Keeping up with the off-campus competition

Published in FSD Update

Dana Moran, Managing Editor

thai beef

The Thai Beef Salad at University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Being highly ranked in a nationwide poll is something college foodservice operators usually shout from the rooftops. But how did some of the Top 10 finishers feel about their ranking in a new survey of the best off-campus dining? “There’s great things going on downtown, and in the restaurant scene, but it helps us to put our standards higher and rise to that level,” says Brooks Casteel, director of dining services at University of North Carolina at Asheville, which was ranked No. 7 in the survey. Casteel added that she and her husband fancy themselves as foodies, and were thrilled to move to a city with such a thriving dining culture.

While 71% of operators surveyed in FoodService Director’s 2016 College and University Census said that outside dining establishments posed at least some threat to their on-campus business, the FSDs we interviewed from Niche’s survey weren’t afraid of a little healthy competition. Here’s how three university dining programs are tackling their off-campus rivals with dishes that stand up to commercial.

Washington University in St. Louis ranking: No. 3

“Our students are really well educated when it comes to food, so it’s our job to figure out how to keep them on campus,” says Bob Marx, general manager of dining services at Wash. U. One major solution: the Food Lab, a table in the middle of a serverie featuring 100 portions of an experimental dish. Students line up to try dishes ranging from Native American cuisine to Indian peri-peri to chicken tikka masala.

Marx and Campus Executive Chef Patrick McElroy say they capitalize on that great off-campus food by taking the dining team out for lunch or early dinner at nearby restaurants, then returning to the kitchen and brainstorming based on what they’ve just eaten. “I think it’s a really good thing internally for our team members to see different foods and who our competition is here on campus,” Marx says.

And when it comes to Wash. U’s own dishes that rival restaurants, McElroy points to the school’s Middle Eastern and Indian program, as well as small plates like from-scratch bao and dumplings at an Asian street food concept. “I think that’s what makes it unique is our partnership with university,” McElroy says. “We have set menus, but they trust us to make changes. A lot of times we’ll do specials that aren’t geared for 300-400 portions, maybe just for the few who will really understand the dish. We’ve learned to gear stuff toward people who will really enjoy the experience.”

University of Georgia

Athens, Ga. ranking: No. 6

The proof of on-campus success at UGA is in the numbers. Interim Director of Food Services Bryan Varin says 9,600 meal plans were sold for the 2014-2015 academic year, up from 8,800 the prior year, and 25,000 to 30,000 meals are served daily.

“One of the terms we kick around a lot here is food-centric; we talk about it a lot,” Varin says. “Just always putting our best foot forward with the best quality food we can provide.” He names pork chops with red onion confit and grilled steak with chimichurri sauce among UGA’s dishes that rival the restaurant competition—but that list is sure to expand soon, since new self-branded pizza and burger locations opened this spring.

Rather than viewing local restaurants as financial competition, Varin says he likes to keep students at UGA Dining because of the social aspect of creating a campus community. But he also sees the value in sending them out into Athens. “I think the more students venture out and explore their dining options, that’s a good thing,” he says. “UGA’s like one big happy family for the most part; it’s nice to be able to foster that kind of environment.”

University of North Carolina at Asheville

Asheville, N.C. ranking: No. 7

While Casteel says she and her team don’t necessarily go out on the town and compare the food at Asheville to that of local restaurants, they are “always looking at our program for new cool exciting things to keep students interested.” Getting creative with seasonal, local produce is a big menuing priority, she says, especially because there are many vegan and vegetarian diners on campus.

At one made-to-order station, a popular restaurant rival is a Thai beef salad, with stir-fried meat and vegetables like onions, mushrooms, peppers and bamboo shoots served atop a fresh spring greens mix.  On the grill station, a curry bar with chicken or tofu as the base protein lets students choose their own base, like couscous or basmati rice, as well as toppings like raisins and nuts.

“[Our diners] like flexibility, they like to customize things,” she says. “We hear that a lot.”

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