Like many busy consumers, college students desire anytime, anywhere dining. Driving the need are the realities of college life—disjointed class schedules, late-night study sessions, finals-week madness and the reality that this is their preferred style of dining.
Chicago-based research firm Technomic, Inc. produced a 2015 report, GEN Z: Decoding the Behaviors of the Next Generation that profiles the unique lifestyle characteristics of people born after 1993. Among the findings: Gen Zers are erratic eaters who are more likely to skip meals altogether than they are to use foodservice at every daypart.
This tendency could potentially reduce revenues for college and university dining operations. Progressive dining departments are making sure this doesn’t happen by implementing options such as late-night hours, 24-hour operation, all-day snacking convenience, expanded vending machine offerings, mobile carts and trucks and grab-and-go concepts for off-site dining.
Foodservice Director magazine reported in 2015 that portable items represent an average of 15 percent of a college operation’s participation/transactions. But some departments are doing considerably more grab-and-go business.
“More than 90 percent of our operation is retail,” says Lucas Miller, Assistant Director of Operations and Executive Chef at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “Virtually everything can be packaged for grab and go at any of our 14 foodservice locations.”
The retail offering spans the spectrum from prepackaged sandwiches to create-your-own salads to made-to-order hot entrées. Miller says the emphasis on retail allows him to offer a higher-quality product.
“In a cafeteria operation, you have to focus on overall cost,” he explains. “In retail, we can focus on each item. I might not be able to absorb the extra five-cent cost of a premium French fry in the cafeteria, but I can simply charge five cents more at retail.”
Quality counts when it comes to student perception. Ball State can boast that the Daily Meal website named it one of the Top 75 colleges to eat at in 2015—quite a coup the college can use as part of its outreach to potential students.
The main campus of Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids, Michigan, has earned its own dining kudos. FSU’s Rock Café, an 11-station market-style concept, is consistently ranked #3 of 52 restaurants in the city on the TripAdvisor website. (The public is welcome.)
Right next to The Rock Café, in the heart of the residential area of campus, is The Market, a convenience-store concept that offers a wide selection of grab-and-go items, including smoothies, subs, made-to-order pizzas, assorted fried food items, fresh whole fruit, yogurt, and beverages in addition to select non-food items.
The popularity of The Market came into play again when the school was planning a $34 million renovation of its University Center. Dining Services Director Lori Helmer proposed a new foodservice concept called The Quad Café, an all-you-care-to-eat market concept in which cooks prepare fresh foods in front of customers.
As with The Rock, Helmer paired The Quad with a retail component. This one is a three-venue grab-and-go food court featuring made-to-order burgers, personalized brick-oven pizzas, pressed panini sandwiches, frozen yogurt, sweet and savory crepes, and much more.
Customers must elect to dine in or take out their food when they visit The Quad—because takeout requires special packaging. Reusable hard-plastic containers are sold for $7.00 each (plus the cost of the meal). Contents of takeout containers can only be consumed outside the all-you-care-to-eat dining area.
Containers returned in reusable condition can be exchanged for a fresh, clean takeout container at no charge on subsequent visits.
Here are some tips for introducing or expanding your retail operation:
Get buy-in from administration. Point out that retail can capture dining dollars that might otherwise go off campus.
Appoint a champion. To build momentum, you’ll need someone who can drive the retail process with excitement, enthusiasm, and communication skills.
Learn from your peers. Tour campus dining services to see what might work for you.
Listen to your students. Listen constantly. Gen Zers are more than happy to share their opinions.
Evaluate food options. You will likely want to start small. Consider foods hold up and sell well. In 2014, Foodservice Director magazine identified the five most profitable noncommercial grab-and-go items as salads, sandwiches, baked goods, salty snacks and yogurt.
Evaluate packaging. Whether you choose reusable or disposable, your students will expect it to be sustainable. When you find the right balance of cost, performance and sustainability, brand your takeout packaging just as restaurants do.
Plan for waste. Think about reducing food waste by repurposing unused food items from cafeteria to retail, and vice versa. Also consider disposable packaging—are your trash receptacles big enough to accommodate an 8-inch pizza box?
Plan to promote. New services require marketing inside and outside the retail area.
Merchandise with flair. Prepackaged items need to be displayed in creative, eye-catching ways that emphasize freshness.