Chorizo roasted poblanos. Curried lentils over turmeric quinoa. Pan-seared arepas. Roast beef sandwiches with walnut romesco and pickled aïoli. Chicken tikka masala. These aren’t examples from edgy independents or on-fire fast-casual concepts. They’re dishes served on college campuses today throughout the country: San Diego State, Oregon State, Harvard, Yale and University of Massachusetts, respectively. Foodservice in the college and university (C&U) space is worthy of serious attention. A number of forward-thinking culinary directors have pioneered a new landscape in this segment over the last five years or so, up-ending cafeteria tradition and rethinking menu development. Of course, that’s great for students, faculty and staff, who are greeted daily with an unprecedented array of flavorful choices. But more importantly, the innovation here is impacting the mindset, sophistication and expectation of younger consumers. The flavors and forms they’re responding to in the dining halls today are what they’ll be looking for in restaurants tomorrow. The menu hits and misses experienced by C&U foodservice directors can provide valuable R&D for the rest of the industry. They are the canaries in the coal mine, bravely testing concepts and flavor combinations before signaling to everyone that it’s safe to proceed.
The C&U space is a true incubator of trends. These foodservice programs are catering to the coveted younger consumer, straddling both the Centennial (Gen Z) and Millennial demographics. As these progressive dining programs serve this community of consumers—whom the industry defines as thrill seekers—both flavor trends and dining preferences emerge. As evidence, look to the adoption of Vietnamese pho: born in urban pockets, expanded by food trucks, then embraced by C&U. Now, pho is a legitimate flavor system across foodservice that still offers excitement, but is more familiar than it was five years ago. Campus dining was an early adopter and helped proliferate the trend.
The story of pho is an indicator of two overarching trends—and they are themes that run through the success of the five programs highlighted here. First, whether interpreted through the bowl platform, street food menu items or comfort food mainstays, authenticity is the name of the game. Menu strategy is based on authenticity, says each of the five C&U foodservice directors interviewed here. “If you’re going to make pho, you have to build it with flavors that convey an authentic experience,” says
Ed Glebus, associate director and executive chef at San Diego State University, which serves 20,000 meals a day. “When the students order pho here, they’re looking for the flavors that they get from a food truck or a smaller restaurant—charred ginger, star anise. We have to do it right for them to get excited about it.” Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises for University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst, Mass., agrees. “Authenticity is so important. They know what the food is supposed to taste like,” he says.
The second theme that ties these winning menu strategies together is the drive to answer the younger consumer’s food curiosity. “It’s embedded in the Millennial and post-Millennial DNA,” says
Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality in New Haven, Conn., serving an average of 13,000 daily meals. “They don’t have inhibiting factors like other generations. They want to try different things. They want to experiment.”
Global Flavors Move Menus
Those themes of authenticity and curiosity underpin the exciting exploration of global flavors on college menus today. “The era of bland food is over. Global cuisines are the ones with strong spices and memorable dishes,” says Taherian. “They’re the foods that also include experiences, and younger diners want experiences.”
Asian flavors like gochujang and miso resonate with college diners. At Oregon State University, the Japanese-themed menu features miso-glazed salmon, and the Korean Fried Chicken Stir Fry Bowl stars gochujang, honey and soy. At UMass, which serves 45,000 meals per day, the Bim Gochujang Buckwheat Noodle Bowl is a hit. A surprising menu success of recent years? Indian fare. “It’s not quite as popular yet as Asian dishes, but it’s gaining,” says Toong. “And we have found that when you graze Indian, it’s on fire.” That falls in line with what’s happening across foodservice, where small plates and customizable experiences open the gates to enthusiastic flavor discovery. Toong recognizes the challenge inherent in a lot of Indian dishes—they can be monochromatic. “We change up the colors to add vibrancy,” he says. That strategy includes integrating colorful vegetables like squash and zucchini and adding parsley as a finish. UMass serves dishes like chicken tikka, aloo gobi and daal, as well as housemade chapati and naan.
Jay Perry, chef de cuisine at Oregon State University/Dining Services, in Corvallis, Ore., which serves 26,000 meals a day, is tracking the same success. “When we added Indian food a few years back, it became one of the most popular features,” he says. “Authenticity is very important to us. We make naan and paneer in house. We make our own spice blends. We make daals, serve curried garbanzo beans. If we’re going to do Indian, we’re going to do it right.”
According to Martin Breslin, director of culinary operations at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., serving up 25,000 meals a day, vindaloo and tikka masala are among the Indian success stories there. “The students love Indian food. They are not intimidated by it,” he says. This acceptance and exuberance around Indian flavors and forms by younger consumers might well be a harbinger of an emerging trend. The fast-casual segment is mirroring this phenomenon, where customization and trial are a big part of the story around Indian flavors becoming more mainstream.
Street Food Inspires
Street food is a huge source of inspiration on campus, providing some of the most exciting innovation on the menus. At Harvard, the “Street Food” menu houses much of the school’s global dishes. This rotates daily—Monday might see Colombia’s arepas, pan-seared and topped with a choice of avocado, shrimp and cilantro, chipotle pork, or tomato, red onions and black beans. Tuesday might star Taiwanese street food, including gua bao with hoisin and ginger pulled pork or steak with hoisin barbecue sauce and cilantro slaw.
Oregon State introduced a late-night taqueria last fall called La Calle. Dishes include street tacos with fillings like pollo a la parilla, pork carnitas and chorizo tofu. Optionality comes through burritos and bowls. The school also serves a Ring of Fire menu, highlighting the exciting cuisines from that part of the world. The Polynesian offerings include Hawaiian Ribs and Kalua Pork. The Vietnamese menu sees a pho bar, curry bowls and a snow pea-cauliflower stir fry, to name a few. “Global cuisine has really opened up,” says Oregon State’s Perry. “Our students are embracing it, and it helps us tell our story of authenticity and flavor.”
UMass, this year ranked No. 1 for campus food in the nation by The Princeton Review, prides itself on serving authentic street food, including 12 varieties of dim sum, served from a traditional cart, along with pho and chicken satay. “We place our focus on culinary excellence and authentic representations of these street foods,” says Toong. Interestingly, he and his culinary team are tracking an evolution in heat preference. “Heat used to be a one-punch experience, like habanero,” he says. “Now, they look for more complex flavors.” One answer to that demand is the school’s marinade for grilled chicken, which combines ancho-annatto purée, orange juice, jalapeño and habanero.
Bowls Offer a Winning Platform
From fast-casual and quick-serve to casual dining, the bowls trend is here to stay, boasting satiety built into layers of complementary flavors and textures. Innovation is within that platform: What flavors? What textures? The C&U culinary directors demonstrate forward thinking, and the success of their bowl concepts illustrates the types of bowls younger consumers respond to and seek out.
At Oregon State, Perry designed bowl concepts around whole grains, starting three years ago with quinoa. “We’re now running freekeh or wheat berries or barley as the base,” he says. He’s also using Job’s tears, or Chinese pearl barley, as a base. Diners choose their own produce add-ins and dressing, from chipotle to cilantro-lime. And he’s added the Korean Hot Bowl, the most popular global-themed dish on campus, he reports. It features Korean hot braised beef, vegetables, Korean barbecue sauce, rice and kimchi.
At San Diego State, Glebus menus a number of bowls, including the Aztec Rice Bowl, with jasmine rice and farro as a base. Diners can opt out of the bowl build, choosing instead a wrap or salad. They pick their protein—market fish of the day or carne asada, for instance—add sautéed vegetables and a choice of housemade sauce, from ranch and Baja chipotle to Memphis-style barbecue. A housemade furikake is one of the finishing seasonings on offer. “They like choosing every element that goes into the bowl,” says Glebus. “It’s a great platform for keeping them from getting bored.”
One of Harvard’s takes on the bowl is the Dudley Pasta Bowl, starring gnocchi, butternut squash, fresh sage and butter.
The New Face of Comfort Food
The maxim that declares “comfort food is king” holds true with younger consumers. But what they’re putting under that already-large umbrella pulls from more than just American culinary tradition. Of course, comfort food often springs from family culture. But that’s changing. Now, Millennials and Centennials are welcoming global dishes into their comfort-food universe. For them, it’s not necessarily about nostalgia.
At UMass, the most popular meal on campus is still the turkey dinner, but Toong points out its declining numbers. “It’s gone down 20 percent over the last few years,” he says. “Younger consumers don’t see comfort food the way we do.” He serves congee, the Chinese savory rice porridge, at breakfast. And it does very well. “It’s not just the Asian kids ordering it. We’re Main Street, USA, here. This is now comfort food.”
Glebus says his students want to customize their comfort food dishes. “They still want mac and cheese, but they want an array of toppings,” he says. San Diego State offers a mac and cheese bar, with add-ins like shrimp, ham, chicken, bacon, blue cheese and fried onions. Other comfort food hits are customizable smothered fries and Caesar salads. “Of course, comfort food varies by region,” says Harvard’s Breslin. “Today, it can be classic fried chicken or Korean barbecued beef. And meatloaf still resonates. It’s important to note that there’s a balance with students—they love popcorn chicken as much as they love pot stickers.”
The Seduction of Feel-Good Fare
One of the challenges in C&U dining is the totality of the service—many of the students eat all meals and snacks through campus dining. It’s a captive audience, which drives innovation because variety prevents boredom. It also drives the need to offer better-for-you choices. Like most consumers, many students are looking for a mindful balance, though it may take a different form, like pizza at midnight and a quinoa bowl at noon. And like other diners today, they won’t sacrifice flavor at the altar of health and wellness.
“We’re serving a lot of vegetables, fruits and whole grains,” says Yale’s Taherian. “We’re not forcing them, but we’re doing it seductively so they come to us. We’re pulling them toward us, not pushing them toward us.” Indeed, Yale University was instrumental in “The Blend,” working with the Mushroom Council on blending roasted mushrooms into burgers, meatballs, meatloaf and more. “We also look at cuisines where plant-based diets are the default, like North African, Indian and Turkish,” he says. “Chickpeas, cauliflower, couscous—these are great flavor carriers.”
At San Diego State, Glebus replaced the salad bar with a concept called The Garden, which features more plant-based options. Bases include a Brussels sprouts-kale mix or grains (farro, millet, quinoa) tossed with olive oil. At Harvard, some of the feel-good food conversation now revolves around “better-quality” carbs, like farro and sorghum quinoa. Another one of Breslin’s initiatives promotes sustainability, where the school partners with local fishermen from Cape Cod to Gloucester, Mass. Harvard guarantees the sale from day boats, and the menus promote the local fish, name of the boat and fisherman. “It speaks to traceability, and a lot of students have an interest there,” he says.
In the end, whether it’s sustainability or customization, global authenticity or optionality—or any other initiative offered up during these formative college years—modern consumer preferences are taking shape. Expectations are being set.
This story originally published in the 2016 Nov-Dec issue as “College Lessons.”