College students love restaurants. Fifty-eight percent of them eat at an off-campus quick serve at least once a week, and 56 percent of them eat at a fast casual, according to the “College & University Keynote Report” from Datassential, a food industry market research company in Chicago.

However, among the various off-campus dining options available to them, students say quick serves give them the least satisfaction, while fast casuals rank third from the bottom out of nine choices that include convenience stores and coffee shops. This leaves room for improvement in restaurants, especially given that 81 percent of students who responded to Datassential’s survey said they’d eaten off-campus in the week prior. But what exactly does this group of consumers want?

Aged mostly 18–22, today’s college students are at the oldest end of Generation Z. This demographic, says Susan Schwallie, executive director of food and beverage consumption at the NPD Group, “are looking for brands that reflect who they are and what they believe in.” They’re looking for a slightly elevated experience—fast casual resonates with them—and fresh food that’s offering something slightly new in terms of a flavor profile, she says.

This ties in with Datassential’s findings that 49 percent of college students identify themselves as “foodies.” This generation, managing editor Mark Brandau says, has grown up with cooking shows on television. And Schwallie adds that they’re also attending college at a time when the food on campus is second to none.

Camp Howard, director of dining at the University of Montana in Missoula, knows this firsthand. “[Students] want bold flavors and an experience when dining out,” he says. “Typically, they’re looking for the local, unique college-town restaurant, or a national brand for a specific item.”

At the same time, they’re savvy about the latest fads and trends in dieting. Almost half (47 percent) are limiting their meat consumption, according to Datassential; 27 percent are flexitarian (a mostly vegetarian diet), 8 percent are pescatarian (vegetarian with seafood), 7 percent are vegetarian, and 5 percent are vegan.

“College students trend toward a pretty personalized approach to nutrition and health, and think pretty hard about what diet fits them,” Brandau says. “They also want access to knowing what’s in their food.”

This is because they’re aware of what they do not want to eat. The Datassential study showed that nearly half of students are avoiding at least one allergen, and even more avoid or limit one or more. Food additives top the list of things college students avoid or limit eating; 15 percent avoid them, and another 38 percent limit them. Dairy, gluten, and soy round out the top four.

“This generation is showing a preference for clean labels and for eating food in as close to its natural state as possible. They’re very conscious of what they put in their bodies,” Brandau says.

Beyond the food itself, today’s college students—in line with most of the population—want convenience, and much of that is found through delivery.

“This group of consumers in their late teens and early 20s has really become consumers as delivery was taking off in the restaurant industry, so they’re starting off with this expectation that food should be an on-demand thing,” Brandau says. Interest in delivery has picked up; more than 80 percent of students said they’re interested in it, while Datassential didn’t even ask the question of this age group three years ago. And most of students’ delivery is coming from off campus, with 63 percent of them saying they’ve had food delivered from beyond the college grounds and 40 percent saying they’ve ordered delivery from on-campus operations.

The easier and faster that restaurants can make it for students to order food, the better. A whopping 65 percent of them said speed/convenience is what they most value about delivery, and even though more than half of them said the best option is ordering from a person, they’re willing to forgo that for speed. Some 62 percent said they use mobile apps to order their meals.

Finally, these young adults have grown up in a world on the brink of an environmental crisis. They care about the resources a restaurant uses, and 73 percent of them said they would sacrifice functionality to be more environmentally friendly with disposable items. Topping the list of what else concerns them about sustainability is that they’d most like a program in restaurants whereby their food comes in reusable containers, for which they’d pay a deposit and get a refund when they return it.

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