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NC State Marc Hall
1887 Bistro, a full-service restaurant in Talley Student Union at NC State.

Meeting the demands of the current college dining environment

As many debate whether college food has become too good, we ask three foodservice directors about their best practices for serving good yet affordable meal plans.

The question about whether college food has become too good has been a heated debate of late. There are strong opinions on all sides of the issue.

We can all agree that college dining has dramatically improved over the last fifteen years and that students have and will continue to expect more nutritious and better quality food as part of their campus experience. As dedicated foodservice professionals, we want to offer the best possible dining experience we can. So, let’s shift the discussion to how we do this.

We interviewed three foodservice professionals serving various university settings about their best practices for providing a great dining experience that finds common ground between meeting student demands and watching food and labor costs:   

  • Al Ferrone, senior director of food & beverage, UCLA Housing & Hospitality Services; 43,301 students attend UCLA, of which 29,585 are undergraduates, 12,323 graduate students and 1,393 medical and dentistry interns and residents. Meals plans are mandatory for the 11,800 campus residents.
  • Patrick McElroy, campus executive chef with Bon Appetit at Washington University in St. Louis. WashU has approximately14,000 total enrolled students, of which 9,000 are undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students. Meal plans are required for freshman only. 
  • Randy Lait, senior director of hospitality services, NC State Dining at NC State University. Total enrollment is 34,015, of which 24,111 are undergraduates and 9,904 are graduate students. About 3200 students are required to have a meal plan as first-entry students living in campus housing.

How much have meal plan prices increased over the last 10 years?

Al Ferrone (UCLA): An average of 2% per year.

Patrick McElroy (WashU): An average of 3% per year.

Randy Lait (NC State): An average of 4% per year for five years. 

Specific to your campus meal plan, what have been the primary factors contributing to the rise in meal plan costs?

AF, UCLA: [Student demand for variety, increased serving times, development/improvement of dining locations, and offering specialty options like organic, gluten-free, fair-trade and local.] Our new Flex Bar at De Neve is a recent example of improving a dining hall while also keeping [labor and food] costs in mind. At the Flex Bar, students have enough choices to create a full, balanced meal comprised of the items offered daily from the bar. This decreases our need for additional server labor at other platforms within the unit all while providing the students with healthy food options, something they have expressed increasing interest in over the past five years.

PM, WashU: The increase has come from several factors. The increase of stable goods over the years, labor and providing a sustainable cost of living for our associates, and the amount of locations and hours we are open. On average, we operate more than 150 hours per day combined if you total all the hours we are open in each cafe. We have increased our in-house kosher program. It’s a well-received program for our community.

RL, NCState: We tend to be stingy with our meal plan pricing here at NC State, and historically use program improvements and added value to drive overall revenues through the sale of additional or larger plans rather than through price increases on the same number of plans. We have not experienced significant meal plan price pressures from program improvements to date. We have been able to upgrade the quality of our food, our venues and add operating hours but cover all of this through revenue growth.

A station at UCLA De Neve Flex Bar.

Is there a threshold where you have to make choices not to accommodate student requests in order to keep meal plan costs affordable?  

AF, UCLA: We monitor food cost trends and adjust accordingly. UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative drives many of our choices and decisions. It is our priority to offer student residents healthier, more sustainable food options so we remain vigilant with respect to balancing requests with our need to control costs. Generally, we can find ways to operate efficiently while ensuring we meet our students’ needs. Our culinary team is very experienced in finding new ways to offer interesting cuisine and manage food waste. Our De Neve Flex Bar was designed specifically with labor and food costs in mind. The concept is essentially an all-you-care-to-eat buffet and is meant to drive traffic from our platforms as well as to offer more healthy, sustainable menu items for our students, something they have requested.

PM, WashU: Every day we have to balance the needs and wants of the program. The perception of value cannot be lost. We evaluate our menu items frequently to ensure we are providing a balance of what the guests want and our financial responsibilities. If the perception of value is lost due to the cost, we review its value to the program as a whole. We do not increase prices throughout the year, but we do review whether the costly item is financially sustainable and what impact it will have on the community if removed.

RL, NCState: This is a decision each school must make based on their own unique situation. An important philosophy I rely on is to remember that our real job is to support student success at our campus. We have to serve our students effectively and at a cost that supports the value of their educational experience at our institution. I also believe that doing what is best for students is almost always best for us as operators, too. Each school has a value proposition for their students, and in some cases it is an exclusive experience that is to be unrivaled in any way, and the food must live up to the highest standards available. For other schools, the target is to create student success by extending education as a means to a better quality of life, and this might include a more fundamental approach to foodservices in an effort to balance the cost of education vs. the life benefits of that education. There is no one correct answer. We as operators must align with the goals of the institution and avoid being out of step in terms of quality, price, experience or satisfaction. 

What are your best practices from a food cost perspective for offering what your students demand while keeping costs affordable?

AF, UCLA: Our students have asked for seasonal and specialty high-cost food items (berries, avocados, prime rib, etc.). In order to meet these requests, our R&D team crafts monotony breakers and theme dinners throughout the school year for which special menus are created with the requested food items included. By offering these high-cost items on special occasions, we can keep our daily costs down while still pleasing our students. Monotony breakers and theme-dinners are very popular among our student residents.

PM, WashU: Several things we do to help maintain costs are the relationships we have with our local farmers and ranchers, constantly evaluating production to increase efficiencies to reduce food waste, and purchasing and developing menus that are seasonal. We are extremely proud of our Native American Program that we have developed on campus. It continues to grow; the food is respectful and representative for the culture.

RL, NCState: I would say to drive revenues through satisfaction. In most cases, campus dining is the most convenient option and, if your quality is good and your price creates effective value, you can become the go-to option for food and beverage sales. Food cost control is very important, and we have done a very good job of seeking out top-quality, clean label ingredients at very good pricing. The economics of today’s food industry are in the operator’s favor, in my opinion, and there are opportunities to leverage your position to drive food costs down. We have experienced significant revenue growth at NC State, while enjoying a slightly downward trajectory on overall food spend. 

The Native American Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

What are your tips from a labor perspective for offering what your students demand while being efficient with labor?

AF, UCLA: We created a hub-and-spoke commissary, allowing us to cross-utilize products and labor. We allow students in our all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities to help themselves where it makes sense, allowing less server labor. We cross-train the labor pool to maximize efficiencies and continually measure KPIs per outlet covers per hour worked per category of labor.

PM, WashU: It’s a balance that needs to be looked at daily. We never want to decrease our program but rather evolve it. We are active with our community and feedback is important to the continued evolution. With this evolution, we review the community’s wants compared to fiscal responsibilities. Because we make everything from scratch, we have the ability to juggle many factors to contribute to the success of the program, looking at all angles to determine efficiencies but never compromising the program.

RL, NCState: We created an operating pro forma for each unit that includes sales forecasting of customer counts and average checks, established food cost as a percentage of those sales, and then determine accepted spending for labor and operating overhead. For labor, we calculate the allowable number of man-hours per week per unit and that is our Key Performance Indicator that we compare to our actual man-hours worked report. This process keeps our schedule development focused forward on scheduling employees within the targeted man-hours, not scheduling based on perceived need. How many man-hours can we afford to have in this unit? How do we best allocate those…cashiers, grill cook, dining room attendant, dish room? These questions help us create staffing solutions that keep us in bounds. That being said, labor spending growth has more closely matched revenue growth than food cost spending.

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