There are a lot of lessons to be learned about the current and emerging crop of students soon to become Generation Alpha, which demographic experts say will be the largest group of foodservice consumers next to Millennials.
Webb Foodservice Design, says she often acts as a translator between the operator and the design team at Webb. Prior to Hungerford joining Webb in August of 2022, she was the dining director at the University of California Riverside. She now leads the firm’s Strategic Planning Studio, which focuses on operational assessments, strategic plans, RFP management, advisory services, innovative problem solving and more on the MAS side of consulting.With deep experience in the operations side of college and university foodservice, Robin Hungerford, associate principal and planning director at
Here Hungerford shares five insights about college and university foodservice that shape not only today but the future of this segment and the industry at-large.
Gone are the days when college and university foodservice operators can count on a steady source of labor. Today’s foodservice leaders need to take unique steps to recruit and retain talent for now and for the future.
“We always just expected that the labor force will just be there and be thankful for a paycheck,” Hungerford says. “That moment is never coming back.”
Something that dining room shutdowns during the height of the pandemic gave foodservice workers was a “moment when they were seen and cared for, maybe for the first time,” Hungerford says. Suddenly, cooks, restaurant owners, delivery drivers and others who prepared food were deemed essential workers. When layoffs happened “that rug got quickly pulled out from underneath us,” she adds.
“We’re in a new place now,” Hungerford says. In order to recruit younger generation workers back to the foodservice industry, “we’re going to have to take better care of our staff,” she says. “Everything used to be about the guest, but now it’s about the whole team.”
One way to improve employee morale and company culture is to teach soft skills and “develop recognition programs that promote leaders,” Hungerford says. “I remember how many chefs I worked with that never cared about the ‘feelings’ part of it all, you just do your job. But now we’ve got to care about ‘the feelings.’ We need to show people that they are valued.”
From a design standpoint, this translates to creating a more comfortable work environment for chefs, cooks and others moving and out of a kitchen. It’s about hot, loud, chaotic kitchens and foodservice spaces not being the norm. Ergonomics also play a major role in improving workspaces.
Collaboration and Being Heard
One of Hungerford’s main goals is to bridge the gap between college/university administration and the foodservice teams. “We don’t just work with designers and architects, but with everyone on a team,” she says. That includes everyone in and supporting a kitchen, from prep cooks to dishwashers.
Dining directors often have to “report up to an entity that might not understand foodservice and think it’s all about just switching on the lights and making some food,” Hungerford says. It’s her job to “shine a light on everything that goes into the operation.”
A key step in this process includes staying connected with chefs, managers and all the workers in an operation. For an example as to how this works, Hunterford recalls a major renovation project at UC Riverside that she worked on with Webb when she was on the operations side. “At one point we had 20 working groups that we put together to plan for the design of the space and ensure everyone’s ideas were incorporated, and that we were designing through an operational lens to ensure an effective and efficient operation to both take care of our guest and take care of our team by setting them up for success,” she says.
Recognizing Tomorrow’s Generation
A huge part of the planning process — at least in higher education — is considering the needs of both Gen Z and Gen Alpha, the up-and-coming generation. “We need to understand our audience; how they’re evolving to become more sophisticated in their food preferences,” Hungerford says. “We’re raising a future generation who has an experience with food that is so different than past generations. College students of today and tomorrow are so much more engaged in food and have a much stronger global interest than ever before.”
This makes menu planning fun, Hungerford notes, but it also has to be realistic and easily executed — often with less labor and to not overwork staff. In operational terms, that might mean not necessarily introducing more menu choices but keeping things rotating with “monotony breakers” and streamlining to “decrease quantity to instead focus on quality.”
This approach also affects design, Hungerford says. “We need to be designing for future flexibility in an operation because we’re going to be pivoting so much more in this industry going forward and we need to remain nimble and constantly be reinventing.”
For example, when designing a servery, rather than “overly brand” a station, Hungerford says there might be stations developed to easily produce or flip between Southeast Asian, Mongolian and Indian menus interchangeably with flattop grills, planchas and some wok cooking — all with plug-and-play capability.
Social is the New Sustainable
Energy management, water conservation, food waste reduction — these critical environmental initiatives will become only more so in the future, Hungerford says. But sustainable initiatives in the future will also need to consider social issues, like diversity and inclusion, animal welfare and hunger. “Those reengaging with sustainability know local and ethically sourced ingredients, animal welfare, not overfishing, plant-based, reducing waste, supporting diversity and small businesses — are all important to today’s generation,” she says.
At the same time “we need to keep food affordable,” Hungerford acknowledges. “We want to do the right thing for the world, but there are costs associated with that and we still need to make food affordable for students. There are surprisingly many students who are food insecure. If we outprice our food or meal plans, then we are exacerbating that.”
It’s a challenge, for certain, but Hungerford makes sense of it all by creating a cost-impact matric. Low-cost/high-impact measures, like creating a food waste buffet (capturing post-consumer waste and showing that to students), taste it before you waste it events or simply updating training manuals and introducing job cards in the kitchen to help people stay on track can meet sustainability goals without a lot of investment, she says. Even sourcing can fit in on that matrix; if the price for a particular food item is too high — which would make it expensive for the students — perhaps it’s a seasonal choice instead.
Everything’s a balancing act, but operations, management advisory services and design teams will need to work together to navigate new roads in the foodservice industry. “I am thankful to be able to relate to the clients I work with and understand the challenges they have faced over the past few years, and still face today,” Hungerford says. “That connection helps build trust so we can really become partners in finding the way forward.”