Food Management has been hosting a small roundtable of campus dining leaders for the past 14 years at NACUFS, but at the national convention in Baltimore, at the 15th annual FM Live, we decided to pull back the curtain. The group included directors from huge state schools and small private schools, a chef and even a Gold Plate winner. The conversation touched on culinary, marketing, operations, technology and more, and the insight gleaned was too good not to share. What follows are highlights from the nearly two-hour discussion.
Eric Stoessel, Food Management: As the economy has improved in recent years, has student spending also come back?
Daryl Ansel, Director of Food & Beverage, UCLA: I think things have gotten a little better, especially one area of growth that isn’t students: our group and conference business. That's really come back strong. As far as students, we went through a period in the last four years of pretty significant tuition hikes, although our tuition is still pretty reasonable I think. But because of that, students definitely face a tight budget. I think generally that for quality and for the right kind of product people are willing to spend more money. We see more spending in food, but there's still a general feeling of budget consciousness.
Bettie Clarke, Executive Director of Campus Dining, Richmond: We've seen similar trends. We have international students who tend to say they don't have money. So they're the ones who buy the lesser meal plans, but anybody that lives in a residence hall is required to be on the basic meal plan. Anybody who lives in an apartment is not required to be on a meal plan, but we have a 98% participation rate overall as far as our students are concerned, and that includes those in the apartments and being able to buy the Spider 40—40 meals plus dining dollars—which is very, very popular.
Stoessel: Enrollment obviously plays such a critical part in your budgets and college tuition costs don’t seem to be coming down any. How are your enrollment numbers looking this year?
Colleen Wright-Riva, Dining Services Director, Maryland: Maryland has an enrollment target every year and they've always hit it, at least in my seven years there. We've never had a situation where we're under-enrolled. We are over-enrolled on state students sometimes, and obviously there's bigger tuition coming to the college when you're an out-of-state student. We're seeing a little bit of a shift in that mix—by state law, 50 percent of our students need to come from the State of Maryland and we're seeing that become larger. I think those students are seeing a value in staying in their state and in affordability, and that pushes some of that higher revenue from out-of-state tuition down. How to keep that balance is the issue.
Terry Baker, Director, University Dining Services, Oklahoma State: Enrollment is growing for us because we're a state university. We're doing at least 300 students more, which is a big deal for us. And it's really helping us grow our budget. But the increased enrollment is because we're a value institution and are attracting neighboring states to come to our university. We have streamline operations and increased dining options by responding to new trends so student are eating more with campus dining.
Tim Dietzler, Director of Dining Services, Villanova University: We are very fortunate. We have about 15,000 applications for 1,700 annual seats. And of course, the success of our basketball team helps.
Clarke: This year we had a little over 10,000 applications for 810 places in the freshman class.
Randy Lait, Senior Director of Hospitality Services, North Carolina State University: I guess I'm the only school that's seeing a cut in enrollment. We're going to cut about 400 this year, but the competition to get into North Carolina State is stronger than ever. Our legislature is making changes to how things are funded and they want schools to dial up tuition costs to individual attendees, which I don’t necessarily think is wrong, having paid for two kids to go to North Carolina State. It's an exceptional value for the quality of education.
Kurt Kwiatkowski, Executive Chef, Michigan State University: Our incoming freshman class is going to be almost 8,000. The last couple of years have been the biggest, and we're trending to see less. The concern really is the international population: The trend for international students is to only live on campus one year and then they get in their own group and move off campus. We are trying to get people to stay on campus for at least two or three years. We have almost 5,000 people from China coming to school at MSU now. So that international flair and international cuisine is very, very present. But most of them then choose to live off campus, and that's a concern for us because if we're starting to see more out-of-state and international students in that mix, the likelihood of us getting them to live on campus for more than one year starts going down.
Expanding Hours of Operation
(Continued from page 1)
Stoessel: How have students changed through the years and what’s most important to the current crop?
Dietzler: More and more of our students come in with the expectation of having sustainable programs in place and fresher products. More customized products, of course, is the expectation, like a lot of the fast casual concepts that are in the Philadelphia market as well … I think the biggest shift for us was expanding the hours of operation. That's always something students want.
Stoessel: How late are you open?
Dietzler: We’re open 19 hours a day. We do have access to our vending through our food point system, so we can say we're 24 hours. We don't promote vending as a meal, but it's an option for students to use. The shift in hours really has been the greatest expectation to try and meet and balance, whether it's an all-you-care-to-eat setting that stays open, or a retail venue. And then the day has shifted. Students start the day later, which has always been a trend, but it's very big now. So they're still eating the same number of meals, but it certainly starts later in the morning and continues later.
Stoessel: Does anyone have 24-hour operations or are you considering it?
Wright-Riva, University of Maryland: I have a 24-hour convenience store, and our dining halls have, for many, many years, been open until midnight or 1 a.m. I've thought about 24-hour dining, but there's a safety concern. We're an urban setting, so I'm a little resistant to that.
Ansel: We've been starting to do it during finals. We’ll designate certain dining halls as 24 hours and we'll scale back the menu significantly, and we’ll set up WiFi and let students study there.
Baker: We had 24 hours, but dialed back to 18. We didn’t see the demand and cost/value return with what it would cost to keep it open. University dining has 32 operations on campus with staggered openings and closing hours depending on the location and need.
Kwiatkowski: Our all-you-care-to-eats are 7 to midnight, 7 days a week. We've got two different locations that are 24 hours. One of them is in the library, because it’s always open. We've done the same thing kind of on finals week where we open the dining facilities up later for studying, and then offer a really, really limited menu, and that seems to be popular. I don't think we're looking to trend any other way.
Stoessel: As the vegan on the panel, Tim, I imagine you provide plenty of healthy and vegetarian/vegan options for your students. That probably wasn’t the case 20 years ago…
Dietzler: That's probably the biggest growth area on our menu with plant-based entrees and options. A little bit of the story of why I'm vegan actually was a student from our nursing department came to me and challenged me for 30 days to eat vegan on our campus. And I always thought we had a lot of options for a vegan. But it certainly gave me a different perspective. And then she would meet with me each week and bring me a different documentary to watch. It actually extended to about six weeks. After I never returned to eating my regular diet. But I did find areas we needed to increase and provide a larger option for the vegan student. Throughout all of our operations, we've found it best to remove the word "vegan" from any of our items. Then we always put the allergens at the base of our menu items and on our online menus and there we would tell the vegan this is a vegan item. So many more students are taking those options now.
Balancing Special Dietary Needs
Stoessel: How do you balance special dietary needs and requests, from gluten free to allergies to global flavors?
Kwiatkowski: I think students, our guests, have definitely come in much more educated about food as a whole. If you're going to put Pad Thai on the menu, it's something they've had whether they're from Thailand or not. It needs to be authentic and there needs to be certain flavors we're hitting on. It’s been pretty rewarding when you get some of the international students coming in and say, ‘You know what, that's like I get at home.’ That's a pretty big compliment to us.
From the allergen side of things, it's big. It's something that we take very, very seriously. We have a dietitian on staff. And when we're meeting with students and parents with allergies, they want to hear more from her than they do from me. In the beginning when we would have these meetings, I would be the one talking to them, and she would do the follow up and say almost the same thing. And what we realized was they were paying more attention to what she had to say than what I did.
We do not have an allergen -free or allergen -friendly cooking facility, by any stretch. We offer a gluten-friendly area and have really tried to standardize working one-on-one with the students on a case-by-case basis. And if it's a serious extreme, we've even gone so far as to produce certain meals out of my kitchen, vacuum seal them, freeze them and then get them to those specific units. And then we can heat them up on a case-by-case basis. That's the ultra extreme, but we can't get into doing that for everyone, and that's my big concern. Because that's just going to take away from everything else we're doing for the one person instead of the, you know, 40,000 meals we're serving each day.
Ansel: I think we're all probably doing similar things to what Kurt said. We've talked about having an allergy-free kitchen. In addition to the concerns that Kurt raised about cross contaminants in the air, the expense is significant. And at what point is it reasonable? That reasonability is evaluated on sort of an internal business basis, but also on a legal basis. I think the pendulum is swinging right now. Where will it go? I don't know, but I would say we're moving in the direction of having to be ever more careful, having to customize meals, having to accommodate more and more students with allergies. It's a big effort, and I think it's going to keep going that way for a while.
Stoessel: Does anyone have an allergen-free kitchen or kitchen area?
Lait: We haven't got an allergen-free kitchen, but we have been looking into it. What does that really mean? Do you have to get to this clinical level to achieve what you want? We recently wanted to see if our bakery could produce things that were gluten-free, and do it by cleaning the kitchen a particular way and then producing the products in a run. Our food science department came and did the testing, and the test results were very positive. Now, we're not quite ready to say: Yeah, let's have at it. There are a lot of scary parts about it with allergens and are we going to kill somebody.
I think in general people want the foods they love to be healthy and good for them, and people want to know what's in their food if they have questions. And with Gen Y and the culture that's grown up having things the way they want it when they want it, all of those things are going to lead up to we're going to need to be able to tell people what's in our food. We've got a lot invested in work to manage our menus and to track allergen traits through our recipes.
One of the things I'm really proud of is that we've connected our systems together so that if we made a change in a recipe today and added a new item that carries a peanut trait, that tomorrow when we put those things out for service, it would appear on our website carrying that information because it feeds from the ingredient to the recipe to the service menu to what's on the website and to the bar code label we would print to put on that item or the packaging. We haven't quite got it connected to our digital menu boards yet so it flows through, but we're building systems to help us tell that story to whoever is interested.
Ansel: Part of what muddies the water is there are those with clinically diagnosed allergies. But then there are those that have certain lifestyle choices and there are different degrees within that category too—and that's actually a bigger group of people. Where do you draw the lines? Like we have a gluten-free pantry that we keep under lock and key and only the students who get clinically diagnosed and verified can go there. Then we have a lot of students who really want to eat gluten-free, and they're like: Why can't I use that room? It's hard to explain.
Clarke: We're really small, so what we do is require everybody who has a special dietary need, whatever it is, to go to the physician, fill out a form, then meet with the dietician and we're going to work with you. Anything they need, we try to accommodate, within reason. Some people want to say: ‘I can only eat certain kinds of chicken, and if it's not organic I'm not having it. And, ‘I can only eat organic beef’ or whatever. I say: ‘Well, I'm sorry.’ But if there's a medical reason, then we're going to try to accommodate that. We keep all of our special diet items under lock and key. Every special diet student has a key to the refrigerator and pantry. They have a basket with their name on it. And we have up to 15, maybe sometimes 20 people, and all those items that are purchased specifically for them are there. That’s the way we handle that.
Collaborating with Local Farms
(Continued from page 3)
Stoessel: Terry, maybe not necessarily with regard to allergy and special dietary needs, but I know you won a NACUFS award for a new labeling program at Oklahoma State. Tell us about Choose Orange and how it’s driving more healthy eating on campus.
Baker: Choose Orange follows the American Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you see it, with the pretty orange decal, the color of our college, then you know it's a healthy choice. It will also be on our menu boards and on all the grab-to-go programs. That really helps make decisions easy for students. We have “Healthy dining” designated coolers which are a great option for students. In addition our nutritional labeling on all our grab-to-go products plus the addition of net nutrition is making the campus more aware. We have introduced more and more healthy dining choices on campus and a focus on healthy eating to include a farmers market and cooking classes for the students. Each year the program expands.
Stoessel: Beyond healthy eating, Gen Y is very much about sustainability and knowing not just what’s in the food, but where it came from. Colleen, tell us about your Terp Farm?
Wright-Riva: Terp Farm is a collaboration that dining services began with the College of Agriculture. We have a wellness and sustainability coordinator on my staff who wanted to do some more of this farm-to-table concept, but we didn't have any land. So we went to the College of Agriculture, which has land 50 miles from campus. They gave us two acres and I hired a farmer. I put my sustainability/wellness coordinator as the project manager and we created a farm. We have a two-acre farm that will have its first harvest in early September. We'll then take that food and serve it in our dining halls and in our food truck. And we’ll also take 10 percent of it and give it back to the College Park community for those who are in need. It’s all about the larger community, giving back, but it's also about education. The students that will come to work the farm will get class credit. Stay tuned. We're jazzed.
Stoessel: Are you all becoming more involved in sustainability and is it your students who are demanding it?
Kwiatkowski: I think at MSU it is driven by our president's drive for the whole sustainability piece.
Lait: I echo Kurt's comment that the institution's commitment to sustainability is a big part of it. I don't think at most campuses it's an active student population who's trying to make the university do the right thing. Universities are committing to it as an institution.
Clarke: That's because it comes from the top. When it comes from the top it works differently. We have a sustainability officer at the University of Richmond, who works out of the president's office and who guides what we do.
Stoessel: How has purchasing changed as a result of this push for local, and any thoughts on how things might change with the pending Sysco/U.S. Foods merger?
Kwiatkowski: For us, we have food stores on campus, so we usually buy direct with a lot of our products. We've partnered with Sysco specifically in getting them to help us complete the loop with local farms. We don't want to have all these individual farmers coming and dropping off goods at our back dock. We worked with Sysco from the produce end of things and they kind of act as a co-op almost. There are certain requirements for us to be able to purchase from certain farms. Now with Sysco, it makes it a little bit easier for us to get that, and then we still have traceability for everything. It saves us a lot of time.
Wright-Riva: We're in the same boat, but what we did—and we did it slightly differently—we went through the RFP process and actually put some language in that said a certain percentage of what you bring to us has to be locally sourced. And we can say no if the price isn't right, but you've got to do the hard work to be our distributor.
Students, Sustainability and Social Media
(Continued from page 4)
Ansel: I want to go back to a couple of things. As far as the merger, I think there's no doubt it's going to be less competitive and prices are going to go up. I just want to put that on the table.
Stoessel: Is there a chance smaller regional players will grow as a result?
Ansel: I think in places where there are effective, smaller regional players, I think it could be good for them. But there's fewer and fewer places where that's the case. But I want to go back to the question about students and sustainability, and I want to tie it to health too, because I think it's just like the world in general. There are students who feel strongly about it who drive it and there are institutions buying into it more and more.
Our new president just announced a global food initiative that is giant and ties together education, operations and research. I used to think it was driven from the top. And now the way I see it developing, I really think it is a movement that has all sorts of elements. And we're in the position as foodservice operators to help drive that movement. It's not a movement where people are out protesting in the streets, but it's getting stronger and stronger, and it's exciting. I think it's not just sustainability, but it's health and it's about how we raise animals and grow food. It’s a fantastic thing, especially as we look at the population of the world continuing to grow. We're expected to feed a lot of people, so we can have a big impact. So who’s driving it? I hope us.
Baker: At Oklahoma State it started out as a student initiative, then it grew to a campus dining initiative. We started a program called "Made in Oklahoma" and slowly have been able to go through the RFP process to get more locally sourced vendors to come to campus and qualify. Dining currently has over 40 vendors and 30% of our purchases are sustainable products. Each month students meet a different local Made in Oklahoma vendor and sample their products in our dining operations.
Stoessel: Switching gears, how has social media affected campus dining and are there any other new technologies you’re exploring?
Kwiatkowski: Social media is a big thing—Twitter and Facebook—but we have marketing and communications people that handle all that for us. Be it a special event that we're doing, or ‘where are the food trucks going to be?’ or, ‘Hey, stop by and grab a cup of coffee.’
Or ‘come take a picture with Sparty’—Sparty’s is our coffee shop—and it’s a contest to win different things and it gets people to follow you, but the most popular brand where all the hits go is to eatatstate.com (our campus dining website). And we get huge traffic and can drive more through social media. That's where our menus are. That's where all the allergen information is. That's where all the nutritional information is.
Wright-Riva: We have a very active student group and they've created a Facebook page called WTF Maryland. What To Fix is what it means. And there can be anything on there, like, ‘Colleen, my ice cream had one scoop too little in it last night.’ And they're expecting a response. That gets a little tricky when there are 37,000 students. Sometimes Facebook can grow really negative really fast because it could be coming from a student who just wanted you to know, but another student is going to jump on and say: ‘Yeah, that happened to me last week.’ It’s tricky to navigate. We've made a decision not to be responsive to those because it would be constant. We read them every day and if it's a critical issue, we're addressing it. We’re going to communicate that on our website and maybe we're going to send a message out to our followers, but we're not going to get into a debate on Facebook with the student government because we can't win. And it's not just dining, it could be, ‘The sidewalks are icy today’ or ‘Why did I get a traffic ticket at the parking meter?’
Fine-tuning Marketing Strategies
Lait: It is a tightrope you have to walk. We've got a marketing and communications group that's always trying to caution: Don't jump into the middle of every spark that comes up on Facebook because you can fuel it. But you also have to be proactive about it, to identify the issues that are about to spin up out of control and to snuff those things out before they get going. The technology thing that I'm finding a challenge with and trying to figure out the right path for is mobile ordering and what its place would be.
We're talking a world where you start going with mobile applications to order, doing it with wireless, connecting to systems which have to be PCI compliant, and then integrate that into your operational pieces about production and service, and at high volume locations where you have waves (of traffic). If you can leverage that to smooth out those peaks and build more business on the shoulders of the peaks, then it can be a plus. But if 6,000 people are all getting out of class right now, and they can all text orders ahead of time, and they all expect to show up at the venues and all be at the head of the line, that's not going to work. We've looked at different things and we're trying to build in some capabilities for the future, but that's going to be really complicated.
Ansel: We have actually a renovation that we're about to undergo where we're going to get rid of all the cashiers completely and go with all electronic ordering. And we haven't figured out exactly how.
Lait, NC State University: I'm coming to see you.
Ansel: We get 6,000 covers a day at this location, much like Randy described, and we're trying to figure out the right balance between kiosks that are physically at the location versus what to do with the mobile ordering features. Figuring out how to pace that and control it is very difficult. That’s a very interesting one and the whole social media thing is a struggle. We have marketing people who always want to use it for promotional purposes, but I don't think that's what it is. I think social media has become this environment that's a constant dialog. If you're not fully in that dialog, then don't get in the dialog. That's my view. So we don't. I have to hold the marketing people back. We use students a lot. They're great at it. When I want to promote something or make a statement, I can always do it through students and they will spread the word through social media.
Baker: We hired a 20-hour person just dedicated to social media this year, and it's been really helpful. But everybody knows it's not just Facebook any more—which was the big thing. You have to be on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat. How do you manage all that plus your dining website and tie it to all your marketing programs? Marketing now ties in social media as a key component in its total marketing program and campaigns.