6 trends currently shaping college dining

From labor-saving tech to cuisine with authenticity, here’s what’s top of mind in college foodservice.
college students eating
Students try some vegan, gluten-free fare. / Photo courtesy of Liberty University

In their quest to satisfy college students' appetites, dining teams are finding that convenience and taste remain king. However, concerns about the environment, staffing challenges and growing awareness of dietary restrictions are playing a big part in what’s on offer, too.

Here, we look at six foodservice trends making their mark on campuses across the country.

Labor-saving tech

Amid supply problems, inflation and a challenging labor market, many dining teams are being tasked to do more with fewer staff members and fewer stock-keeping units (SKUs). Teams are getting creative when it comes to cross-training workers and cross-utilizing ingredients, but technology is also a big help here.

Several restaurant brands are testing out tech-powered locations on college campuses. Subway, for example, launched a new format in September at the University of California at San Diego: a smart fridge.

The fridge, which is filled with sandwiches, drinks and chips, can understand customer questions about its offerings, and weight-sensing shelves inform the fridge how much to charge for them.

In addition, smoothie chain Jamba last fall unveiled a fresh look for its automated smoothie kiosks, also at a University of California campus. To make the ordering experience warmer and add a more personal touch, the kiosks’ robotic arm now has a pair of googly eyes and a dance routine it performs for guests. 

Subway's smart fridge debuted at the University of San Diego last fall. / Photo courtesy of Subway

And delivery robots continue to make inroads in higher ed (pun intended). Grubhub is doubling down on the technology, recently teaming up with robotics brand Kiwibot to roll out robot delivery at even more of the campuses it serves. Other campus partnerships are popping up in this area, using robots from Starship Technologies and other companies.

Cuisine with authenticity

Authenticity, particularly when it comes to international offerings, continues to be in demand. Many operations are tapping into the cultural traditions of their chefs and customers, asking them for recipe ideas and feedback in order to provide more authentic global fare.

The University of South Florida, for example, hosted a Tastes Around the World program to introduce diners to a new ingredient or cooking style each week. After piloting the initiative, the foodservice team invited diners from different countries to provide feedback on the food, and USF chefs have since tweaked the recipes to be more authentic.

At Michigan State University, the dining team has worked to add more culturally authentic dishes onto their menus, with a particular focus on halal items.

lamb burger
A lamb burger with roasted tomatoes at Michigan State / Photo by Harley Cook

The dining team connected with student groups such as MSU’s Residence Hall Association and Muslim Student Association to discuss upcoming dining events, new menu items and more. In addition, chefs work closely with MSU’s dietician to make sure that all of the ingredients in a dish, and not just the proteins, fit halal requirements. 

Expanded options for dietary restrictions

Many higher-ed campuses are seeing an increase in the number of students reporting food allergies or restrictions, and schools are responding in a big way.

Liberty University recently debuted a fully plant-forward, gluten-free eatery called The Hungry Herbivore, which is Sodexo’s first concept of this type on a college campus.

The Hungry Herbivore is a permanent food truck located in the school’s Student Center, and its menu features indulgent vegan fare like burgers, potato patty melts and nachos.

nachosVegan, gluten-free nachos at The Hungry Herbivore. / Photo courtesy of Liberty University

In addition to limiting cross contamination, one of the concept’s main goals was to reduce wait times for students with dietary restrictions. Team members no longer need to leave the main food line and change gloves to prepare a gluten-free meal, so they’re able to provide that quick speed of service students are looking for.

Also recently opened is Moxie’s, a completely gluten-free cafe at the University of Nebraska. Moxie’s serves made-to-order sandwiches, bowls, salads and pizzas, and sales so far have gone beyond expectations, suggesting to the team that students who don’t avoid gluten are also flocking to the concept.

Plant-based gets even bigger

The plant-based wave keeps taking industry by storm and shows little sign of slowing down, particularly among the college demographic.

Nearly 80% of Gen Z consumers eat plant-based meals on a weekly basis, at least according to research by Chartwells Higher Ed. In addition, six in 10 Gen Zers are looking to boost their intake of plant-based foods, signaling that demands for meatless offerings may only continue to grow.

plant-based conceptSeattle University's Purely Plant-Based concept / Photo courtesy of Chartwells Higher Ed

In response to this plant-based interest, many of the major foodservice vendors are making big commitments. Sodexo's college and university division is aiming for 42% of its menu items to be plant-based by 2025, and Aramark plans to have 44% of offerings in residential dining be plant based by that same year.

Entirely plant-based eateries are also popping up at UConn, Wayne State University, Seattle University and elsewhere.

Climate transparency as table stakes

Menu transparency is by no means a new trend, but operators are starting to get even more deliberate when conveying the impact the dishes they serve have on the environment.

To that end, they are labeling individual menu items with their respective carbon footprint and highlighting dishes that have less of an environmental impact, which are typically plant-based.

Last year, Chartwells Higher Ed added climate-impact labels to a number of its menu items, as did the University of Massachusetts. And Aramark called out a number of its on-campus offerings with the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Meals badge, which designates items with a lower climate impact.

It appears that labels like this may actually translate to real behavior changes. A recent online study found that climate-impact labels on a fast-food menu lessened the frequency with which participants selected items containing red meat.

Reusables could reshape off-premise

Another area that has become table stakes for schools when it comes to eco-friendliness is sustainable packaging, particularly reusables, which are even starting to show up in delivery.

grubhub interface
A new partnership allows some Grubhub users on campus to choose reusable packaging for their order. / Image courtesy of Grubhub

Grubhub recently teamed up with reusable packaging platform Topanga.io to provide zero-waste takeout to colleges. Campus diners can choose reusable packaging when placing a to-go order on Grubhub and later log into their account to track the containers they have and when they need to be turned in.

This program is currently in use at The Ohio State University and Colorado State University, with plans for expansion.



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