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Staying Relevant with Student Dining

College and university dining programs are increasingly challenged to remain competitive, with off-campus options being more available with the advent of Uber Eats and other app-based food delivery programs. The competitive advantage of convenience is slowly being eroded away by these services. To remain relevant to the student consumer base on-campus dining must continue to evolve in a way that enhances experiences along with convenience. student dining

Full-time college students represent nearly $70 billion in annual spending, with the majority of the discretionary spend spent on food. Capturing the spend is critical to the sustainability of campus dining programs. Additionally, colleges and universities have an opportunity to improve each student’s long-term potential by guiding students to make better choices on spending money and encourage a healthy diet with nutritious and wholesome meal options.

Significant macro drivers are influencing the approach students are taking toward food choices.

The consumer-driven redefinition of quality in food culture

Students increasingly aspire to higher-quality food experiences. Food is now a cultural product to discover, share, make and trade. This reconnection with food and its origins is encouraging a new level of participation.

Quality movement drivers/facts:

  • Students are adopting new food routines that focus on health and wellness (fresh, real and less processed)

  • Transparency and global discovery – reflecting a desire for expanded variety

  • 53% of consumers break from normal eating routines at least once a week

    • 38% break for higher quality

    • 43% break for variety. 

Transparency: the insatiable desire to know more

All consumers, and most notably students, associate transparency with how authentically committed a company is to ethical action. About seven in ten (69%) consumers would like companies’ sustainability practices to be more publicly visible. Taking transparency and authenticity one step further is the notion of “edible ethics” as the American food system shifts to reflect deeper, more salient values. 65% of Americans said companies earn consumer trust by being open about what’s in their products and 55% want specific details about how their products were made and who made them.

Snacking: the great change agent disrupting food culture

While the phenomenon of snacking is messy and at times hard to fully describe, coherence is brought to snacking by examining how three key drivers represent a thematic shift in food values and are connected to the needs driving snacking occasions:

  • Nourishment: Snacking that meets needs for daily sustenance, long-term wellness and health management.

  • Pleasure: Snacking that fulfills emotional desires for enjoyment, craving and comfort.

  • Optimization: Snacking that helps one fulfill physical and mental performance demands.

Branding: a strong brand helps consumers know what to expect

A brand that is consistent and clear puts the consumer at ease because they know what to expect each and every time they experience the brand. This builds on itself because people love to tell others about the brands they like. Internally developed brands can be just as successful as large well—known brands (for example Starbucks) if deployed professionally, in-line with student expectations, is architecturally inspiring, and delivers consistent experiences. For example, Babson College developed a smoothie and Acai bowl concept named Smoothie Lab that has customized branding, a consumer-relevant environment, and is a central draw for students.

students discussing clear branding

Food Preferences: customized health and wellness

The future of diet preferences (e.g. vegan, vegetarian, etc.), the reemergence and emphasis on religious diets (e.g. Islam/Halal, Judaism/Kosher, Jainsim, etc.), and condition management and prevention will need to be evermore precise as consumers see themselves as unique individuals requiring personalized solutions.

healthy lunch
Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that food allergies in children have risen by about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Nowadays, one in thirteen kids in the United States has a food allergy with 90 percent of allergic reactions due to one of these eight foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. About 30 percent of children who have a food allergy are allergic to more than one food.  

In Summary

All colleges and universities have the opportunity to reinvent dining programs through either an evolutionary approach or transformational approach. Opportunities abound in targeting niche benefit spaces rather than searching for one or two mass needs to satisfy. Have a question, feel free to reach out an connect with one of us. 770-777-6633

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