This tech-savvy generation are constantly on the look-out for Insta-ready food which can be shared, tweeted and liked – not to mention consumed – and this drive for the ‘next big thing’ has led to extra pressure for university caterers to be at the forefront of the latest trends. Gone are the days of institutionalised catering facilities. It is essential that caterers work together to look for ways to refresh and innovate food offerings to appeal to the younger generation – something which is particularly important for universities which are facing increasing competition from the high street.
But how can higher education caterers create new and memorable food and drink experiences without going over budgets? Here, Matt White, Chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and Director of Catering, Hotel and Conference Services at The University of Reading, discusses the importance of thinking global and acting local to meet student demand. There are over two million students studying at UK higher education institutions, of which some 430,000 are from overseas. This melting pot of diverse cultures, backgrounds and experiences makes our student bodies some of the most challenging and exciting consumer audiences to work with.
From our own research, we know that 84% of students would like to experience a range of food choices from both home and around the world. In fact, the UK public spends an estimated £425 per person each year on ethnic food, with the biggest market share being 16–34-year-olds and those in full time education. It is with this in mind that we organise our Study Tours – to allow our members to see, taste, smell and experience what other catering departments do around the world and take inspiration for their own facilities.
In the past, we have hosted Study Tours to countries such as China to learn about everything from typical menus at some of the top universities over there, to dining etiquette and how to create new and familiar dishes in the traditional way. It’s no secret that here in the UK, we have a very different view of Chinese food from what someone who lives in Shanghai has. To an extent, what you will find in your local takeaway doesn’t actually exist in China. That’s why our Study Tour focused on helping members to take flavours and recipes back to basics, so they can introduce more unusual dishes and menu specials, and incorporate authentic ingredients and cooking techniques to help increase appeal to international and home students alike.
This year we have trips planned to Italy, Spain, France and India. And, as well as looking at world-cuisine, we are also undertaking Study Tours based around more homegrown foodie developments, such as molecular cooking, gastrophysics, tea, gin and vegetarian cooking.
To support university caterers to think globally but source locally, we've established market-leading procurement frameworks
While students want university caterers to draw on global food trends and to offer new and exciting cuisines for them to try, they are also incredibly attuned to sustainability issues and expect local sourcing to play a big role in how their food is produced.
Students are among some of the most environmentally-minded individuals in our society and we have definitely noted a rise in the popularity of locally grown and produced food on campus as they become increasingly aware of just what goes into their meals. This comes alongside a growing realisation of the importance of a sustainable, healthy diet as well as concerns around ethical food production and animal welfare. According to research carried out by The Higher Education Authority and the NUS, over 80% of students believe that sustainable development should be actively incorporated and promoted by universities. This is no mean feat and that’s why collaboration is key.
To support university caterers to think globally but source locally, we’ve established market-leading procurement frameworks. These provide access to nearly 200 suppliers, 75% of which are SMEs and many operate on a regional basis. This means our members have the flexibility to work with local producers either on a short-term basis or a more permanent scale, depending on their business needs.
We also recently revolutionised our procurement frameworks with the introduction of a digital system known as TUCO Online. By putting everything in one place online, we’ve made it incredibly quick and easy for universities to cross-compare suppliers and check their sustainability creds – from checking prices and confirming allergen information, right through to seeing if they carry Red Tractor, Soil Association or Organic certifications. This progressive, intelligent approach to procurement means they can keep a close eye on the products and ingredients they are using – and more easily source authentic or unusual ingredients needed for world cuisines – thus futureproofing their operations.
Not only do the procurement frameworks provide easy access to pre-assessed producers and suppliers but they also ensure that our members are getting the best value for money. By using the purchasing power of being part of a bigger organisation, we’ve been able to save our members a whopping £11.4m collectively. This goes a long way in making sure that sustainable sourcing is affordable and accessible for all.
Ultimately, university catering will always be dictated by the demands and desires of the student population. It’s essential to keep up with, if not ahead of, evolving trends, and to ensure that the on-campus offer is enticing, readily available and matches with modern lifestyles.
By thinking creatively and working together – through development opportunities such as the TUCO Study Tours and procurement frameworks – university caterers can really set the bar and help shape future food habits.