Taking menus to the streets

street food noncommercial menu idea

From Mrs. Dash Foodservice.

Street foods are hot and in demand—one of the National Restaurant Association’s top trends for 2016—and nowhere is that more apparent than on college and university campuses around the country.

On some campuses, the street-food trend shows up where it first started: Food trucks. Food trucks are prolific in downtown Seattle, and the University of Washington campus is no exception, with offerings such as Kahlua pork, Spam musubi and BBQ spiked mac-n-cheese from the Moto Surf Hawaiian, Mexican or round-the-clock breakfast trucks.

At other campuses, menu items offered at more traditional foodservice outlets still take inspiration from street food. At the University of Missouri, students can choose from Acadian redfish tacos, a classic Cuban or build-your-own banh mi sandwiches. And at the University of Michigan, the Sabrosa Station, which serves Latin-inspired foods including tapas, make-your-own burritos and a variety of tacos, is a crowd pleaser. 

But regardless of how the trend is interpreted, for operators, street-food inspired menu items can play to students’ desire for excitement and authenticity.

Food as experience

Focusing on outlets and offerings such as these can pay off. Gary Goldberg, director of dining at the University of Washington, says that with menu planning, operators should “be like a food truck. Be portable. Be good, fast and fresh.”

He recognizes that his clients are sophisticated and food savvy, and they enjoy the atmosphere that surrounds food-truck dining. “I think people like to see and be seen and it happens when you’re waiting on line and out in public areas,” says Goldberg. “The appeal is it brings something to them that’s authentic that they won’t get in brick and mortar. It’s more fun.”

Even indoors, Goldberg and his team introduce “cutting edge” foods, through stations featuring dishes from around the world. During Black History Month, menus included foods from Haiti, Ethiopia and the American South, he says.

This desire for an elevated dining experience can be found on campuses across the country. “The college-aged generation is much more attracted to food environment, authenticity and social atmosphere,” says Steve Mangan, director of dining at the University of Michigan. “It’s tapping into the vibe around the food experience.”

As Michigan undergoes a major renovation of its north campus, plans include adding food trucks, hot dog carts and ice-cream stands to help energize the new space.

Sophisticated clientele

“Students come to campus with expertise and experience with different foods,” explains Michael Wuest, marketing manager for dining services at the University of Missouri. “They enjoy unique, ethnic fare and ordering what they want, when they want it.”

Sabai is a residence dining facility at Missouri that offers Asian-fusion items, including customizable rice bowls, Korean tacos and customizable banh mi sandwiches, where diners can choose from coconut or firecracker pork, lemongrass chicken or tofu mixed with kimchi, daikon slaw or marinated cucumbers and topped with wasabi or Sriracha mayo to design their sandwiches to taste.

Sabai resembles a trendy New York City restaurant, says Wuest, and has been wildly popular since opening in 2014. “We didn’t expect Sabai to do the business it’s doing now,” says Wuest. “It blew our expectations out of the water.”

At Michigan, Mangan says there’s a demand for street food not just in dining services, but also on catering menus and for social events on campus. “Kids watch the food channels,” he says. “They want a flavor profile that’s authentic and real.”

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