St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., is winning praise with a concept so simple it has some people wondering why it’s not more popular: fruit in water. A hydration station at the university’s residential dining center, Garvey Commons, is delighting students, administrators and foodservice employees alike with its simplicity, taste and freshness.
“It’s great for several reasons,” says Steven Ludwig, St. Cloud’s vice president for administrative affairs. “One, it just looks attractive and inviting in the cafeteria. It also encourages students to make different decisions about carbonated soft drinks. In fact, we’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of water they’re drinking. It’s better that they’re drinking water with some fruit flavor in it rather than all the carbonated beverages with corn syrup or other things.”
The fact that fruit-flavored water is not only a healthy option but also is low waste, Ludwig adds, makes it a nice fit with the foodservice operator’s own environmentally friendly policies and procedures—St. Cloud’s dining services are managed by Sodexo. “It means less of an impact on the environment when [customers] drink water because we don’t have any waste with this. I understand it’s getting some buzz around Sodexo.”
Indeed, the contractor has wasted no time in transplanting the idea to some of its other university accounts, such as Northwestern, Marquette, Mankato State, Illinois Westland University and the University of Wisconsin River Falls, and may well go further, although there are no specific plans in place.
Sodexo’s staff of 225 has been handling the foodservice contract at St. Cloud for three years. About 3,200 of the university’s 18,000 students live in the campus’s residence halls, with 3,000 of them purchasing a meal plan. Total foodservice revenue at the university is approximately $3.5 million, Ludwig says.
Neat idea: The hydration station is the brainchild of Stephen Miller, Sodexo’s general manager at St. Cloud, who discovered the concept while on vacation in Texas this past summer. “I was checking into a hotel and I saw that they had a water station so that people who had just come in out of the heat could have some cold water. I thought it was a neat idea, and that we should have it available for our students.” He added fruit for flavor and placed it inside the cafeteria “a week or so before school opened up, when our athletes came back.”
The prep time in advance of the fall term was needed, he explains. “We had to bring it in and figure out how to make sure the drains were working right. We had to make sure we knew how the system could be refilled on a timely basis.”
The hydration station is made up of six clear containers with stainless steel tops and a drain underneath. The containers are located at one of the cafeteria’s beverage stations.
The area is viewed as “just another option,” says Miller. “Students are always looking for options,” he explains. “I don’t think we’ve had a hole in our beverage offerings. It’s just something we thought would be exciting to add to our foodservice.”
The university “didn’t really market it to the students,” adds Miller. “We didn’t do signs around the campus or anything like that. We actually rolled it out at a lower level, not knowing it would get this much publicity.” A member of Sodexo’s regional marketing team helped Miller market the station. “He had some information on why people should drink water, why it’s good for you,” he says. That information is posted on signs in the cafeteria. “The containers are very attractive and eye appealing. They are clear so that you can see the fruit floating in the water. It’s stainless steel and chrome-like, so it’s kind of shiny as well.”
Lemons, limes, grapefruits, mint, cucumber, oranges, apples and strawberries are proven popular flavors. Watermelons and cantaloupe were tried and rejected because the fruit breaks down too quickly.
“The students let us know what flavors of water they like,” he notes. “We keep changing the lineup according to the fruit we can get in. Obviously in the north, you can’t always get a wide variety of fruits locally, although we try.”
While lemon and lime were expected to be popular flavors, Miller says he and his colleagues “didn’t realize that cucumber and some of the others actually tasted so good. A couple of students asked for the mint and so we’ve brought that in. They know that if there’s a flavor they like, all they have to do is mention it to the employee who is filling the containers and the employee will get it and put it in right then and there.”
In all, the cafeteria goes through about 150 gallons of filtered water each day, or an estimated 200 glasses every hour. Employee Liz Bester spends about a half an hour in the morning cutting up fruit and prepping the containers. Additional water is added throughout the day. No sweetener is used. Other beverages available to students include soda, milk, coffee, juices and slushies. There is no bottled water.
The 800-plus-seat cafeteria is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students can also find food and drink across the street from the cafeteria in St. Cloud’s student union. Students can pay for items there using cash or the school’s proprietary ‘Husky Bucks.’
Where else: Ludwig says that he and his colleagues have thus far not considered the possibility of adding a second hydration station elsewhere on St. Cloud’s campus, but he adds that if they were to add another station the university’s James W. Miller Learning Resources Center could be a good option. Sodexo runs a satellite operation at the location that serves prepared sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks. Ludwig says one reason dining services hasn’t added more hydration stations is because the stations work better in an all-you-can-eat cafeteria. In a satellite location such as the resource center, he notes, “we would have to figure out how to charge for the water, and also what sort of disposable cups we could use so people could take it to go. In the cafeteria they use glassware that is washed and reused.”
The Atwood Memorial Center, the university’s student union, features Pizza Hut Express, Subway, Burger King, WOW Café and Wingery, Ultimate Baja, Freshëns Smoothie Company, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Caribou Coffee, Cutting Board and Jump Asian Express food outlets, as well as a salad bar and the sit-down Valhalla Buffet with traditional home-cooked items. Ludwig says this might also be a good place for a station because glassware is already used there.
The expansion of the hydration stations to other campuses will proceed slowly on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach for any program,” says Monica Zimmer, Sodexo’s director of public relations. “We look at what works for our customers in a particular area. If it’s something we think customers at an account would like, then we would encourage [staffers there] to deliver what the customer likes. But it’s not something we’re rolling out nationally.”
“It’s something fun we’ve been able to do with the students,” Miller says. “We’ll see where it takes us.”