College and University Foodservice: Sophisticated, Convenient, Comfortable and Sustainable by Design

In some respects, college and university foodservice is very much like its peers in the business and industry segment. Both face the challenge of keeping customers on campus and trying to address their need for speed of service in a flexible environment that meets a variety of tastes without compromising food quality. But to remain relevant, today's college and university foodservice operators need to keep learning and growing, much like the student populations they serve.

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Dick Eisenbarth, Director of Design, Cini-Little Inc.With that in mind, here are four key areas impacting the way we design and equip today's college and university foodservice operations.

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More Sophisticated Clientele

Today's students are well traveled and have seen and sampled more foods than previous generations. For this reason, colleges and universities need flexible facilities that can accommodate a variety of menu concepts.

Students also expect college and university foodservice to embrace key trends of the day, including better-for-you options and greater transparency in the use of locally sourced and organic ingredients. Of course, depending on the location of the institution and its commitment to these steps, incorporating them can be pretty tricky. Further, students expect their foodservice providers to address special diets, including serving vegan and halal foods and dishes that accommodate those with nut and gluten allergies. In doing so, the foodservice operators need to provide enough choices to meet the students' evolving tastes.

As a result, just about every college and university has an executive chef heading up its foodservice program. The school foodservice "mom," common years ago, no longer calls the shots. Instead, today's college and university foodservice operations are led by highly trained executive chefs who provide as much culinary expertise as they can.

More Convenience

Students today want their food now, and they don't want to walk halfway across campus to get it. This places a greater emphasis not only on the placement of foodservice operations but also on the hours they are open. Colleges need to have a strong plan to address these expectations, as well as flexibility within that plan, to attract students.

To provide more convenience, marché or market-style serveries, have made straight-line cafeterias all but extinct.

In the past, it was common for a college and university foodservice operation to last 40 years or more with few updates. Today, we have to design and build facilities that will last 20 years or so. That's still a long time, when you consider how quickly dining trends tend to come and go. In the restaurant world, something may be popular for two years but then will begin to lose its luster as consumers move on to the next big thing.

The same applies in the college and university segment, so you have to build in the flexibility to switch concepts without too much effort. So long as you have the required infrastructure, you can do this; and changes in light and color provide something new and fresh.

As menus become more diverse, foodservice operators need to remain mindful of the impact this trend has on labor costs. The growing number of food stations means college foodservice operators will need to have more people manning them. Operators can reduce their costs by using more energy-efficient equipment and reducing food waste as much as possible.

Students expect that staff will cook their meals to order right in front of them, but doing so from scratch would be incredibly time prohibitive. So operators prepare key ingredients in advance and hold them until a customer places an order. As a result, how a foodservice operation holds ingredients and menu items at the point of service is important. Operators need to have high-quality holding equipment that will keep crispy items crispy and moist items moist.

For example, Cini-Little is working on a project at Yale University that includes a wall of greens. Customers will pick their greens and other ingredients before handing them to a chef who will turn it all into a salad for them. A similar process will play out at the pizza station, which will also include some Mediterranean menu items. At what we call the steam station, customers will pick out pasta and other ingredients and hand them to the chef who will heat everything and mix it all together.

A cooking suite will be part of this facility too. Culinary staff will use it to make "street foods," and everything will be done right in front of the customer. Chefs will work on either side of the suite and then pass the orders forward to an expediter, who will garnish each dish and give it to the customer.

As more of the action has moved to the front of the house, the back of the house has experienced a significant transformation. Today, this space is primarily used for warewashing, catering and bulk storage. This is a far cry from days gone by when the back-of-the-house kitchen was the engine that drove the entire operation.

Comfort in Town Square Setting

Foodservice operations do much more than provide nourishment. Today they serve as gathering places where the campus community can come together throughout the day to eat, study and socialize together. Today's campus populations want comfortable, technology-friendly environments where they can talk with friends.

As a result, seating options tend to take on more of a restaurant style. The endless sea of tables and chairs that once defined this segment has been replaced by two-tops, four-tops, round booths and so on. While these spaces tend to be pretty open, the varied heights of the seating options work to break up the space a little more. Some college and university foodservice operators have so-called sports rooms that allow students and other customers to sit in more comfortable chairs while eating and watching television.

The idea of offering places to gather is spilling over into the market-style serveries too. At SUNY Cortland, almost no walls separate the servery from the kitchen, which creates a very wide-open concept. The university feels it is important for the students to see what's happening, how clean the facility is and more. This particular facility has a chef's station that is out in the dining room so the chef can discuss different cooking methods, healthy eating and the like. The space is even suitable for special events, and it's set up for broadcast so the school can show all this through the university system.

Sustainable by Design

For most colleges, sustainability extends well beyond the sourcing of locally produced and organic ingredients. In fact, sustainable practices – once thought of as something that was merely nice to do – are increasingly becoming an essential part of the business in order to offset rising costs.

In the past, college and university foodservice operations were open only during meal periods. Today, though, the hours of operation are much longer, with some places running 24 hours a day. This leads to greater consumption of utilities, more waste and so on.

To help offset this, many operators now incorporate LED lighting as much as possible to reduce electricity consumption. Energy-management systems and variable speed-on-demand ventilation are helping keep costs in line as well.

Most colleges look to implement some type of composting or recycling system, but depending on an institution's location and the surrounding area's infrastructure, doing so can be challenging. As a result, waste digesters are becoming more common. Very popular among hotels and convention centers, these systems allow operators to add an enzyme to bulk waste, which breaks it down into gray water suitable for disposal via the sewer system within about 24 hours. All of this goes into making these operations more cost effective and enabling them to do more for students.

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