There's a concept that some big retail purveyors have mastered in spades: Making people feel as if they are sitting in someone's house, all the while holding store-bought cups of coffee, books, or paninis. Even as the world grows more complicated, so the thinking goes, a big couch, custom-ordered food, and a crackling fireplace can help keep us centered.
Like the retail world, institutions of higher education are striving to forge stronger on-campus communities and decrease stress in student life. With lofty goals and no absence of rankings-related pressure, IHE leaders are increasingly attracted to the model of the customer-centric and carefully manufactured "home away from home."
Just as homeowners focus on their kitchens (and bathrooms) in the quest for modernization, IHEs are looking to their dining halls for renewal, transforming them into spaces that hit key retail notes with hospitable service (hello, hostess!) and comforting spaces (diner, anyone?).
Schools have been adding retail establishments such as Starbucks and food-court staples like Chick-fil-A for years, but this new movement is transforming all dining halls, including those operated by the university or an outsourced company, into establishments that resemble off-campus eateries.
Step onto the campus of the University of North Carolina to get a feel for the changing dining scene--a two-story sports cafe outfitted with dozens of jumbo plasma TVs beckons. Or take a ride to Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., where students pick baked goods from a pantry while a chef (standing in for Mom) makes pancakes on the stovetop. The University of Alabama will soon unveil a new themed diner outfitted with stainless-steel trimmings and signage to celebrate its revered sports teams.
While it can be pricey to reinvigorate campus dining (e.g., UNC just channeled $22 million into a new dining center), the process can pay back. According to H. David Porter, CEO of Porter Consulting, a food-service management consulting and design firm specializing in the college and university market, campus food service ranks high behind academics and location as a factor influencing students and parents choosing a college. Aramark Campus Services research shows that students spend upward of $3,800 per year on food.
Yet this movement to bring a restaurant feel to residential dining "is not entirely for financial reasons," notes John Cornyn, principal with The Cornyn Fasano Group, a food management consulting firm in Portland, Ore. "In many cases it's the campus administration saying we have a tough time getting our kids to communicate with each other. It sounds trite, but it's the whole situation of everyone instant messaging and doing other things, and we're looking at ways to encourage socialization."
The evolution toward more retail-type offerings has arisen in response to a student population that grew up with fast meals and restaurant dinners, says Cornyn. Describing the preferences of Generation Y and the younger set, he jokes: "How do you know when it's time for dinner? When you hear the car start."
Today's young adults have grown up with Starbucks and other companies that make food a community experience, notes Naala Royale, vice president of Marketing for Aramark Campus Services. "It's very much influenced by what's happening in the retail world, the experiences that students get while they're in high school." She adds: "Students are so much more sophisticated about their dining choices today. Most students have at least one credit card by the time they are freshmen. They are shopping online, eating at casual theme restaurants much more often. Dining out is much more prevalent now."
The days of the dining hall as a bit of an afterthought have faded. Food-centered IHEs are now the norm. "You can show somebody a classroom or a chemistry lab," says Cornyn. "But residence halls, food service--those are things that are very visual and tactile in terms of saying, 'Wow, the students mean something here.'"
The new building at The University of Alabama is going to be big (40,000 square feet) and it's going to take a big chunk of change to complete (an estimated $12 million). Rather than give students another mammoth dining hall, though, officials are creating a place for customized meals, flexible schedules, and campus community.
The center, set to open in August, will offer 'Bama's students a sports-themed diner, a grab-and-go coffee shop, a convenience store, and an all-you-care-to-eat area with food stations. Gina Johnson, associate vice president for Auxiliary Services at the university, believes the new center will give campus constituencies more choices and a sense of variety--not just a luxury but a necessity for Generation Next.
While food improvements are always of consideration to The University of Alabama, the school has zeroed in on its offerings since it implemented a dining requirement for all undergraduates; it now automatically charges their accounts with at least $300 in Dining Dollars per semester. Starting this fall, the university will also implement a new residency program for all freshmen (currently only about 85 percent of first-year students live on campus). The freshman residency program grew out of the hopes of President Robert Witt, who sees the university's community spirit as crucial to attracting the best and brightest from around the world.
With all students now engaged in meal-plan purchases, the university knows its efforts in the dining realm must closely mirror customer preferences. "We try to operate with the same mentality as a restaurant," says Johnson. "We have to attract the customers, so we have to be open and we have to be offering what they want to eat."
The new sports diner in the yet-to-be-built center will exemplify the crossroads of community and customer service. It will honor Alabama's treasured sports programs. And not just football: 'Bama basketball, gymnastics, women's softball, and other sports will all be involved. For many folks at this university, yelling "Roll Tide!"--and "pass the ketchup"--makes a lovely combination.
Other schools are moving toward mandatory meal plans, too. Since 2003, all undergraduate students at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) have been required to buy some level of the dining plan.
"It really puts a heavy emphasis on our need to meet students' needs," says Cam Schauf, director of Campus Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations. "Because we're requiring them to buy in at a certain level, we really need to make sure that they are getting what they're paying for. My philosophy is that the whole idea of a university food service is to provide a hassle-free service. Other things provide stress in their lives--dining shouldn't be one of them."
With such hefty responsibilities (and a potential customer base of 4,420 undergraduates and more than 4,000 grad students), Rochester is taking an interesting tack: The school is trying hard not to be all things to all people in all locations. Dining venues on campus have been rejiggered in the last couple of years so that each is now unique, with a different specialty, says Schauf.
"There was a feeling that everything was the same," says Schauf. Pizza, which used to be a standard in two locations, is now being offered in just one expanded eatery that maintains a pizza-joint feel. The school is also grouping some of its specialized eateries together, food-court style, to make meals convenient.
That kind of restaurant-type thinking and commitment to people's preferences counts, says Cornyn. "We don't know of anybody who ever made a decision to go to a school based on the food service," he says. "But in this day and age, food service is a very visible statement of a university's commitment to quality."
With 27,000 students and 3,100 faculty members, as well as thousands of staff and annual visitors, the University of North Carolina has plenty of people to feed. The school, however, sprawls across a 729-acre spread divided into two campuses, leaving much room to roam and to get disconnected.
UNC now has a new destination to act as a bond between its north and south campuses. The 30,000-square-foot, mixed-use Rams Head Center sits adjacent to the Kenan Fieldhouse football stadium and includes a $22 million dining center.
The all-you-care-to-eat portion of Rams Head was designed to offer various venues, says Ira Simon, director of Food and Vending Services for the university. It includes the Carolina Diner, which serves all-day breakfast and comfort foods such as mashed potatoes, and the Chophouse, where students can order grilled entrees with all the fixings.
The Carolina Diner is outfitted with Formica tabletops; stainless-steel trim; a jukebox playing music from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s; and vintage signage. In the Chophouse, the material changes, with butcher-block tabletops and mahogany wood walls. "By walking on the same floor," says Simon, "you enter into an entirely different seating area."
The Rams Head Center isn't only about variety--it's also about entertainment and community. The center's new End Zone Sports Cafe takes advantage of the UNC sports tradition and is a hot spot for students (who can spend dining dollars at the eatery) and alumni alike. Two Xbox 360 game consoles allow folks to participate in tournaments broadcast on big-screen televisions; of course, football next door at the stadium draws crowds to the restaurant as well. On game days, says Simon, the End Zone Sports Cafe is "elbow to bellybutton people."
"There's been this stigma of resident dining being institutional whereas retail is not--it's more hip," says Holly Hart, director of Marketing and Communications for Chartwells Higher Education Division. "Why can't we have the best of both worlds?"
Chartwells, which is part of the contract food service and hospitality company Compass Group, has answered that question by developing a new dining program that recently test-launched at Marywood, a Catholic university. The new all-you-care-to-eat Nazareth Marketplace in Marywood's Nazareth Student Center includes My Pantry, an area that resembles a kitchen in someone's home.
My Pantry is a "come into, rather than go up to, concept," says Hart. "It's kind of like Mom cooking." Students can enter the kitchen area and pick cereals or breads out of the cabinets, while requesting, say, pancakes from a chef at work in the middle of the station.
The concept represents just one aspect of Marywood's reworked dining options, which have boosted student satisfaction, according to Director of Dining Services Thomas Notchick. In a survey of students conducted in both the spring and fall of 2005, the percentage of respondents who said the menu was "excellent" doubled, and the percentage who said it was "very good" grew by 77 percent.
Just as schools grow their residential dining options to resemble retail, they are also attracting new commercial operations onto campus. The buzz these days on campus retail focuses on sit-down but casual dining (think Chili's).
In 2005, the Fairfax, Va., campus of George Mason University in suburban Washington, D.C., added a Damon's Grill, part of a national chain of 100 restaurants that serve up low-key fare like burgers, grilled chicken, and ribs. Since the average Mason student is approximately 28 years old and the campus acts as a hub for the region, the restaurant fits the school well. "We have nearly 30,000 students, several thousand employees, and an average of nearly three million visitors who come to campus every year for a concert, meeting, lecture, or sports event," says Daniel Walsch, a university spokesman. "We wanted to make their visits as enjoyable and well-rounded as possible."
According to Vicki Dunn, senior director of Marketing for Campus Services at Sodexho USA, which manages George Mason's food operations, the Damon's addition works with current campus preferences. "We all went through the whole branding phase back in the late 1980s and early '90s," says Dunn. "Now what we're finding is a much more sophisticated taste."
Sophistication--not something that has always been associated with collegiate dining. Yet today's new campus offerings, from diners serving breakfast all day to chophouses grilling up juicy steaks, herald a new day in dining--and induce envy in the rest of us.