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How college operators are keeping students’ dining dollars on campus

When Oregon State University began offering Food2You, a late-night delivery service on campus, Dining Operations Manager Chris Anderson expected the service to handle around 80 orders per evening. It turns out his guess was “grossly underestimated,” Anderson told attendees of last week’s NACUFS National Conference, held this year in Providence, R.I., as the dining team now fulfills around 320 Food2You orders nightly.  

Through the program, students at the Corvallis, Ore., school can order from a limited menu of wood-fired pizzas, salads, pastas, cookies and assorted beverages from 9 p.m. to midnight using a proprietary app. Food is delivered right to their dorm rooms by student staff of dining services, who undergo an extra background check to be cleared for making deliveries.  

A number of chain eateries such as Jimmy John’s and Pizza Hut are located near the school’s 15 residence halls, leading to a lot of students’ food dollars being spent off campus. Food2You was one way to capture that spending, Anderson says.

And with no delivery fees or tips tacked onto the cost of the meal, it’s a “huge value” to students, he says.

Despite never advertising Food2You, the dining team has watched the service take off. In fact, the team opened a late-night burrito concept on campus to take some pressure off Food2You, but that didn't work as planned. Instead, both concepts are typically busy. 

An events-based approach

Special events have been key to growing meal plan participation at Columbia University in New York City, Director of Dining Justine Sacks and Assistant Director of Ferris Booth Commons and Culinary Center Bayo Otiti shared during a presentation at the NACUFS conference.

With a campus in the midst of a major city, students have a multitude of food options within reach. But Columbia Dining works hard to ensure that the meal experience they offer is unlike anything else nearby.

Events are used to break up menu monotony, help students get to know dining staff and to build excitement about program offerings. And dining services gets started early: Over spring break, Sacks and her team look ahead at the coming school year and establish an event calendar around food holidays such as National Coffee Day and National Pumpkin Day. One past promo, Meatball Madness, tied into National Meatball Day and celebrated meatballs in many forms—including, with a wink, falafel.

Other events that have been popular with students include a disco night, cooking demos from celebrity chefs and the team’s annual dining hall battle, which last year pitted the school’s three eateries against one another in a global street foods cook-off and featured chef Marcus Samuelsson as a guest judge.

Event teaser videos posted to social media build additional excitement, and often feature the familiar faces of dining staff.

It’s hard to pin down the ROI on each particular event, Otiti noted, but steadily doing them builds up a culture of fun and pans out in the long run.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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