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Auburn The Edge At Central levels copy.jpg Auburn Dining
Auburn University’s new Edge at Central Dining has three levels, two of which house the venue’s nine restaurant outlets, with the ground floor being used for production and storage.

Back to School: Colleges look to a return to normal this fall

Despite some concerns about COVID variant outbreaks, the higher education dining market anticipates a year of mostly traditional operation.

While 2021-22 represented a major return to some semblance of traditional operations—particularly in its second half—it is this coming year that the college/university market is pointing to as its true “return to normal,” with crowded campuses, in-person classes and a full slate of activities expected, at least at the major schools. The downside is an overall dip in enrollment impacting primarily smaller, less prestigious institutions and community colleges, driven at least in part by an erosion in attitudes regarding the value of a college education, especially when compared to its cost.

Meanwhile, for campus dining programs, the students who are returning to campuses are bringing along expectations about tech-driven convenience encouraged by two-plus years of pandemic-driven remote ordering and delivery experiences. That comes on top of continuing student demands for more culinary diversity, cuisine authenticity and dish/ingredient quality, along with a growing appetite for more plant-forward options, even as dining programs look to cope with an ongoing labor shortage, food cost increases and supply chain issues.

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Aramark’s Local Restaurant Row initiative seeks to build alliances between university clients and local eateries, enhancing dining program menu diversity and building community relations.

Food inflation seems to be a phenomenon that will linger for a while—almost certainly through the 2022-23 academic year—driving up food costs for both consumers and foodservice operators across all segments. College dining programs, especially the larger ones, have some insulation because of volume pricing, but volume also has a downside when a supply chain has limited product availability in certain categories that can’t fully meet a program’s needs.

As a result, colleges are going to have to be flexible with menus, especially cycle menus where substitutions and shortages may force changes in planned offerings. Ultimately, 2022-23 may turn out to be the year of the creative campus chef!

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Ginger Market at San Jose State University, operated by Chartwells Higher Ed, is a cutting edge example of automated retail’s growth on campuses to provide convenience while limiting labor requirements.

Other than some major COVID resurgence that forces a repeat of the widespread shutdowns of 2020, the primary worry for college dining programs going into fall 2022 is the labor issue, which was a major drag last year on venue re-openings, with many programs unable to operate at desired capacity because of shortfalls in staffing and resulting in diminished revenue at a time when they were desperately trying to make up for sales lost to earlier COVID shutdowns.

However, unlike food inflation and supply chain issues, the labor issue seems to be improving somewhat, at least in terms of applicant numbers, but at increased cost as the ongoing shortages have driven up wage expectations for both adult employees and student workers. As a result, dining programs are evaluating how and where they deploy employees to maximize their return on investment.

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The newly renovated Trolley Stop Diner at Lafayette College features a sustainable menu and customer-pleasing amenities like an outdoor patio seating area.

In many cases, this means putting more employees in customer-facing positions that help build relationships between the dining program and students, a critical component in rebuilding a sense of campus community after the impersonality of pandemic-related policies.

For other more rote roles, programs increasingly are looking to technological alternatives ranging from remote order and self-checkout systems to automated food stations and kitchen robots. Such technologies not only replace increasingly expensive human labor but provide consistency, reliability and even new revenue streams by operating at times and in places where traditional manned service outlets were never going to be feasible.

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Robots are proliferating on campuses such as the North Carolina A&T State University.

The COVID years forced an escalation in remote order adoption across campuses, and no post-pandemic scenario realistically sees any retreat from that trend, given its spread across the commercial world and the general tech sophistication of the college-age customer base. Instead, broad use of self-order kiosk units and/or mobile order apps are likely to be a routine feature of more campus retail—and even some residential dining—venues as the year progresses, along with slower but also steady growth in complementary exotic technologies like high-tech food lockers from which customers can quickly access their orders.

Also expected to expand to more campuses is robot-based food delivery, with perhaps drone delivery to follow at some point. Delivery as a campus dining service was rare pre-COVID but, like remote order, was boosted by the pandemic’s isolation-heavy policies, something that also allowed programs to experiment with a much-reduced campus population on how best to offer it.

Robots, used at only a few schools before the crisis, have developed into an increasingly popular delivery solution and have been embraced both by major campus dining contract firms and by large self-op programs like Ohio State. Unlike most other trends such as remote ordering, this is a development that is spreading outward from campuses to the wider commercial world rather than the other way around, but as more heavyweight retail entities like Walmart and Target adopt it, the more quickly the phenomenon’s early adopter phase will end and widespread use begin.

Delivery robots, remote order, takeout and automated points of service are all centrifugal—that is, they impel students away from congregating centrally (though they may in smaller groups)—while traditional dining halls are centripetal, drawing campus populations together. Community building was a traditional core function of university dining programs that had already been eroding pre-COVID as retail operations expanded and meal plans incorporated more retail equivalencies and declining balance components.

Shortly before COVID, there was a growing backlash to this, with some schools expanding onsite residency (and, hence, meal plan purchase) requirements to “promote campus community,” in effect forcing students to take more meals in residential dining centers through the required meal plan purchases. How this will play while a growing number of students and families already question the cost-to-benefit ratio of a college education is an open question. So far, “name” colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of applicants and their available campus housing busting at the seams, but their less-prestigious peers are struggling, forcing an expanding number of closures and mergers.

Even at schools with full enrollments and capacity campus housing occupancy, dining programs have to work to make residential dining attractive, not least with new or upgraded facilities, more authentic cuisine choices and expanded hours. Meanwhile, retail dining is expanding not only with new tech-driven services but with more alliances with popular local restaurant brands.

National brands, especially mass-market QSRs, have been a part of the college retail dining landscape for decades, but recent years have seen more local eateries taking up shop on campuses, as permanent or rotating options in food courts or as visiting mobile platforms (i.e., food trucks). The value for campus dining programs in these alliances is not only more menu diversification without the development and implementation costs in-house developed alternatives would require but strengthened ties to local communities.

A related development is the extension of meal plans to select off-campus eateries, allowing the campus meal program to share in some of the dollars that students were likely going to spend off campus anyway. Meanwhile, the participating businesses can expect a competitive advantage in attracting more business from students.

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