Trendwatching: College Cuisine

Dining Commons at Stonehill College, Easton, MA

While scouting colleges with my high school age son, I had the genuine pleasure of eating at several college cafeterias. Seriously, the food was great.

The food at Boston College and Stonehill College was nothing like what comes to mind when I hear ‘cafeteria food’ and I should note these eateries are no longer referred to as ‘cafeteria’s, either. Instead, they are ‘dining commons’ or ‘dining halls’. The food was surprisingly fresh, tasty and varied. There were ethnic options, healthy options, grilled, baked and broiled. There was food to go and food to order. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Not that long ago, the idea of looking forward to eating on different campuses would have been unthinkable. But Mintel reports that college today may be at least in part responsible for the sophisticated taste of many young adults.  A passion for food these days seems to begin in college, with its exposure to diverse cultures, semesters abroad and emphasis on healthy living.

“A few decades ago, there were no university chefs. College dining was designated as institutional feeding. Today, many campuses have a handful of chefs, and they are doing amazing things.” Food choices have gone from “pink, white and gray meats to authentic foods, whether international, regional or conceptually, such as vegetarian, vegan or locally sourced.”

With an increasingly international and globally aware student body, college and university chefs are charged with making sure students are able to get the foods they are used to, and therefore chefs must learn about and develop genuine meals from various cultures. This awakens the entire student body to many authentic ethnic cuisines, and then, when students get out of college, it can be harder to get that food in restaurants. Additionally, colleges have come to recognize the revenue potential behind having students eat on campus, versus spending their food dollars elsewhere.

This last point is rather telling – rather than think of providing food as a cost, some colleges are finding both differentiation and hidden revenue in their dining halls.  At Stonehill  College in Easton, MA, the food was every bit as good as you would find at Panera Bread or a nice casual restaurant. The Stonehill Dining hall site offers pages of information on nutrition and how to choose a healthy diet this week, menus, catering, events, sustainability practices and even a cupcake of the month.  Here is their mission:

“We are a team of customer driven professionals that strive to provide exceptional daily dining experiences for the Stonehill Community while continuing to partner in creating innovative solutions for future growth.”

Lofty stuff!  I think my college cafeteria staff was just trying to get home by 6:30 as dinner was strictly 4:30-6:00.  Stonehill is not the only one with high aspirations. The Princeton Review’s 373 Best Colleges offers this list of colleges with “Best Campus Food based on students’ rating”.

1. Bowdoin College

2. Virginia Tech

3. James Madison University

4. Wheaton College

5. Cornell University

6. St. Olaf College

7. University of Georgia

8. Bryn Mawr College

9. University of Notre Dame

10. Washington University in St. Louis

South Dining Hall, University of Notre Dame

I’ve eaten many times in South Dining Hall at University of Notre Dame and can vouch that it deserves its spot on the top 10 list. Students seem to appreciate the choices and care that goes into creating a special experience. And it’s always fun to eat in South Dining Hall which looks like it is right out of central casting for Hogwarts.

For restaurant menu developers and food marketers interested in catching what’s next with Millennials, it’s not a crazy idea at all to consider a campus tour. Mintel goes one step further and suggests getting inspiration from college chefs and food service operators:

“Now it’s time for innovative dining-out operators from any segment (grocery store or convenience store prepared foods, restaurants, business and industry foodservice) to wake up to authentic cultural cuisines. A logical first step would be to visit a good university dining facility and meet with the executive chef. Or, take it a step up and go to the headquarters of one of the contract management companies that operate in colleges and universities. A few places to start would be Aramark, based in Philadelphia, Pa.; Sodexo Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md.; or Compass Group North America’s Chartwells in Charlotte, N.C.”