The outcry was immediate when Yale University slashed chicken tenders from dining hall menus in 2008. Yale had just brought its dining services in-house with a new focus on sustainable food, and processed chicken strips were simply out of sync with that philosophy. But students were outraged, launching protests and convincing their parents to call and complain.
Yale Hospitality Associate Vice President Rafi Taherian gave in. “He said, OK, if we’re going to have chicken tenders, which clearly we must, then we’re going to have the best gosh darn chicken tenders in town,” says Cathy Van Dyke, director of resident dining.
Students went nuts for the new tenders, dubbing each appearance Chicken Tenders Day. One Yalie even created a website, isitchickentendersday.com, to inform students whether it is, in fact, Chicken Tenders Day. Gerry Remer, Yale Hospitality’s director of supply chain and sustainability, says the kitchen uses between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds of raw chicken per service for the buttermilk-soaked, hormone- and antibiotic-free tenders.
Though Yale Hospitality didn’t intend to create a special dining event, the chicken tenders prove it’s possible to leverage basic economics as a marketing tool. By limiting the supply of certain dishes, operators have created a demand—and also hype.
Sushi nights have earned similar buzz at San Diego State University. Initially a trial event at the school’s University Towers Kitchen, sushi nights garnered instant popularity. While the campus-run restaurant normally does about 600 covers, it serves between 900 and 1,000 people at weekly sushi nights. Students, who generally dine in parties of one or two, arrive in groups of six or more.
“Word of mouth is our best advertising,” says Executive Chef Ed Glebus. Though SDSU Dining does promote the sushi nights on its website, signage and social media, Glebus says it’s really students bringing in big groups of friends that has made sushi night such a winner.
So why not serve sushi more frequently? At Newton South High School in Newton, Mass., which also serves sushi meals, cost and quality both are a factor. Sara Dufour, a foodservice director with Whitsons Culinary Group, says it takes two days for the kitchen to prepare 200 servings for the school’s biweekly Sushi Day, making it a challenge to pull off more frequently. Moreover, sushi meals, which include miso soup and lightly dressed mixed greens, are sold to students at a premium price of $5, so it’s less practical as a daily offering, she says.
Hype is helpful at the high school level, too. On an open campus, Newton South’s cafeteria has to compete with nearby fast-casual restaurants—none of which have to comply with the school’s nutritional standards. So building excitement for a relatively healthy dish like sushi is one way Newton South can lure diners.
Back at Yale, stoking that excitement is so important that the hospitality team has somewhat of an anti-marketing stance for Chicken Tenders Day. Last year, the student body president campaigned to return Chicken Tenders Day to a weekly basis (it is now every two weeks), but administrators refused. As Van Dyke says, “If it were routine, it would be less exciting.”