College students eat in the dining hall, socialize in the student union and study in the library, right?
Sometimes, sure. But Generation Z students rarely segment their campus lives in such a neat and tidy way. That’s one reason Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., expanded to 24-hour service at Frank Dining Hall this fall as part of a massive reboot of its dining program.
“Students really like the idea of being able to go someplace at 2 or 3 in the morning that is not their dorm room to socialize, eat or even study,” says Kevin Blaney, regional executive chef for Chartwells Higher Education’s Northeast territory, who spearheaded the relaunch. The new dining space features TVs, music and around-the-clock breakfast. “[They can] bring their laptops and do homework in an environment that is more gathering-type,” he says.
Adding a third-shift workforce was a big undertaking. “The labor market up here is a little tight,” Blaney says. “It took us a while, and we had to rely on temporary workers to make sure we had enough bodies in there until we sourced enough people who were looking for a job.” An incentive program rewarded existing staffers who referred a friend or family member who was hired for third shift.
It was worth the effort. One student liked the 24-hour service at Frank so much that he wrote about it for the campus newspaper’s website. “He wrote about talking to the breakfast cook at 3 in the morning and listening to his jokes,” Blaney says. “At that time of the morning, there’s not a mad rush, so [students] have the opportunity to talk to the associates and … that’s the kind of customer service we love.”
While student interest steadily has been shifting to international cuisine, Gen Z’s valuing of authenticity over watered-down attempts is causing colleges to step up their game. “They’re looking for authenticity, variety, and they’re looking for quality at the same time,” Blaney says. Anticipation of that demand is driving special sourcing of international ingredients, such as new peppers, lemongrass, purple basil and star anise for Thai cuisine. As a result of student surveys, Blaney also brought in local brands of coffee for Colgate’s library cafe and beer for its on-campus pub.
Gen Z’s high expectations aren’t always feasible. Colgate students regularly request entirely organic produce and proteins which, at about 30 percent higher cost, isn’t doable under the current pricing structure, he says.
As for future plans, “we’re trying to expand beyond ‘What’s on my plate today?’ and bring them resources that would benefit their whole four-year experience,” Blaney says. That might include bringing in a local chef as a guest star for a night of service or continuing a series of lectures by food-related entrepreneurs. “Generation Z does have that entrepreneurial spirit as well, and it’s more than just feeding them,” he says. “We’re trying to educate them.”