It’s the fall of 2020 and the freshman class is arriving at colleges and universities across the U.S. After they settle in their rooms, the students will want to explore the campus and likely will look for something to eat. Will dining services be ready for them? Will dining services have the right venues? The right menus?

CU Foodservice

And the bigger question: Will dining services be able to keep them happy over the next four years?

Foodservice directors and chefs will face challenges that result from two forces: external trends that affect the college and university (C&U) foodservice segment and internal demands of the Gen Z demographic.

Here, we explore the critical factors for C&U foodservice growth as Generation Z takes secures its spot on college campuses. Finding solutions to these challenges represents a strategic necessity, a process that should be based on datamining and focused solutions.

Some of these solutions require changes to the physical dining services space, including both back and front of the house. Some affect the menus, including ordering, prep, production and service. In short, almost every aspect of C&U dining services should be analyzed to ensure they meet the operational and customer service needs of this new generation.

Factor 1: The Impact of Gen Z

Gen Zs have different expectations of food and the dining experience than their Millennial brothers and sisters or their Gen X parents. In fact, they have different expectations of life. Savvy C&U operators will pay attention to these expectations and work them into their long-term dining strategies.

We’ve heard a lot about Millennials and Gen Xers and their habits. Only recently, as Gen Z comes of age, are researchers discovering the makeup of this generation. It is clear that members of Gen Z are quite different from their elders.

The Economist describes Zs as more educated than Millennials. In fact, Northeastern University conducted a study that revealed that 81 percent of Gen Z view a college degree as a necessity to succeed at life. If this is true, they are a significant customer base for C&U life for years to come. All the more important for C&U operators to hone their competitive edges now.

Gen Z has grown up in a foodie culture, following celebrity chefs and watching cooking shows. The upside of this is their palates are somewhat sophisticated and they are willing to try new dishes. The downside is that if these dishes are too unfamiliar or are not prepared well, they will reject them.

They have also grown up with parents who are more aware of the nutritional aspects of food. They eat more plant-based foods, expect fresh foods and love the variety that different flavors can add to familiar dishes. Through the Internet, they are connected globally. That connection fosters exposure to different food cultures.

Gen Zs have also been educated about sustainability and stewardship of the food system. The Millennials have increased awareness among Gen Z of the negative aspects of using pesticides and growth hormones. This has resulted in the locavore movement, with operators purchasing fresh products from farms within a 100-mile radius.

Gen Zs like to “have it their way.” They expect to be able to customize their food to meet their own unique needs. Another big factor that plays into their culinary habits is that it’s not all about the food, it’s about the whole dining experience. Socializing is a significant part of that experience.

Factor 2: The Labor Shortage

The labor shortage in foodservice has been written about comprehensively. It’s not that there are not bodies to work in any operation, whether foodservice or retail. The fact is those bodies don’t want to do just any monotonous, entry-level job. They want to start out closer to the top.

Labor is a serious issue, one that will affect not only C&U operators but all other industry segments in the future, according to Zia Ahmed, senior director of Dining Services at The Ohio State University. He explains that workers want more meaningful tasks. His solution? The use of collaborative robots to take up the slack with repetitive tasks, leaving humans free to fill the higher-skilled roles.

Collaborative robots work with humans in a shared workspace. Unlike other types of robots, they do not need to be isolated to perform their functions. The units include built-in safety features that will shut down the collaborative robots if contact is made with a human or another piece of equipment. The collaborative robot will only start up when a human gives the signal. This limits the likelihood of injuries or damage from happening.

Ahmed explains how this partnership would work: “I’m making meatballs and I have this amazing recipe. Then the meatballs all have to be rounded up.” This is where the robot steps in and performs this thankless function. “I would rather have my assistant chef or my line cook focusing on creating this beautiful mix rather than trying to roll up thousands of meatballs,” he says.

By focusing human labor on tasks that add value and are meaningful, an operator is far more likely to attract workers to the back of the house. With collaborative robots executing the repetitive tasks, fewer human workers are necessary, thus addressing the challenge of labor shortages, Ahmed says. These human workers can be trained to do highly skilled, fulfilling and interesting work.

There is the issue of investment in the technology. The price of collaborative robots has come down considerably over the past few years, Ahmed says.

Factor 3: Food Insecurity

We often hear about food insecurity — limited or uncertain access to food — in K – 12 schools. Free school lunch programs are common. Less is known about food insecurity at the college level. The New York Times (May 5, 2019) ran an article called “Hunger on Campus: Pay Tuition or Eat” that demonstrates how serious the situation is. The article reports hunger affects “almost half the student population at community and public colleges.”

Extremely high tuition costs leave students who do not have financial resources without the ability to purchase food. It’s either pay tuition or eat. Constant hunger limits academic achievement.

The problem is nationwide. Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice released a study on the issue the week before the Times article appeared. Forty-five percent of students who responded from more than 100 institutions reported they had been food insecure over the past 30 days.

The solution has been to create food pantries that provide food to the students who need it. Share Meals is a digital platform that lets students know where they can find free food on campus. In another program, Swipe Out Hunger, students donate any extra dining hall swipes they have on their cards for use by those who are eligible.

One way to supply the food banks is to redistribute leftover food from dining halls and catered events. This process helps to eliminate food waste.

Ahmed says that addressing the food security issue is imperative. Ohio State has had a campus pantry for some time and is working on programs to provide greater access to students who need the resource.

The issue is not just access to food but to nutritious food, he adds. “What if the next person who was going to cure cancer doesn’t have enough food and won’t develop into a doctor or scientist?” It is important that dining programs come up with solutions to this dilemma.

A number of schools are addressing the food insecurity issue. Kingsborough Community College in New York supplies students with boxes of fresh vegetables weekly.

Food banks and other methods of addressing food insecurity will not increase the bottom line of dining services but they create good will. They are an investment in the future of students who might otherwise have to drop out of school. This factor comes under the category of “the right thing to do” and will be an integral part of dining services planning for any number of years to come.

Factor 4: The Experience

Gen Zers have a reputation for being digital natives and dedicated consumers of social media. But, according to research, they also want a positive social experience when dining. Ahmed points out that the dining experience is made up of many small experiences: who you are eating with, how well the server or counter person serves the food, how comfortable you are, how you feel about the environment, lighting and, of course, the quality and taste of the food.

They also want to share the experience, often posting pictures of the food on social media.

Factor 5: Off-premise Dining

Off-premise dining has been growing exponentially. Third-party delivery companies like Grubhub and DoorDash are suddenly huge corporations. They obviously cater to consumers’ desire for the convenience of having food delivered and the ability to eat it at their own locations.

How does C&U foodservice combat this and keep students ordering from campus operations? Creating an internal delivery system is one way. “Why wouldn’t you get delivery if you have a reason not to go out?” asks Ahmed. The delivery system at Ohio State is growing steadily.

Ahmed points out that one kitchen can produce food for delivery and food for on-premise dining efficiently. Delivery captures sales that might otherwise be lost to third-party operations.

Factor 6: Transparency

2020 college students have been brought up in an era of food transparency demanded by the Millennials. Food transparency is not only knowing the origins of food products but knowing how they have been raised and harvested and what kind of sustainability initiatives are practiced.

Most of this information is available on the Internet, but many C&U operators create formats where students can learn how a kumquat got to their plate. Posting menu items in the school’s online format, with in-depth descriptions of the provenance of the ingredients and plenty of photos provides a source for students to investigate.

Posting dishes on Facebook and Instagram is another strategy some schools use. The transparency process also addresses the issue of familiarity. Students are willing to try new dishes but want them to have some familiar characteristics. They are less likely to risk trying an unfamiliar item in case it doesn’t meet their taste expectations. That is a student’s primary motivation for selecting a menu item: evidence that it will taste good.

Ohio State takes this food system education to the next level. “We take students to other countries to see how food is raised,” Ahmed says. A recent trip to El Salvador is a good example.

“The El Salvador project was very exciting and rewarding. We took students and staff members to a farm where they learned about what it takes to grow coffee and also built a raised drying bed for the farmer,” Ahmed says. “This farmer had many of the correct conditions to grow great coffee. However, based on testing, the existing coffee from his farm did not grade high enough. Thus, it was decided by the experts that if he changes the process on how he dries his coffee, it may increase the quality of the coffee. Coffee from this farm arrived to us during the spring of 2018 semester and is served on campus.”

In addition to learning about production, the students were able to participate in helping to correct conditions necessary to improve the quality of the coffee.

They are planning a trip to Bangladesh next spring break to learn about tea production.

The program also takes students to local farms to see how food is raised and harvested. The school also has its own farm, three acres of corn, basil and tomatoes. “We connect them as much as possible and help them understand that food does not [originally] come from the grocery store.”

A number of schools have educational programs. Bowdoin College has had an on-campus organic garden since 2004. Here Bowdoin grows vegetables, fruit and flowers for the dining hall. Students, staff and faculty work in the garden weekly. This allows them to experience each step in the growing process, from seed to plate. It also makes them aware of the seasonality of fresh food. Bowdoin recently added additional growing areas off campus.

Factor 7: Specialized

Zia Ahmed has a revealing description of the impact that religious and lifestyle requirements are having on menus. In the old days, he says, when operators talked about providing great food, they talked about opening a burger operation. “They would serve delicious burgers with all kinds of condiments,” he says.

Now, operators need to offer a veggie burger, a vegan burger, a gluten-free burger, a halal burger, a kosher burger, a burger made with no dairy ingredients, a burger with no soy and a burger with no tree nuts. What used to be a simple concept of a tasty burger has become a very complicated concept to execute.

Students also now come to college with more specifications regarding food allergies or sensitivities. The key word is avoidance.

Most foodservice operations have well-developed allergen strategies in their kitchens and serving areas. This means separate storage and prep areas to avoid cross-contamination issues. It is critical to have sufficient warnings posted about what allergens a dish might contain so that students can avoid those items. Many kitchens also have EpiPens available in case of an allergic reaction to a food item.

Factor 8: Authenticity

According to government statistics, Gen Z is more ethnically diverse than other birth cohorts. They are likelier to have grown up eating foods from their cultural heritage, which would be classified in America as ethnic foods. As a result, Gen Zers are more apt to try ethnic foods from other cultures. This fits with their desire for variety and, since most ethnic foods have not been adulterated with preservatives and the like, they are likely to fit with that demographic’s desire for fresh, natural and organic foods.

However, the selection of an ethnic dish still requires enough familiarity with the flavors and ingredients to ensure that it will taste good. This overriding need to have a dish meet taste expectations has created a category called ethnic fusion or Americanized ethnic.

Many of the foodservice operators cook menu items from scratch. While Ahmed presumes students would not necessarily identify with the word “scratch,” he does believe they want the result, which is fresh, more authentic dishes.

“Our students don’t really think about scratch cooking. They think about a great product they can be excited about. As long as it tastes good, has good nutritional content and is well balanced, they are happy. To deliver that service, we have to do scratch cooking,” Ahmed explains.

Colleges and universities have already created a dining experience where students can have their food their way. Cooking stations can make dishes to order. Students can order stir-fry, pasta, omelets, bowls or other multi-ingredient dishes according to their own ingredient and flavor choices.

Students also want to be able to choose from a number of locations. In years past, eating took place in the dining hall and, maybe, a food truck or two. Now, students can choose their dining experience from pubs, grilles, cafes, coffee carts and convenience stores.

The Rhode Island School of Design offers a range of eating possibilities. The Met is the main dining hall that seats more than 300 students. The Watermark Café serves coffee and desserts. The Portfolio Café offers entrees and light fare. The Jolly Roger Deli sells sandwiches and bakery products. The Carr Haus Coffee Shop fuels students’ need for caffeine.

Factor 9: Transactional Ease

Kiosks and mobile devices make ordering easier. Ahmed says that Ohio State is one of the top mobile-ordering campuses in the country, with close to 11,000 transactions on peak days. He adds that, when there is a long line waiting to order, the cashiers can do no more than try to get people through the line as fast as possible. He would rather the cashier be available for customer interaction. For instance, a cashier could focus instead on being an ambassador for students who are already waiting for their food.

Transaction issues can take away from the positive experience of dining. Ahmed calls this friction and believes the job of operators is to reduce that friction as much as possible. In addition to reducing friction, mobile ordering increases order accuracy.

The Gen Z class of 2024 will continue to influence C&U dining strategies over the next four years. Future C&U foodservice success will depend on the execution of solutions that take all 9 external and internal factors into consideration for operational and culinary decisions.


What Gen Z Wants When They Eat

Here’s a checklist of Gen Z’s expectations of food and dining.

  • A positive, sharable social experience
  • Choice of formats, from dining halls to cafes
  • Variety of food choices
  • The ability to customize their orders
  • Americanized ethnic foods
  • Creative food fusions
  • Assurance the food will taste good
  • Allergen avoidance
  • Religious dining requirements
  • Dietary constraints, such as gluten-free
  • Hormone-free and grass-fed proteins
  • Key descriptors: fresh, natural, organic
  • Food knowledge: Where is it from? How was it grown? Who made it?
  • Food system stewardship
  • Technology-driven transactions, such as mobile ordering
  • Delivery

Source: Gen Z: Generations of Change,  Datassential and commentary from Millennial Marketing, a marketing and trends firm