College Food's New Pulse

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Chartwells Higher Education unveils flexible, high-tech, retail-like residential dining program designed with Millennials in mind.

At A Glance: Pulse on Dining

•Developed by Chartwells, a division of Compass Group Americas

•Key Creators: Holly Hart, director of marketing and communications, Chartwells; Dean Lowden, vice president, support services, Chartwells; Hospitality Services Inc., Baltimore; Projects Division, Compass Group

•Current Accounts: Marywood University (PoD), Austin Peay University (PeaPoD), UNC-Asheville (PeaPoD), River Falls (ModPoD)

•Growth Plans: 17 more under construction or planned

 


Chartwells Higher Education believes it has turned residence-hall dining on its ear. After studying for three years what college students expect from their dining experience, Chartwells, a division of Compass Group Americas, has rolled out a new dining concept the company calls Pulse on Dining (PoD).

FoodService Director - Chartwells - PoD-Pulse on DiningThe pilot for the program was opened last year at Marywood University, a 2,600-student Catholic university in Scranton, Pa.. Holly Hart, director of marketing and communications for Chartwells Higher Education, says the company plans to add PoD units in as many as 15 colleges and universities over the next year, including Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge and Washington College, Chestertown, Md.

"Pulse on Dining is a response to this generational drive for better dining choices and our support for a healthy lifestyle,"says Steve Sweeney, ceo of Chartwells. "This changes the face of campus dining. With the exclusive insights that we have into the Millennials [born between 1982 and 1988], we are delivering a unique dining program that is customized and multi-faceted."

Generational studies: The insights to which Sweeney refers are exclusive because Chartwells contracted with William Strauss and Neil Howe, generational experts who have done extensive studies of Millennials.

"Millennials represent a significant shift from previous generations with several characteristics that define them," says Strauss. "They have an intense focus, enjoy a place where they can unwind from their daily activities, care about friendships and enjoy group activities, and expect their food to be nutritious, wholesome and balanced."

Chartwell's Hart adds that college students, often raised on dining out, don't want a traditional cafeteria for their meals."With Pulse on Dining, we're trying to blur the lines between retail and residential," she notes. At Marywood, for example, that image is created by placing Outtakes, a Compass Group grab-and-go concept, at the entrance to the dining hall.

"This gives students their first impression that this is a non-institutional setting," she adds. "It also allows those students who are in a hurry the opportunity to get items for take-out without having to go through the whole servery."

A dining "experience": The physical make-up of PoD is defined by elements Chartwells calls PODspots. Each PODspot is "experiential."  In almost all cases, this means that a chef or other foodservice worker is at the station to interact with the customers. PODspots include The Kitchen, an open-kitchen concept with most foods prepared to order; Fresh Market, Chartwells' take on the salad bar; myPantry; and La Trattoria.

La Trattoria, with its wood-fired oven, is an example of PoD's flexibility, Hart explains. "The name implies a wide variety of menu items," she says. "If we were to call this station something like 'Pizza & Pasta,' customers would expect those items every day. But with Trattoria, we can expand the menu and not be locked into certain foods."

But for sheer innovation, myPantry may be the most interesting station within PoD. This exhibition cooking station is designed to look like a home kitchen, complete with cabinets, counter space with home-sized microwave oven and waffle maker, working refrigerator where students will find specialty items like soy milk, and even wall-mounted TVs. An island serves as both the exhibition platform and a six-seat dining area.

FoodService Director - Chartwells - PoD-Pulse on DiningEven the menu cycle is different from that of a traditional cafeteria, says Dining Services Director Tom Notchick. "Instead of a 14- or a 21-day cycle, PoD offers a 15-, 18- and 20-day cycle," Notchick says. "And with a variety of menu items we have available, students can't say that meals are predictable."

PoDs with iPods: Technological elements of PoD include informational LCD screens at most stations, kiosks that provide nutritional information at students' request, and docking stations within the dining area to which students can hook up iPods or other MP3 players. "Next semester, we will be installing the docking stations at every other booth," says Hart. "The stations will include a 'cone of silence,' a dome that will allow only those people sitting at the booth to hear their iPod."

In addition to the most visible portions of PoD, there are more subtle items to the program. Among those is the signage used in places like Fresh Market. "At Fresh Market, in most cases there is no need to tag an item with its name; everybody knows what a carrot is,"Hart notes.

"We want our signs to do more. Instead of telling you what the food is, we will say something about the food, such as its nutritional value."

Another educational element that is optional is Gumbo, a series of programs and events that connect the cooking with the classroom. Included in Gumbo are classes for students in basic cooking techniques, dining etiquette classes, and Iron Chef style cooking competitions in which students can challenge each other in preparing recipes in the dining halls as their fellow students watch.

Another educational aspect to PoD is a series of brochures, which are available at several points throughout the dining space. Called "When All Health Breaks Loose," the fold-outs are written by students and address a variety of health issues, from proper nutrition to safe sex practices.

Mod-PoD: There will be different levels of PoD, to satisfy the needs and constraints of Chartwells' diverse client base. In addition to the full-blown PoD, colleges can opt for the smaller-scale Mod-PoD, which can be customized to fit the most desired elements of PoD into a tighter space. For new clients, Chartwells will offer the PeaPoD, a 30-day makeover that will allow Chartwells to install PoD elements without doing a complete renovation.

Hart notes that the quick turnaround nature of PeaPoD also gives clients a chance to see PoD in action so that when the time for a renovation comes, the company can offer the client exactly what its customers want.

"This is not a cookie cutter," says Hart. "We want siblings, not twins."

Hart adds that the success of PoD is quickly becoming evident. For example, revenue at Marywood is up $1 million in two years, to $3.6 million, due in large part to an increase in voluntary meal plan purchases.

"And at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where we have a Mod-PoD in place, satisfaction scores are at 90%, up from 50%," she says. "In terms of student perception of freshness and variety, 92% responded positively, compared with 38% on freshness and 27% on variety, previously."

In order to ensure that PoD is keeping up with student demands and desires, Chartwells has partnered with Student Voice, a national survey assessment firm that specializes in higher education, to poll students periodically. Polls will be conducted both on line through DineOnCampus.com, and face-to-face by researchers using hand-held PDAs.