A taste for success

With students demanding food that is cheap and quick without compromising on quality, the challenge for caterers has never been greater

By Paul Dimery

Here’s food for thought; according to a study by researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles, eating meals with a low nutritional value not only makes you fat, it also makes you mentally slower and less motivated. Here’s some more, a recent Lottery-funded survey on the eating habits of students in Britain – imaginatively titled Student Eats – found that as many as 70% of respondents take quality and freshness into consideration when buying food. And how about this nugget; in February, students at Oxford University’s Exeter College marched in protest over the college’s mandatory annual catering charge of £840 – a figure that doesn’t include the price of the individual meals themselves.

Students in 2014 require meals that are healthy, fresh and value-for-money – and that’s just some of their considerations. Which is precisely why many higher education establishments are upping their game in the catering stakes, both in terms of their on-site canteens, and the food they provide for conferences and functions.

Take the University of York, which employs a highly trained and award-winning team of chefs to conjure up all manner of culinary treats at its dozen or so on-campus eateries – everything from fresh-fruit smoothies to gourmet sandwiches. Not only that, but it promises to do so with a minimal carbon footprint, and even offers a Meals In Advance deal, which provides an average saving of
12% per meal. If all of that sounds like food fit for a king, that’s because it is: “During the past year, we have provided functions ranging from student-society parties, through pensioners’ tea parties, to more than one royal visit,” explained David Garner, Head of Media Relations for the University.

Last year, York was placed at number seven in The Times Higher Education’s world rankings of universities under 50 years old. And, while it would be folly to credit that to the quality of its catering, it certainly won’t have done any harm. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay A Room Of One’s Own, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Also bending over backwards to satisfy its students’ every foodie whim is the University of Southampton. Promising on its website to “look after your every need”, it offers a wide range of on-campus restaurants, as well as delivered catering – a convenient option for busy scholars that’s not matched by a premium price. For example, a meat and fish-wrap platter serving 12 people costs just £30 – an average of £2.50 per person. And, as with York, there’s a resolute sustainability ethos: according to its mission statement, “We are a Fairtrade University and work with our suppliers to provide local and seasonal produce that minimises our impact on the environment, such as fish from sustainable sources and not using palm oil.”

In fact, such is the University’s commitment to providing top-quality food, researchers there have been working alongside Vitacress – one of the UK’s biggest producers of packaged salads – to understand what keeps salad leaves fresh for longer.

“The provision of both retail catering and hospitality plays an increasingly important role across the University,” said a spokesman for the institute.

“Our internal catering department offers a high-quality service for 800+ events each year.” These include everything from VIP dinners for government ministers and civil dignitaries, through international conferences for 300+ delegates, to University open days for up to 5,000 prospective students and their families. “We pride ourselves on putting our customers first,” continued the spokesman.

“Meal planning is a top priority to our first-class chefs, who offer a range of menus, including healthier options, fast food and international trends.”

The challenge of keeping up with international trends cannot be underestimated. The rise in popularity of foreign holidays over the past few decades has had the knock-on effect of broadening people’s culinary tastes, and restaurant menus have had to adapt to meet the demand. When’s the last time you went out for lunch and ordered a white coffee and a cheese sandwich? These days, people want macchiatos and ciabattas (invariably stuffed with prosciutto and sun-ripened tomatoes). To prove the point, a recent poll by BBC Good Food magazine found that 53% of students today regularly consume Oriental food, compared to just 4% in the 1960s.

Swansea University is another establishment to have embraced this continental culture. As its website states, “You’ll find a range of catering outlets around campus. Each has a distinctive image and style of food, from light lunches and baguettes to traditional British fayre, Indian, Mexican and Chinese meals, and tempting pasta dishes.” The benefits of universities expanding their menus in this way are two-fold: not only does it give British students the eclectic cuisine they demand, but it also makes international students feel catered for – even though they’re probably just as keen to sample good old British fish and chips as British students are to tuck into some Thai
green curry.

Another challenge for university caterers in the modern age is accommodating special diets and even different religions. The publication of books like Student’s Gluten Free Cookbook For Dummies reflects the growing demand for cuisine with a conscience, and Kansas State University in the US is just one college whose focus has expanded accordingly. Responding to a study by The National Association of College and University Food Services In America, a spokesman said: “Each of our dining facilities has a registered dietitian on staff, who can coach the students with meal selections and help them to determine which menu items are appropriate to meet their dietary needs.”

Meanwhile, Beijing Normal University in China is among the institutes that provide for the needs of different religions, in this case offering a Muslim canteen specifically for Islamic teachers and students. This can only enhance the University’s reputation as an equal-rights facility, which will ultimately encourage a wider spectrum of students to enrol there.

Of course, implementing the aforementioned strategies is easier said than done, and there are a number of obstacles to overcome to make them work. For one thing, with students in Britain now facing an eye-watering average bill of £50,411 for a three-year course (including tuition fees, living expenses and spending money), there is increasing pressure on universities to lower costs for necessities like food and drink. According to the Student Eats survey, pricing is the primary consideration when buying meals, with 87% of respondents citing it as an important factor. Then there’s the challenge of providing good-quality food for large numbers of people: a recent poll in Germany found that 85% of students in the country eat at on-campus dining halls several times a week, while catering for conferences and functions can mean feeding a thousand hungry mouths at a time. All of which needs to be achieved in a way that’s cost-effective for the caterer.

If ever there was an authority on providing food for large numbers of people, it’s Professor David Russell of corporate-catering consultancy The Russell Partnership. Commissioned to create and deliver the food strategy for the 2012 London Olympics, the company provided a staggering 17 million meals in 26 days. So he’s more than aware of the need to operate quickly, while maintaining high standards of food hygiene and quality. “According to recent research, the average diner will wait just under 16 minutes before leaving a restaurant after not being served,” he tells University Business.

“This demand-led behaviour can be seen carrying through into meetings, functions and conferences, where time is critical.” Professor Russell highlights a number of measures that are being implemented across the board to speed up service, including mobile pre-ordering for tables/wines, and mobile and cashless payment.

The challenges faced by modern-day university caterers are, indeed, many – as the celebrated Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck once asserted, “A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook.” But strike the right balance and you could be dining out on the results for years.

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