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The meal deal: Higher ed dining

How institutions offer value and variety—while making the business behind the operations work
University Business, December 2015
Behind the scenes at the University of Vermont, chefs work with dining  program administrators to deliver student-requested items in a cost-effective manner. This can involve partnering with local food providers.
Behind the scenes at the University of Vermont, chefs work with dining program administrators to deliver student-requested items in a cost-effective manner. This can involve partnering with local food providers. (Copyright ©Sally McCay, UVM Photo.)

The University of Vermont offers its students allergen-free, gluten-free and kosher food stations—plus cage-free eggs, fair trade coffee and locally sourced organic food (including Vermont maple syrup).

Hunger cravings can be satisfied at any of three dining halls and 12 retail locations on campus, yet meal prices haven’t increased at rates higher than the cost of living rates in five years.

Meanwhile, the food in the nine restaurant-style food stations in the dining hall at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is cooked from scratch, made to order and prepared following zero-waste guidelines. At parents’ weekends, instead of going off-campus for a good meal, students invite their folks to join them in the dining hall.

Ninety-seven percent of undergraduates participate in meal plans, and the satisfaction level with the dining program is typically at 97 percent.

Colleges and universities that provide fresh, high-quality food do more than please students. Offering good food is also good business.

Participation goes up and waste drops when colleges and universities respond to student demand for 24-hour access to food, greater meal-plan flexibility and menus that accommodate a range of needs—including vegan, vegetarian, nut-free, gluten-free and kosher. Ultimately, this contributes to the institutions’ broader goals of a profitable meal service and a topflight dining experience that invigorates student life and bolsters recruitment and retention.

Following are several ways dining program leaders are increasing satisfaction and meal plan participation while keeping operating costs stable.

Making no-cost improvements

Creativity goes a long way in improving food quality, variety and availability without increasing costs.

Muhlenberg, the University of Miami and the University of Delaware, among others, have renovated their dining halls in recent years to move cooking from the back to the front, so that students can watch as food is prepared to order.

Student input drives meal planning

Many college and university dining service managers email satisfaction surveys to students at least annually, and often once per semester. They also employ a variety of methods to seek more frequent feedback, including asking students what they think, meeting with focus groups and food committees, and providing comment cards.

Last year, the University of Arkansas for the first time hired a handful of students to conduct a food-preference survey and doubled the response it had elicited with previous methods, says Andrew C. Lipson, resident district manager.

They surveyed students in more locations and at all hours of the day to reach a broader cross-section of the population. The university regularly sends someone to a dining location with an iPad to ask a couple of questions, such as “What’s your favorite item on the menu?” and “What food is missing on campus?”

At the University of Miami, managers talk to 10 tables of students per meal period. The managers offer cookies to break the ice and ask students how they’re enjoying their food.

Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania encourages students to provide daily feedback, offering a “napkin board” for posting comments. That’s how the “buffalo chicken meltdown” went from being a daily special to part of the core menu, says Jon Middleton, the head chef and director of culinary operations.

Still, Michael Ross, Chartwells resident district manager at the University of Miami, says his team has learned the hard way not to rely on the requests of just a few students. The dining service brought in a vegetable protein designed to look like meat at the request of a couple of students on the vegetarian committee, but the majority of the school’s vegetarians didn’t go for it, he says.

Letting students know their feedback has led to changes in menu and hours of operation also can boost survey participation. Students are more apt to provide feedback if they know someone’s listening.

“It has gone over extremely well and it hasn’t cost us anything more,” says Michael Ross, Chartwells resident district manager at the University of Miami.

At the University of Delaware, food is cooked to order at 13 food stations, says Richard Rind, the director of auxiliary services who works with the institution’s meal services contractor, Aramark.

Now, Rind says, “the employees are directly engaged with the students.” Staff report greater job satisfaction, which drives retention and improves the experience for students.

Cooks now make more food from scratch at both large universities such as the University of Miami—with about 11,000 undergraduates—and at small, private colleges such as Muhlenberg, which has about 2,300 undergraduates. This method saves money while providing students with fresher, better-tasting food.

One example: At the newly opened Fresh Fusion vegetarian eatery in University of Miami’s student center, made-from-scratch veggie burgers allow the university to cut overhead, since there’s no need to receive and have a freezer to store frozen veggie patties at the eatery, Ross says.

Muhlenberg makes its pizza dough from organic, locally sourced flour, cutting the cost by 40 percent over frozen products, says Jon Middleton, head chef and director of culinary operations for Sodexo at Muhlenberg.

“Traditionally in a college, you might walk into a cafeteria and grab a slice of pizza, a burger and a piece of fried chicken,” Middleton says. “Whichever one tastes the best is the one you’ll eat and the others go into the trash.”

Offering students tasting samples of food made from scratch further reduces waste and expenses because students know they will like what they put on their plates.

Schools also reduce waste and costs by controlling portions. For example, Muhlenberg dining staff serve two slices of bacon or sausage upon request. Students can get more, but staff urge them to take only what they’re going to eat, says Middleton.

Along the same lines, the University of Vermont serves three-ounce burgers and doesn’t add french fries unless students ask for them, says Melissa Zelazny, resident district manager for Sodexo.

Colleges and universities also work with student groups, such as eco-councils, to regularly “weigh the waste” and report progress on reduction.

Responding to students’ desire for more meat-free meals, colleges and universities find that offering a variety of tasty vegetarian options has increased demand—with non-vegetarians often choosing them as well. Since animal-based protein is more costly than vegetables, this has the added benefit of lowering expenses.

“We are increasing participation in very high-quality, good-for-you, good-for-us food,” says Middleton. At Muhlenberg, the freshly made organic tabouli salad is so popular that production increased from 35 to 110 pounds per day.

Both Muhlenberg and the University of Miami make fresh pesto with locally sourced basil. At Miami, the student environmental group grows, harvests and delivers herbs to the kitchen. Buying locally sourced food—such as in-season tomatoes, mangos and zucchini in Florida and yogurt in Vermont—also improves taste and freshness without adding costs.

Through its “imperfectly delicious produce” campaign, Miami buys fruits and vegetables that are too small to sell in the supermarket—but still edible. This practice appeals to sustainability-minded students—at no extra cost.

Meeting student requests 

University food service managers who partner with student groups report greater engagement and satisfaction. By seeking student preferences and striving to give them what they want (within reason), food service managers say the commitment to customer service pays off in higher meal plan participation rates and higher satisfaction scores.

Vermont natives are quite familiar with the maple syrup industry and have requested 100 percent maple syrup at UVM. Pure maple syrup is expensive, so Zelazny worked with the university’s Proctor Maple Research Center, which agreed to supply 1,000 gallons of pure maple syrup at cost. Since the research center is a nonprofit, it just has to cover its production and handling expenses.

Sodexo subcontracts with local vendors that provide variety and farm-to-table options. Brennan’s Pub & Bistro, an on campus restaurant serves locally sourced, organic foods.

A student eco club also convinced the University of Vermont to offer reusable, “Eco-Ware” take-out containers at the university’s three dining halls, Zalazny says.

Meeting student wants is key to getting high participation in meal plans. The more students (and staff) sign up, the greater the economies of scale.

“Like any business, we have to have X number of employees,” says Andrew C. Lipson, resident district manager for Chartwells at the University of Arkansas. By having a higher customer-to-staff ratio, the cost of labor per customer declines, improving efficiency. Students living on campus are required to participate in the meal plan, so it has roughly 5,600 subscribers. The additional 2,100 voluntary meal plan subscribers increase revenue.

Providing plan choice

Students who participate in a variety of activities, jobs and internships want longer dining hall hours and other options for grabbing something to eat in the wee hours.

Retail locations augment dining halls by offering access to food in remote parts of campus and during off-peak hours. Retail locations have a better chance of success when the type of restaurant is chosen based on student input.

Colgate University in New York and Queens College, a City University of New York institution, now have a self-checkout, 24-hour convenience store on campus. Students gain access via a badge swipe, and can then choose from baked goods, sandwiches and beverages to buy. Toiletries are also available, says Henry Howard, national marketing director with Chartwells, which operates four campus stores like these.

Strategically placed cameras have kept theft to a minimum, he adds.

This kind of unlimited access is the biggest growth area in college food offerings. Dining services charge just a few dollars more per week to the student so the institution can provide this convenience without losing money.

The demands of different students can be satisfied with multiple meal plans. But it’s essential to keep the option plans simple to attract participants, says Lipson of the University of Arkansas. “If we don’t make it easy for people to spend their money, they’re not going to.”

Colleges and universities tend to provide three basic options:

  • a block plan, which offers a set number of meals per week or per semester
  • an unlimited plan, which, as the name says, allows unlimited dining-hall access throughout the semester
  • a declining balance plan, which is a prepaid option where the cost of meals is deducted from the student’s card as they make purchases in dining halls or on-campus retail operations

Declining balance plans are usually offered at campuses with several retail locations, and some campuses offer declining balance plans as either part of the block or unlimited meal plans.

Or, for an additional cost, schools may give students the option of buying food or beverages at retail locations when the dining halls are closed. Some campuses offer commuter plans or voluntary meal plans for students and staff living off campus.

Building community through food

The dining experience markets an institution to prospective students and contributes to retention.

Food service providers work with colleges and universities to make dining halls a center of student life and learning. For example, at Elon University in North Carolina, the Lakeside dining hall’s international station serves cuisine from a different country every week, says Christopher D. Fulkerson, assistant vice president for administrative services.

The menu changes daily and an electronic screen displays information about that country and the university’s study abroad program.

Dining program managers are not just feeding students. Ideally, dining halls and campus restaurants help build community.

Studies show that if students feel they are part of the community, they are more likely to be successful and stay at that school, says Ross. To encourage students to hang out in the dining hall, the University of Miami streams music, has multiple TVs and—for those who prefer to get their entertainment the old fashioned way—recently installed a number of chess tables and dominoes tables.

“Dining provides the primary socialization opportunity, which is critical for enhancing campus life,” says John Cornyn, vice president in the food services division at Brailsford & Dunlavey, a Washington, D.C.-based program management firm that oversees new construction and renovation projects for higher ed and other industries, says an appealing dining experience can attract students and keep current students living on campus.

“You go into the dining service, you smell it, you watch it being prepared,” he says. “After you graduate, you remember where you used to hang out or have coffee.”

Elon University shares its 10-year strategic plan with its food service provider, and together they create programs designed to connect residential dining to campus life, says Fulkerson.

For example, when the campus hosts a speaker, that person might sit with students at a long table in the dining hall for an informal discussion before the speech.

The big motivation is “to create a learning environment not just in the classroom,” Fulkerson says. “Where do you have the great conversations? It’s around a table.”

Theresa Sullivan Barger is a Hartford, Connecticut-based journalist.

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