Growth | November 2013 | By Sam Oches

A Lesson in College Foodservice

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Quick service brands like Tropical Smoothie Cafe move to college real estate.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe aims to secure brand affinity among college students at its six campus locations. Tropical Smoothie Café
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“Our goals and visions, in a lot of ways, already match up,” she says of college campuses. “For instance, one thing that comes to mind is, on a campus, social responsibility is a large component of what is on the students’ minds, the faculty’s minds, and the administration’s minds. We have many initiatives that have to do with social responsibility. That is one way we can be a rather attractive brand to bring onto the campus.”

“Goals and visions,” as Bencivenga says, are an important component to the relationship between a college and a quick-serve brand. Both sides want to ensure the partner will be financially beneficial, but also that the values of each institution don’t threaten to spoil either side’s participation.

Wuest says that relationship weighs heavily in the decision-making process at the University of Missouri.

“That’s one of those conversations that usually comes up in the beginning,” he says. “Their service model: Does that meet what our mission is? What are the values of the university, what are the values of our department, and are they aligned? Maybe it’s one of those concepts that’s pretty edgy but pretty popular, but maybe that type of edginess doesn’t really fit with what we believe, so that won’t be considered.”

Along with the broader values shared with the partner restaurants, national trends are very much determining the decisions that colleges are making for their foodservice programs.

“One thing that will always drive Millennials, and that hasn’t changed, is convenience,” Aramark’s Solomon says. “They want what they want when they want, where they want it. They are huge impulse buyers, so if you have something in the right place that’s a product that is appealing to them, they will purchase it. They are shifting toward more fast casual and the customization that comes along with that, and that’s a good service model. However, they’re not always willing to wait for that, especially in the college/university environment.”

The movement toward fast casual and customization isn’t the only trend affecting the overall restaurant industry that are trickling into the college environment. Just ask Kennesaw State University. The Georgia school has found great success in developing foodservice solutions in line with other trends popular with the Millennial and Gen Z demographics. For example, the school has an on-campus farmer’s market; brines its own pastrami, corned beef, and pickles; grinds its own grits, flour, and polenta; has in-house hydroponic units that supply 700 heads of fresh lettuce every three weeks; and locally sources everything from milk and vegetables to chicken, pork, and seafood. Kennesaw State’s The Commons culinary center is even LEED-Gold certified for its construction, waste reduction, energy conservation, and recycling practices.

The university’s culinary and hospitality services department has invested so much in next-generation campus foodservice options that the program this year won the National Restaurant Association’s Operator Innovations Award for sustainability, as well as its prestigious Innovator of the Year award.

Gary Coltek, director of Kennesaw State’s culinary and hospitality services, says The Commons is “more like a nine-station restaurant than it is a college campus,” with cooks that have their own mise en place and sinks, and food that is cooked to order. More importantly, he says, the school produces foodservice solutions that its students crave.

“We know our students well,” he says. “We interact with them every single day, we take their comments seriously, and we’re constantly evolving as it relates to retail and our dining halls.”

Coltek says he has seen Kennesaw State’s student demand shift toward more fresh, healthful offerings. When The Commons first launched four years ago, he says, the most popular station served hamburgers, hot dogs, and cheesesteaks. By the time the students who were then freshmen graduated this year, that station was the least popular. “They’re gravitating toward healthy proteins, lean proteins, salad bars, and composed salads,” he says.

Kennesaw State does partner with several national brands, including Chick-fil-A, Freshens, PJ’s Coffee Café, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. But Coltek says he’s carefully selecting brands that both make financial sense for the university and also fit into its push for a more socially conscious program.

“I’m looking for these small brands. They don’t even have to be local; they can be regional or national,” Coltek says. “You’re going to see a lot more brands coming out that operators like myself are going to gravitate to simply because of cost and menu.”

National quick-serve brands that have deemed college campuses an important part of future unit development are indeed adapting their business models to accommodate the shifts in college students’ demands. That’s especially true for companies like Bubba Burger, Zaya Mediterranean, and Freshens, which offer their products and services to colleges through license agreements instead of traditional franchise agreements, meaning schools do not need to pay marketing or franchise fees.

Steve Kibler, vice president of business development at Freshens, says his company readily adapts its model for colleges so it can position itself in front of the younger demographics. Roughly one-third of Freshens’ 850 units, he says, are on college campuses.

“There is a triangle there,” he says of operating on college campuses. “You’ve got the institution, you might have this contract manager with the dining-services department, and then you’ve got the brand. And you’ve got to manage that triangle of relationships. It’s really important because every stakeholder has got something that they want, and you need to accommodate both, but you can’t accommodate them 100 percent.”

Freshens’ smoothie, crepe, salad, and yogurt offerings are directly in line with the fresh, healthy fare college students are seeking today. But Kibler also believes the brand makes a solid partner for colleges and universities because it tweaks its standards and is flexible in its operations—even in its menu—to match whatever environment it is entering.

“For Freshens, we recognized that we had to adapt the footprint, because you’re going to find yourself in libraries, student unions, business schools, rec centers—there’s a wide variety of locations that you’re going to end up in, and that’s going to affect your ability to communicate and access traffic,” Kibler says.

The good news for quick-serve operators, Wuest says, is that the shifting demands from Millennials and other young demographics should guarantee that national brands have a place in the college foodservice conversation for years to come—so long as they keep up with the changing trends.

“Probably a lot of universities across the country are going to start going to a lot more of the quick-service, fast-casual restaurants,” he says. “You’re not going to see the all-you-can-eat facilities as much anymore, because there are just so many benefits to having the [quick-serve] model.”

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