In response to keener interest in plant-based dining, Chartwells Higher Education recently unveiled a program that puts plant foods at center stage. Dubbed Plant-Forward, it provides the framework for options from temporary campus pop-up events to dedicated plant-based dining halls to retail.
Chartwells’s decision mirrors shifting preferences for vegan and vegetarian options, especially among members of Gen Z. That evolution grew out of both a commitment to sustainability and a preference for “clean” eating and functional foods.
“Students today are exploring more vegan and vegetarian options as a solution for healthy diets, but aren’t always sure where to start,” says Laura Lapp, vice president of sustainability and culinary innovation at Chartwells. Plant-Forward dining is designed to encourage them through the process and allow them to explore the nutritional benefits of relying more heavily on plant foods.
The menus, developed by Keith Gramlich, culinary director for Chartwells’s northeast division, are designed to provide physiological benefits, clarity and sustained energy and have a smaller carbon footprint. They are also anything but bland, relying on a globally diverse flavor palette.
Menus feature complete and complex meals that contain a minimum of 15 grams of protein, mono and poly unsaturated fats, reduced carbohydrates and beneficial levels of Vitamin B12 to provide lasting energy. Options such as superfood global bowls, street food handhelds, elixirs, healthy shots and smoothies fit into Gen Z’s predilection for snacking and dining throughout the day. Menus are designed to rely heavily on fresh, local and sustainable ingredients.
Chartwells ran a pilot launch at several schools, including Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., and Northeastern University in Boston. Chartwells and the local culinary team at Colgate staged a one-day, plant-based dining hall takeover, converting the all-you-care-to-eat facility into plant-based concepts. The offerings included a vegetable butcher shop and vegan rotisserie. On the menu: cauliflower “ribs” rubbed with chimichurri and served with Texas-style BBQ sauce, potatoes rubbed with a berebere spice blend and stuffed with kimchi, smoked carved roasted butternut squash with chile lime, and a maitake brisket.
The temporary conversion was “a huge success,” Gramlich says. Still, these pilots underscored the need for some handholding. “We had to walk a lot of students through the servery to explain PAOW! (People And Our World) plant-based protein and what the plant-based takeover consisted of for each of our internal concepts that were transformed,” he adds. “Athletes especially would say, ‘Where’s the meat?’” but tasting made them believers.
“Culinary and marketing have got to go hand in hand,” he observes. “We get the messaging out on our social media platforms along with our Dine on Campus websites to explain what the nutritional and healthy benefits are, what the menu items are and how and why you should have a plant-based diet integrated into your day-to-day dining experience no matter what type of lifestyle you choose as a student.”
And, despite the “where’s the meat?” reaction by some students, the common notion that men are diehard carnivores is eroding. During the pandemic, when salad bars on campuses switched from self-serve to staff-served, Gramlich saw participation at some schools jump as much as 50 percent, with males outnumbering females.
Colleges can wade into Plant-Forward as deeply as they see fit.
“The vision is not one size fits all,” Gramlich explains. “It can be integrated throughout every concept we have in residential dining, internal retail concepts and even into catering offerings for both clients and student groups and athletic training table menus, pre- and post-workout platforms.”
The growing interest in plant-based dining is well-established: Gramlich says about a quarter of college students crave healthier choices to support a healthier lifestyle. But grain bowls with steamed vegetables and tofu no longer fill the void. Well-developed flavor profiles and attention to macronutrients are now top concerns.
“The beauty of this new program is the versatility that it lends for our chefs to be creative and to continue to bring innovation to the campus while always staying ahead of current trends,” Gramlich says. “The boundaries are endless,” he adds.