College Students Looking for Value and Convenience

September 9/Food Service Director -- College and university foodservice directors are working hard to attract student diners by providing high-quality, flavorful cuisine and a unique dining atmosphere that can compete with local independents and national chain restaurants. Programs able to achieve this are well-positioned for growth. According to Technomic's recent "College & University Consumer Trend Report," 77% of students who do not have a meal plan say they could be influenced to sign up. The attributes that are most likely to lure them to choose a meal plan include food quality, more options, greater convenience and enhanced value.

That is just one of the facts uncovered by the report, which was designed with college and university foodservice directors and suppliers in mind so that they may learn how best to meet the needs and wants of their most critical customer -- the college student. Technomic conducted an online quantitative survey of more than 1,500 full-time students. Based on respondent data, Technomic was able to understand andanalyze how students typically use on- and off-campus foodservice and how student attitudes and preferences shape their dining behavior. The survey also revealed how students are adjusting their behavior in response to the economy, and how emerging trends are driving their choices.

The key findings within the study point to the fact that college and university foodservice directors need not only focus on cuisines, flavor profiles and a strong overall value proposition but also the availability of such options and basic grab-and-go foods that meet students' on-the-go dining and snacking needs. According to the report, student dining patterns are much different from those of non-students,  and their needs must be met with considerations that fit their lifestyles.

The timing is not right: Many students indicated that the operating hours of on-campus dining facilities do not fit in with their lifestyles. Technomic's study found that more than half of students who live on campus (51%) would prefer to see more campus cafeterias/restaurants stay open later in the evening. When asked to identify their top three reasons for purchasing food off campus rather than on campus, 22% of students chose "provides late-night service." Dinner is also the meal most likely to be purchased off campus by students, according to 40% of respondents.

Desire for later hours may stem from the fact that 18% of college students aged 18-24 indicated that they usually eat dinner later than 9 p.m.

Major chain operators have begun to fill the late-night student-diner niche -- a niche that could otherwise be filled by university foodservice. Restaurant operators are creating an atmosphere within their concepts that will appeal to the college student cohort and are developing menu options that are suitable for late-night dining.

Not all college and university foodservice operators are behind the curve, however. For example, at the University of North Texas, one common student complaint was that the dormitory-based dining halls closed at 7 p.m. In response, the university added late-night hours to its two main residence hall cafeterias. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although the residence hall cafeterias themselves close at 8:30 p.m., Dining Services offers separate restaurants with dinner available from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. The two facilities -- Ed's Express and Carson's Carryout -- serve dinner fare that fits the late-night diner's palate. Options include wraps, taco salads, pizza and breadsticks, among others.

Erratic behavior: The busy, fast-paced lifestyle of the college student also lends itself to increased snacking occasions and on-the-go dining; three square meals a day is far from reality for many of today's college students. On the whole, students exhibit relatively erratic dining behavior and tend to include a fair amount of snacks in their diets each day. For more than one-third of students, a day's food intake consists of a few snacks between meals in addition to a regular breakfast, lunch and dinner. Almost one in six students admitted to    consuming "many" snacks in addition to three square meals. About another third sometimes skips meals, and eats snacks instead. Just 9% of males and 5% of females say that they generally eat three traditional meals and no snacks at all.

It would appear that campus dining services today do a better job of meeting students' needs for on-the go options than they do for late-night options. Compared to the 51% who want later dining hours, only 37% of students living on campus and 30% of students living off campus said they would like more on-campus snack options; delivery options were also cited by 32% of on-campus students and 22% of off-campus students as something they would like to see be made more widely available.

From the September 14, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition