How to menu 5 booming DIY dishes

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

chef omelet station

From breakfast to late-night snacks and everything in between, a common thread runs through diners’ modern desires: They want it their way, all day. The ability to customize a meal is one of the most important factors to millennials and members of Gen Z, according to Technomic’s 2016 Generational Consumer Trend Report, and 38% of students cite the ability to customize a dish as one of their top considerations at on- and off-campus foodservice locations.

Here are the DIY foods that saw the highest noncommercial year-over-year growth in 2016, per Technomic’s MenuMonitor—and how operators are making them stand out.

1. Sushi

sushi chef rolling maki

With 78% growth, it’s clear that sushi is here to stay. As Guy Procopio, culinary services director at Michigan State University, told FoodService Director late last year, “[Sushi] is kind of another staple item.” At the East Lansing, Mich., school, sushi is made daily and is available as a grab-and-go item at most campus retail locations.

Bringing sushi to a younger student set, Newton South High School last year held Sushi Day twice monthly, offering sushi lunches that included mixed greens and miso soup, and sold for $5, a higher-than-usual price point at the Newton, Mass., school.

2. Ramen

pork belly ramen

Ramen saw a 57% growth in noncommercial operations—no surprise, given the plethora of ramen restaurants making inroads in the commercial market. While the University of California at Davis has gone down the fusion path with its Ramenito (ramen burrito), many operations are banking on ramen’s appeal to vegetarian and vegan diners by developing ramen bars with meat-free broth.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, chicken, pork and tofu all are on offer as add-on proteins, while Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., lets guests customize the veggies in their ramen as well, with options like water chestnuts, carrots, fresh mung bean sprouts and nori flakes.

3. Stir-fry

shrimp stir-fry wok

What’s a college dining experience without the stir-fry line? These rice- and noodle-based bowls, which experienced 24% growth, were a broth-free hit long before ramen came on the scene. Swapping in rice noodles and gluten-free soy sauce has allowed Cornell University to menu the bowls in its certified gluten-free Risley Dining Room, which opened in January.

4. Grilled cheese

grilled cheese sandwich

Grilled cheese, which grew by 20%, has gone from a straightforward combination of white bread and American cheese to a vehicle for just about anything. Baseball parks have had an especially good time getting creative; this year, the Houston Astros added a Spam grilled cheese on Texas toast, while in seasons past, the Pittsburgh Pirates menued a sandwich with nine kinds of cheese, candied bacon, Granny Smith apple and leek compote.

Most noncommercial operators have taken their grilled cheese slightly less over the top. Penn State University employs Texas toast in its Ranchero Grilled Cheese, which features chorizo and jalapeno peppers. This fall, the university’s HUB dining center also opened Grate Chee, a grilled cheese and tomato soup concept, where students can custom-order sandwiches.

5. Tacos

fish tacos

Also seeing 20% growth, taco offerings have evolved as consumers’ appetite for international flavors have grown. Fish is by far the fastest-growing taco protein, up 61.5% over the last year, Technomic found.

But more traditional proteins still pull their weight. At Valparaiso University in Indiana, students enjoy Nuevo Tacos because of the option to choose their taco protein (pork, chicken or flank steak) and toppings, says Anthony Coschignano, director of dining services. Heat-seekers opt for the pork carnitas with red chili marinade, he says.

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