell University. “We understood that this was something viable.”
DeMoss says the plan is a hit with the school and students alike.
“Now every table in the dining halls is filled,” he says. “Students can get unlimited food in the dining halls but they can still go to the retail end on the same plan.”