School-aged kids and young adults have much higher expectations of their dining experiences and menu selection at school than the generations that came before them. Or do they? The opening session of the FM IDEAS track of the MUFSO Supershow in Dallas on September 30 focused on the methods and methodology that schools and universities can use to gather data on the taste preferences of kids and young adults in order to glean insights for successful foodservice programs. The speakers included Mary Kate Harrison, General Manager of Student Nutrition Services for the Hillsborough County (FL) Public Schools; John Kandemir, Vice President of Marketing for Aramark Education; Michele Schmal, Vice President of Client Services for the NPD Group consulting firm; and Rob White, President of Envision Strategies.
"Customers want the comfort foods in healthier ways but don't want to sacrifice flavor," Harrison noted. "Increased prices are an even harder sell, yet with a population that is about a quarter overweight and undernourished, it is something we have to deal with."
Kandemir ran through a series of slides showing results from Aramark's research into K-12 populations. The four-year study encompassed 378 schools and over 42,000 students. Among some of the key findings: Overall, breakfast participation overall (middle and high schools) is around 28% while lunch participation is around 60%. Thirty percent bring breakfasts from home and 28% bring lunch. Disturbingly, 34% skip breakfast altogether (for lunch the figure is only 6%). The two top reasons for brining food from home: they can get their favorites, and the lines in the cafeteria are too long.
On the breakfast front, Kandemir noted the top favorite items (donuts, breakfast meats and pancakes) and remarked that "we could double breakfast participation if we just offer the items they want."
White addressed trends impacting college dining: Global flavors and Local Sourcing, Round-the-Clock Demand, Restaurant Experience Expectations, "Strategic" Luxury Shopping (buying premium goods in a few select categories while economizing elsewhere), the Impact of the Wireless Culture and an Integrated Lifestyle that makes meals part of multitasking activities (socializing, group study, etc.). The most influential factors driving participation in college dining are fresh preparation, the price/value equation and operating hours. He stressed that fresh preparation also has a strong local and provenance quotient. "Local and organic keep coming up in our focus groups," he noted. "It seems that where food comes from is just as important as what they're getting."
Schmal presented data analyzing how teens (ages 13-17) and young adults (ages 18-24) use QSR restaurants and what this information can teach K-12 and college dining operators. The five top gainers in the past four years (2008-12) among pricier fast casual chains have been Chipotle, Panda Express, Five Guys, Panera Bread and Zaxby's. Even during a period of stagnation in QSR visits overall, "they're willing to go to these places despite the recession," she noted. Among QSRs, the biggest increases were seen among usual suspects McDonald's, Subway, Dunkin Donuts and Chick-fil-A, though Schmal noted that young adults replaced McDonald's on the list with Walmart. She also dispelled the notion that "healthy doesn't sell" but noting that recently introduced premium oatmeal items by various national chains have been very successful. Another big opportunity: late afternoon snacking, where QSRs currently capture a significant market share than school or college foodservice's.