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Campus dining isn’t what it used to be

Gone are the days of students eating only pizza, burgers, and mac & cheese -- nearly half of today’s students consider themselves foodies, motivating on-campus dining concepts to evolve.

4 min read


Campus dining isn’t what it used to be


Gone are the days of students eating only pizza, burgers and mac & cheese (although, don’t get us wrong, these are still college staples). According to our 2019 College & University Keynote Report (which includes data and insights from 120 C&U operators and 1,000 current students), nearly half of today’s students consider themselves foodies, motivating on-campus dining concepts to evolve. When it comes to where students are choosing to attend college, food and beverage options are now playing a more significant role. Just as students can consult to determine which classes to take based on student reviews of professors, they can also turn to websites like Niche and other sources to view rankings of which colleges and universities offer the best on-campus dining options. To stay competitive in the college and university space, food and beverage offerings and experiences can’t be an afterthought. Operators said increased enrollment was the top sales growth driver in our 2016 College & Universities Keynote Report, but now C&U operators are saying that improved menus are the top factor driving sales growth.

Get with the program

When looking to make on-campus dining improvements, it’s vital to consider what’s trending. According to our 2019 report, today’s students want variety in every sense of the word, not just when it comes to the kinds of foods they’re eating (although that’s certainly important) but also regarding the range of dining formats (think on-campus grab-and-go kiosks, coffee shops, or c-stores). It’s no longer enough just to have a dining hall. According to our report, over half of operators say sales are increasing at dietary restriction-specific locations, more than 40% say sales are increasing at on-campus c-stores, and 37% say sales are increasing at on-campus coffee shops. As colleges and universities look to cater more directly to diverse student populations, more global dishes are also appearing on dining hall menus, and diets such as vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free, and keto are also being taken into consideration. According to our report, 38% of students are currently following at least one diet (some of the most-followed options include low-carb, intermittent fasting, and Whole30), and nearly half are avoiding at least one allergen.

Seek out sustainable solutions

More than 7 in 10 students say they’d sacrifice functionality to be more environmentally friendly when it comes to single-use disposables. In general, students believe composting and recycling are very important, and they agree that their school’s dining program generates too much waste. To stand out from competitors, many schools are taking steps to improve sustainability efforts. Reusable food containers, for instance, which students are highly interested in, could present a viable solution to cutting back on waste. In our most recent Ahead of the Trends webinar (which is held quarterly for Ahead of the Trends subscribers), Datassential’s Trendologist, Mike Kostyo, talked about OZZI, a system where people can return O2GO containers to be washed and reused, eliminating the need for single-use disposables. And to ensure reusable containers are indeed being reused, not returning an O2GO container comes at a cost – $5.00, to be exact. A concept like this could potentially be well-suited to segments like C&U.

Learn from feedback

C&U operators use many forms of student feedback to make decisions, including comment cards, meetings, and verbal feedback. These can be critical to staying in touch with the student population and really keeping their diverse needs and wants met. To dive even deeper into the C&U landscape and learn more about what students are looking for from their schools’ dining programs, ask about our College & University Keynote Report

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Jaclyn Marks is the senior publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry.


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