Innovation is, without question, one of the most prominent buzz words in our vocabulary today. Business leaders and politicians alike cite the need to innovate when addressing what ails a company, industry or even a government. When pledging to improve things for their employees or constituents, these leaders promise to become more innovative in their approach, each with varying degrees of success.

We use the word innovation so often that it's easy to lose sight of what it means to be innovative. So what makes something innovative? The answer is pretty simple, really. An innovation is a new idea or method that solves a challenge or need. Anyone looking to drive innovation in their own business today should consider taking a closer look at the college and university foodservice segment.

College and university foodservice long had the reputation for providing sustenance to students during their time on campus — but little else. Students ate what was offered at specific times. Basically, the rap was that college foodservice provided uninspired food in sterile, institutional environments. The truly creative food served in environments more relevant to consumers was the unique dominion of commercial restaurants. They set the trends.

While commercial restaurants, particularly chains, continue to drive the industry in terms of the number of transactions and units added on a regular basis, college and university foodservice providers have eliminated the perceived gap of quality and creativity.

College and university foodservice operators first do this by providing quality food to patrons who are savvier than ever. Wholesomeness, more locally produced seasonal options, meatless options (with increased reliance on chickpeas and nut butters as alternative sources of protein) have become familiar on-campus refrains. A move toward freshness and an ever-increasing need for speed and convenience seem to be the hallmarks of the future.

More than that, foodservice now plays a key role in the student life experience and helps shape the campus culture by facilitating different social opportunities. Whether it's meeting with a professor over a meal, bringing a group together to collaborate on a project or providing a gathering point to watch a big game, college and university foodservice provides a flexible framework that facilitates all of this and much more.

In other words, college and university foodservice operators continue to adapt the food they serve, the way they serve it and the environments in which they serve it to meet the ever-changing needs of a very diverse customer base. Simply put, they continue to innovate. They do this by working collaboratively not only with other members of the university but also with their supply chain partners by bringing them into the process early and leveraging their expertise.

Please join us as we explore a variety of innovative projects in this college and university themed issue. We hope that they will illustrate the opportunities and challenges operators face in serving a customer base that's more diverse and sophisticated than ever.