Keeping up with the cool kids 101: Serving (and setting) food trends and new tastes

The Chartwells Higher Ed team at Texas State University demonstrates how college foodservices holds the opportunity to not just follow, but to create the biggest new food trends.
Chiccharon nachos
Chicharron Nachos | Photo courtesy of Chartwells Higher Ed and Texas State University

Follow the food trends? Catch up with the food trends? Not for you, college foodservice. The plate is your stage, and trends are your currency. The last thing you want to do when it comes to jumping on food trends is to jump too late. In a best-case scenario, you’re ahead of the trends, or even setting them.

As part of FSD’s annual State of C&U report, we asked our readers not only about the trends they’re serving, but also the best ways to find trends, some predictions and educated guesses. Become the trendsetter and then hopefully have your students snapping pics of your plates.

The new word of mouth

Word of mouth as a marketing tool is as old as ye olde town crier or fish monger shouting the day’s fresh catch. A lot of times, setting the trends was something only royalty could do (thanks to Queen Victoria, we all now wear white at our wedding!) Later, a president like JFK set the trend of men not wearing hats. Now, the trend power rests squarely with the people, and you don’t need crown jewels or to win an election, you just need a phone, wifi and a few followers on social media.

“Students are sharing on Instagram,” says Chin-Hong Chua, Chartwells Higher Ed resident district manager at Texas State University. “You can advertise as much as you want, when doing theme meals and things like that, but once the students get on social media and put it on their Instagram…that’s the new word of mouth.”

Chua and Campus Executive Chef Alberto Trujillo work together tracking trends, sourcing key ingredients and then testing the trends out on students. They’re in a great state for that, Texas! Since the dawn of the walking taco, Texas has been a hotspot for trendy Tex-Mex, with stops in Austin for breakfast tacos and all over the back roads for the one true religion of Texas, barbecue. Trujillo and Chua are adding their own flavor profiles to the mix with some wild new ideas they find online and in-person, perfect for sharing (that is, sharing in person and then sharing on social media).

Chua came across a new campus smash hit while watching YouTube one day, he recalls. “The San Diego Chargers were playing in Korea, and a YouTuber was trying all the food.” When Chua saw the Korean corn dogs, he knew it was a candidate for the trend-testing cycle the Texas State team has perfected: Step one? The pop-up.

Korean corn dogs

Never underestimate the power of the pop-up

“What we normally do on campus, once a semester, we’ll take down a regular station in retail, and we’ll make it something on-trend to try and see if the student population will like it,” Chua says. “Something that may work in another setting may not work in Texas.

Social media and the whirlwind 24-hour frantic news cycle have changed the way people pick up on food trends, but Chua tempers the excitement with some good, old- fashioned common sense.

“We see trends from TikTok and YouTube and all of that, and it could be from anywhere in the world,” Chua says. 

So, with the question “Will a Korean corndog work here?” in mind, the team popped up the idea in a pop-up, and soon, the answer was a clear and resounding "YES." “So, it forced our hand to put it on the permanent menu at our Fruteria concept," Chua says.

The Fruteria concept is also a case study in trends. Trujillo is from San Antonio, and a big part of his childhood was visiting fruterias, (translated to English, it’s “fruit store,” but for Latinos in Texas, it’s more like a “snack store/hangout spot,” Trujillo says.)

fruit cup

Now, Trujillo is using LTOs (limited-time offers) to ignite even hotter trends. Recently, he had some success with chicharron (aka pork rinds.) “We did chicharron nachos and people were like, ‘I didn’t know you could do chicharron nachos! We got a lot of good comments on those.”

Another cool concoction: the fried cheeseburger. “We wrap it in a tortilla and we deep fry it,” Trujillo says. “The pop-ups and the social media and LTOs are the times we see if the kids catch onto it and if they like it. The fried cheeseburger is another one that will be added to the regular menu.”

A great starting point for Trujillo has been a solid comfort food item as a foundation, and then building it out. “Something students are already quite familiar with is mac ‘n cheese,” for example, he says. “They all like that, but now we put Hot Cheetos on that. You need to go crazy. Try buffalo-bleu cheese mac ‘n cheese or curry mac ‘n cheese.”

Speaking of curry …

Did somebody say “curry?” Foodies and food-trend-trackers who love Indian food have been waiting patiently for the cuisine to truly “catch on” in the U.S. For years, we have seen it pop up here and there on trend lists, hovering near the middle-upper levels of cuisines chefs say they expect to see more of in surveys. And yet. There’s something about the American palate that still gets timid with the tikka masala.

College campuses are a fantastic place to try new things, and as we’ve seen at Michigan State University, Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar has been introducing campus-friendly Indian food for 30 years.  

At Texas State, the team has found that with more international students as the catalyst, Indian food is finding its footing on increasingly solid ground.

“We have a huge population of Indian students and they bring it to the school’s attention,” Trujillo says. “They say they would like to see more curry-based, traditional Indian food on campus. So, we went to Austin to buy the ingredients we needed, and we found it’s in line with Chartwells’ rice stations.”

About five years ago, dining hall menu rotations did include Indian food, but the demand for it has picked up considerably in the past school year, Trujillo has found. “And we had an Indian station in retail, and we ended up not continuing it five years ago, but now we do have the market for it.”

So, the underutilized space became a home for Asian rice dishes, taking steps further from East Asian food and more into Indian. “We want to concentrate more on this student population and ask them to give us suggestions," Trujillo says. "It’s trial and error. The first meal at the rice station, I asked an Indian associate if they recognize the food … and there was too much hoisin and kimchi, so they said, ‘Yeah, I recognize the rice.’ So next time, we had more cilantro and tomato chutney and they’re loving it. Tamarind chutney, mint chutney, dal, naan bread … it’s all been very successful.”

With the rice station doing great business, Trujillo jazzed it up even more with atcha, a blend of pickled veggies with a sweet-spicy-sour flavor and the unique flavor of mustard seed oil. “It’s really good,” he says. “You can put cucumber, carrots, pineapple in there and they really love it. We make our sauces every day and another good thing is a lot of the dishes are vegan and vegetarian.” A two-fer is always a win-win in the world of food trends.



More from our partners