Two years ago, after hearing a presentation by the founders of Menus of Change—a collaborative of research universities that encourages healthier food choices that use less—Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining services at the University of Connecticut, decided to introduce a blended burger on UConn’s campus. In the end, UConn Dining didn’t just introduce it; they completely replaced 100-percent of beef burgers served on their meal plan.
“While students are here, they are creating habits for their diet that they will take with them,” says Pierce. “We believe cutting down on red meat consumption benefits everyone’s long-term health and is more sustainable for the environment. In fact, it takes 1,080 pounds of water to make just 1 pound of beef.”
While other foodservice operations provide students with a choice of beef or blended burger, UConn went all in. “As a school, if you truly believe that foodservice should go towards more plant-based menus, then you must provide burgers that are healthier and more sustainable across the board—it doesn’t work philosophically to just give students the choice.”
With guidance from the Mushroom Council, UConn Dining approached the Beverly, Mass.-based Grateful Burger company to manufacture a blended burger that could be used in UConn’s large operation that serves over 180,000 meals a week. “We checked with our peers using blended burgers and the ratio of mushrooms to beef was all over the place,” says Pierce. “Initially we decided to go with a 50/50 blend.”
Before introducing the blended burger to all residential dining locations, UConn Dining held a focus group of students in its test kitchen. “The students loved it,” says Rob Landolph, assistant director of culinary development. But when the 50/50 blended burger was rolled out to all eight locations last January, certain students were less than pleased when leaving comments on UConn Dining’s website or on tabletop comment cards.
“The 50/50 blend was a very tasty burger that stayed juicy on the line for a long period of time because mushrooms retain their moisture,” says Landolph. “But if you were not a fan of mushrooms, you were not a huge fan of the 50/50 ratio’s taste. Mushrooms are great for their umami flavor, but with equal amounts of beef and mushrooms, that flavor was front and center. Our focus group students must have all loved mushrooms.”
Pierce said they were prepared for some pushback. “When you’re on a college campus—keep in mind we have over 10,500 people on our meal plan—and when you make any change, there’s always a reaction. It happened when we took away the tray a few years ago and when we moved napkins off tables and placed them in dispensers,” he says.
To ease students into the transition to blended burgers, Pierce says they launched a marketing campaign when the new burgers hit plates in January. “Each of the eight dining halls had digital signs with information to help students understand the burger switch. They covered everything from the environmental impact and water savings to the health benefits of lower saturated fat and calories,” says Pierce. “We even had an article in the student paper.”
After one semester with the less-than-popular 50/50 burger, over the summer UConn worked with Grateful Burger to develop a new blended burger that had a better bite, a better mouthfeel and beefier flavor. “They came back with a burger that was 60 percent ground sirloin, 30 percent portobello mushroom and 10 percent vegetable spice blend,” says Landolph. “We did another tasting with students who said, ‘Wow, that’s a great burger!’ They thought it had a nice chew and was more similar to what you’d expect from an all-beef burger.”
They launched the 60/30/10 blended burger this past fall with more marketing, including visits from the makers at Grateful Burger who did tastings and provided literature on blended burgers. The culinary team was also trained on how to properly cook the blended burgers to avoid drying them out.
“We haven’t heard any bad feedback since last August,” says Pierce, adding that UConn has served 89,150 blended burgers since last January. “We’re over the hurdle. We’ve made the change and are now moving on other directions.”
Landolph adds that ever since the blended burgers were introduced, students have been a lot more adventurous with toppings at the burger bar. “Give them artisan cheese and caramelized onions, and our staff can’t keep up with the demand,” he says.