Five Major Influences that will Shape the Future of Campus Dining

Today' campus dining directors have a lot on their plates meeting the changing and sometimes conflicting demands of students, parents, employees and the like.

Written by Rob for Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine


It is a very complex business within an environment (academia) that has, until very recently, shown little concern for the need to manage business affairs according to the very principles taught in the halls of higher education. And the crazy thing is, most directors are too proud, or humble, or some combination of these two to talk about these challenges to their stakeholders, especially their bosses. As a result, there is a misconception among many administrators that if you simply serve good food, you'll have happy students and garner a healthy return. If only that were the case.

Here are five factors that all campus dining professionals need to address in today's complex business environment. Their ability to address these factors while balancing myriad other factors can determine an operation's success.

Human Resources

First and foremost, the food business is a people business. You can have the best menu, the greatest location or the lowest prices, but if you don't have a strong team of people that share your values, have a great work and service ethic and are adequately equipped to do the job, success will be elusive. Everyone can understand that.

What many don't realize is that campus dining programs have a difficult time attracting and retaining qualified staff, and sociopolitical and economic shifts may make it more challenging in the future.

Permanent staff need to make a living wage, deserve good benefits and want full employment — not a nine-month position. Institutions have typically paid higher wages and offered better benefits than industry, but commercial operators in town continue to close the gap and become more successful in drawing talent away from campus dining.

Student workers have been an important part of the solution for many operators, but as the economy improves they are becoming less interested in campus foodservice positions. In some cases, mom and dad don't permit it, or restrict work hours, and in others students leave campus jobs for better paying positions in quick service restaurants across the street.

Along with a tightening supply comes the added challenge of the need for more, specialized and ongoing training. The college cafeteria has been replaced by campus restaurants. These new dining venues bring with them a more elaborate set of tasks driven by higher expectations of a more sophisticated customer. Managers who know how to attract, inspire, and develop their people will remain in high demand. Suppliers that can provide solutions to
the many challenges these human resource needs present will become valuable
business partners.

Transparency and Accountability

This trend started with students' desire to consume more locally sourced, organic, sustainably sourced ingredients and has become a broader theme that extends into many other areas of the business. Campus dining professionals have become, in many instances, leaders in establishing a more open relationship between the customer and their suppliers. This wonderful evolution helps most of us that didn't grow up on or near a farm gain a greater appreciation for the importance of taking care of our food system and supporting those that work within it.

Being the disrupters that they should be, college students now ask the same hard questions of campus dining administrators about worker's rights, employment practices, meal plan pricing and even the financial performance of the program overall. Most people are watching their money more closely these days, and as they become more sensitive to the cost of their education, students continue to take a closer look at everything they pay for, wanting to know that colleges and universities wisely spend their dollars (or loans). Just as students and parents want to know what is in their food, where it came from and who provided it, they will increasingly expect an opening of the books and an accounting of where their food dollars go. Dining directors and their partners will need to become more effective communicators, with a goal of creating more educated customers.

Innovation and Renewal

Like cars and fashion, the food business remains highly sensitive to trends, and the speed of change continues to increase. This makes for a much more interesting workplace, but requires the dedication of resources to stay on top of emerging trends, figure out which ones fit the campus, and develop operational plans to implement them.

Ironically, institutions of higher education are safe places that allow, if not encourage, inquiry and experimentation as part of the discovery and growth process; however, as organizations, they have been less hospitable to this kind of risk-taking. Maybe it's the ivy-covered walls thing, I don't know. But customers' expectation to try new foods, brands and technology continues to quickly override this inertia.

For years, the leading campus dining programs have recognized the important relationship between innovation, investment and engagement, leading to higher customer satisfaction and stronger revenues. The pace of change will only increase. The challenge for operators and suppliers is to position dining programs to be more responsive in shorter time frames and with less investment. Think "pop-up restaurants on steroids."

Financial Polarities

Dining directors have always been sensitive to challenges of keeping prices low while expectations for services expand. Part of what comes with the privilege and responsibility of being the foodservice provider for an entire campus community is the simple reality that people expect prices for food on campus to be at or below those of establishments on the street. They base this expectation on some vague calculus that a large institution with a healthy endowment shouldn't have to charge the same prices as the little guy down the street.

That's old news. Foodservice directors' newest challenge pits the affordability theory against financial officers' increasing quest for new sources of revenue.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the essential components of a dining program budget are food, labor, direct operating expenses and overhead expenses. One could argue that customers' heightened expectations for diversity, quality and transparency in their food, as well as the explosion of special diet needs collectively put upward pressure on the average cost of goods sold — in this case that's food and beverage.

While this isn't universally true, we have certainly seen a correlation between an increased investment in food and higher levels of customer satisfaction. Less debatable is that labor costs continue to climb and higher minimum wage levels on the horizon will impact pay rates at all levels.

Direct expenses, such as insurance, maintenance, utilities and so forth are typically difficult to impact significantly. Overheads, however, are often heavily influenced by the financial model of the institution and the forecasted needs for revenue sources to offset the overall costs of running the school.

Many schools often tap dining and other business services such as housing, bookstore, parking, etc., to provide these needed revenues. Or, at the very least, these services get asked to hold the line on contributions, even while freezing or reducing prices to support an institution-wide affordability initiative. Foodies with an MBA may be the order of the day for campus dining programs to continue to thrive in the future.


In some respects, trends like slow foods, non-GMO, buying local, creating "third spaces" for interaction, and fostering interpersonal connections (i.e., face-to-face) through community dining are ways of blunting the overwhelming impact technology is having on our lives. But imagine how great life will be when you can order your iced skinny latte with soy milk and caramel drizzle with extra whipped cream and chocolate sauce on your smartphone while in a meeting and have it waiting for you, paid for and ready to pick up at the coffee shop downstairs during the break. Oh wait, I can do that now!

But let's take this a little further ...

What if your kitchen management system could forecast produce needs based on complex data analysis including shifts in consumer buying metrics and automatically transmit these to your local producers telling them how much of each crop to plant for delivery to your restaurant? And what if your food distributor only delivered the raw ingredients you need on site that day? Wouldn't it be cool if you could transmit a customized step-by-step assembly video in Spanish to the special heads-up virtual reality glasses you just issued to your newest cook, enabling her to prepare the daily specials perfectly on the first try? And how much would your customers love you if you could prep their favorite sushi roll as they enter the restaurant based on GPS location technology?

Can you possibly wait for the day when students can view holograms floating above your food displays with all sorts of information about each item — like the name, portion size, nutritional content, presence of allergens, origin of main ingredients and price? In other words, we've barely scratched the surface as to how technology can have a positive impact on campus foodservice.

I don't know about you, but I'm so glad I live in an era of such dramatic change!