Only one-third of 3,400 U.S. college students say they’re satisfied with their meal plans, found a survey by food industry research firm Technomic. But schools are finding that to address the problem, they need to go beyond simply improving what winds up on diners’ plates.
As food service consultant David Porter says, “Sometimes it’s not the food itself that can make or break a school’s dining program; it’s where and how it’s available on campus.” Porter, whose firm specializes in on-campus dining, adds that more college and university administrators are reexamining their school’s dining plan to better fit the modern student, and as a result keep enrollment and recruitment high.
The right dining environment impacts recruitment numbers, retention rates, and even alumni relations, says Porter. “Studies have shown that when freshmen have a positive social experience and make friends at school, they are more likely to return as sophomores. Sitting down together and sharing a great meal is central to that.”
How do you ensure your whole campus dining experience is the best it can be? The following are five trends to bite into.
1. Operating on students’ time
Should we expand campus dining hours? It’s a question being asked by administrators a lot these days. Still, Porter says some institutions open dining halls only for a few hours at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As a result, students often complain they can’t use their meal plans when they want to use them and that the plans are not worth the cost.
“Students live on a different clock than the rest of the world,” Porter says. “Many colleges are either extending their hours or implementing 24-hour dining locations.”
Administrators at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) knew the school’s 8,300 students tended to be both late-night and mobile. When SCAD partnered with Bon Appétit in 2012, dining officials began to offer three late-night options: Maru, a cafe offering various Asian fare that’s open from 4 to 11 p.m., the Artisan Deli, open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., and SCAD takeout, available from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The school is planning to add later hours to other campus eateries, as well, says Eric Davidson, SCAD’s resident district manager for Bon Appétit.
As SCAD comprises 80 buildings spread across an urban environment, students were also asking for more quick meals between classes. “We wanted to be forward-thinking, as well as bring the students a fresher alternative to a vending machine or retail,” says Davidson. “We came up with something fun: food trucks.”
Since the beginning of the 2013 spring semester, two food trucks, created especially by Bon Appétit, have been hitting four highly populated spots along two routes on campus between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. The trucks, which have been well-received, have rotating menus, with tacos, sliders, and vegetarian options now the most popular choices, Davidson says.
The food trucks are another option for students on campus who aren’t on a meal plan, he adds. Davidson’s team is considering keeping the food trucks running until as late as 5 a.m., and sending them to more locations, including catered events.
2. Providing a four-star experience
Upping the ante on the dining experience with restaurant-like quality dining is not a new trend, but institutions are taking the idea to the next level. Porter is seeing four-star restaurants and high-end food courts on campuses—with high-quality food as well as seating, flooring, and lighting selected to create the right ambiance.
In 2008, Washington University in St. Louis, also working with Bon Appétit, added Ibby’s Restaurant, which Dining Services Manager Paul Schimmele says has been a great addition to the campus. The institution also has three large cafeteria-style dining halls and more than a dozen smaller eateries sprinkled around campus to serve its 14,000-plus undergrad and graduate student population.
Ibby’s, located in the Danforth University Center, is a 50-seat, sit-down restaurant that’s open for lunch, dinner, and special events. It has become a “real hotspot” for students and staff looking to dine in style on campus, Schimmele says. “Our late vice chancellor, James McCloud, had a vision of an on-campus restaurant where the Wash. U. community could come to relax and have a truly enhanced food experience,” he says.
Ibby’s serves contemporary-American food priced $30 and under, and students can make online reservations using the popular website Open Table, where the restaurant has earned four out of five stars.
3. Following feedback
To keep students satisfied, Wash. U.’s dining department regularly consults with student organizations and faculty members. It also uses Facebook to send out an annual food and dining survey. For the past few years, each survey has gotten 1,600 to 1,800 responses.
“Questions usually focus on food choices, hours of operation, and what we can do to to improve the student experience,” Schimmele says. “We’re always looking to make positive changes and improving already established programs.”
The dining department has also held food forums and met with students in small groups. Schimmele says that in recent forums, students have said they are happy with the dining updates Wash. U. has made.
4. Tracking the population
Data can also be used more formally in decision making. At Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.), serviced by CulinArt, Inc., the school’s executive chef, Sean Minahan, solicits student feedback through surveys. But dining department administrators also examine school population data and reach out to students individually. “It’s all about options and making the adjustments to fit those special needs, whether it’s a student’s serious medical condition or allergy, religious beliefs, or personal dietary restrictions,” he says.
CMU’s layout is uncommon in the sense that there aren’t any large centralized dining locations, Minahan explains. Instead, a variety of 14 smaller eateries are located throughout the 100-acre campus to better reach all 6,200 students. “It really allows us to have a more unique approach to dining and get down to the real goal of meeting each customer,” Minahan says. “For example, eVgefstos is an entire location devoted to our vegan and vegetarian students, instead of having only one or two [meal] options throughout many locations.”
CMU has worked with campus groups representing its large population of Jewish and Muslim students to develop entire lines of food for kosher and halal diets, Minahan says. Kosher Korner, a station established in four dining locations, features ready-to-eat/heat meals. The Pomegranate is a Middle Eastern cafe that also serves kosher and halal meals.
More than 10 percent of CMU’ student population is international, and the dining department has done its best to bring these students the culinary comforts of home, says Minahan. “We recently introduced a concept called Worlds of Flavor—a station where, every week, students can have a new dish from a different location in the world,” he says. “It’s been hugely successful. American students are being exposed to diversity, while international students have the chance to get a taste of their home.”
5. Maintaining the right mix
How many dining venues is the right number for a campus? There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to revitalizing campus dining, says Porter. While some campuses are adding more food options at more locations, others are creating a more compelling experience in fewer spots. “It’s a process of discovery. Every campus has a unique culture, philosophy, and layout, so every dining experience needs to be unique.”
Bon Appétit, www.bamco.com
Parkhurst Dining, www.parkhurstdining.com
Porter Khow Consulting, www.porterkhouwconsulting.com