Higher education catering trends for 2019

Whether today’s savvy students are deciding to grab lunch on the go or dine with friends after a hard day’s studying, university caterers need to ensure that their offering hits the mark. So what are the main catering developments to clock for the academic year ahead? Keri Beckingham sharpens her knife

When it comes to university catering, the market has never been more competitive. With today’s students spending an average of £108 a month on food and £64 a month on socialising, according to the national student money survey, not only are today’s institutions competing with each other to ensure that their offering attracts the next cohort, but they are also competing with high-street brands to ensure that they retain students’ loyalty once they have started their degrees and encourage them to dine on-campus rather than choosing to go elsewhere. 

Alongside this, institutions have to keep up to date with evolving food trends and students’ ever-changing tastes and preferences, as well as advances in payment technology and green initiatives to make their on-campus dining options more environmentally friendly. So how are today’s universities ensuring that they hit the mark and what are the main developments that university caterers should be aware of for the next academic year?

Food trends

Julie Barker is the board director for CUBO, the professional association for senior managers of university commercial and campus services. She says one of the biggest campus eating trends over the past year has been the increasing demand for plant-based foods – driven not just by a dietary desire, but by lifestyle and environmental factors.

“In April, Imperial College opened Plantworks on its South Kensington campus, which it describes as its first plant-based/vegan cafe where all food and drinks are plant-based,” she says.

Another higher education establishment to lead the way is King’s College London, which has opened a 100% plant-based cafe as part of its commitment to being more sustainable, as a plant-based diet is much less resource intensive and thus more sustainable than a typical meat eater’s diet.

Waste not

In today’s increasingly eco-minded world, universities are striving to make their campuses more sustainable and more environmentally friendly. In terms of their catering offering, one way they can focus on the green agenda and reduce their carbon footprint is to close the food waste management loop through composting.

Macclesfield-based organic waste solutions expert Tidy Planet have worked with the University of Liverpool’s students’ union – the Liverpool Guild of Students – to transform the way that they manage their food waste. Prior to installing a composter and food waste dehydrator, food waste accounted for 10% of the guild’s overall waste figures. Over nine tonnes of food waste have been composted as a result of the installation, with the resulting mulch being used in the union’s rooftop gardens and cultivation plots for students to grow vegetables for the campus canteen.

Huw Crampton from Tidy Planet says: “The composting investment was catalysed by the guild’s passion for both promoting sustainability to the university’s students, as well as boosting the site’s recycling rates.

“Composting may be commonly associated with agriculture, but with the advancement of new technologies, it’s vital that universities – and businesses alike – recognise their ability to compost in the middle of a city and harness the power of urban farming.”

From the guild’s perspective, the installation has made a huge difference to their overall greenness and carbon footprint, and has also inspired the university’s halls of residence to implement food waste collections as a result.

David Wheatley, Green Guild project manager at the University of Liverpool Guild of Students says:

“The investment has significantly brought down our waste disposal costs, as fewer collections are needed. We also no longer need to buy in compost from external sources for our growing projects, so we’re fully self-sufficient.”

Plastic reduction

In the past academic year, many members of the University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) have started to focus on the reduction of single-use plastics, and are rolling out initiatives to get students and staff to make greener choices when purchasing food and drink on campus. Matthew White, Chairman of TUCO and director of campus commerce, head of function at the University of Reading, says: “Many institutions have already made the change to using paper straws and use recyclable cups for beverages.

“For example, at Nottingham University, they add on a small surcharge for disposable cups and give a discount for Keep Cups (reusable cups) when consumers purchase beverages. All revenue from this initiative currently goes towards sustainable projects at the university.”

Pelican Procurement Services has recently worked with a leading university to help reduce plastic waste, which involved using reusable crates when buying fresh produce instead of disposable packaging and sourcing alternative products to replace plastic cups, single-use bottles and drinking straws.

Denise Davis, senior procurement professional, says: “Another way to help universities to meet their short-, medium- and long-term sustainable goals is to include those goals within contractual terms agreed with suppliers. This commits suppliers to deliver on various initiatives; one recent example saw a sandwich supplier commit to move its sandwich packaging wedges to plastic-free by the end of 2020.”

Restaurant trends

As well as offering their own in-house catering solutions, some institutions are choosing to work with a range of third-party providers in order to offer staff and students more choice, as well as compete with the high street and its changing trends.

An example of this is Mr Lee’s Pure Foods, a foodtech company that produces a range of premium noodles in a cup which it sells through its Noodle Kiosk vending machine. Last year the company launched its first third-generation machine into a prime location at the University of Huddersfield for a six-month assessment, before moving the machine to a Kaplan student accommodation block in Nottingham.

During the trials, Mr Lee’s noticed a trend of late-night purchases. Martin Verspeak, chief technology officer, says: “While developing our third-generation noodle kiosk vending machines, we realised a very important factor when approaching university catering. As a brand we’ve always put a lot of care into our products, and we look to work alongside caterers in a short ‘pop-up’ scenario, where both parties benefit both in commerciality and knowledge gained.

“This form of agreement allows us as a business to test varying business types, in order for us to gain data, and encourages university caterers to experiment with new food types and a new food experience – opening up their eyes to the new possibilities made possible by technology.”


Universities need to think about how long the relationship can extend for. Trends can change.
A 10-year contract could be too long – 
Julie Barker, CUBO

TUCO has seen more institutions start to partner with small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) or local companies for their catering solutions, instead of choosing to partner with larger high-street chains which would have been the case in the past. White says: “It is now more common for institutions to look for in-house solutions with an artisan feel, ultimately creating a unique model. At the University of Manchester, its food mall is now completely occupied by SME local traders.

“Street food is also becoming increasingly popular, and many UK universities regularly invite global food markets to their campuses. Every Thursday during term-time at the University of Reading, 25 stalls offer a variety of authentic global and fashionable foods.”

At CUBO, Julie Barker is keen to remind universities that although franchises are certainly important in terms of ensuring the campus experience remains in line with the high street and meets the needs of students, there are key things that they need to keep in mind before commencing a partnership. She says: “Universities should be conscious of how long the relationship/contract can extend for. Trends can change and a 10-year contract, for example, could be too long.

“In addition, partnership working is genuinely key. The most successful relationships are where bespoke needs and cultural demographics are considered across the site in question and both parties are working together to a shared goal, for the length of the contract.”

Building trends

ECE Architecture has worked with a number of institutions on the design of their catering facilities. Stuart Eatock, its managing director, believes that a university’s catering facilities play a vital role in enhancing the overall experience for students and staff, and that creating suitable communal spaces is a top objective. He also says the design should inspire and capture imaginations, especially in today’s social media-driven world.

He says: “Generation Z is used to convenience, and therefore convenience is key upon the design of catering facilities, now more than ever.

“We also appreciate that catering facilities are now much more than a place to simply grab a snack and refuel. These areas are also used to encourage students to use the facilities to meet colleagues, mix with academic staff, and study and work in groups.”

Catering facilities are now much more than a place to simply grab a snack and refuel – Stuart Eatock, ECE

Case study

ECE Architecture recently worked alongside Greater Brighton Metropolitan College. Eatock says: “The new and improved kitchen was designed alongside a catering consultant and includes a barista-style coffee machine and offers students a selection of hot food and areas designed for collaboration and discussion.”

Functionality should be another key consideration for university caterers, especially in regards to cleaning, maintenance and the fact that many of today’s catering facilities are used for a number of different purposes such as studying, socialising and events. DSM Stainless Steel Products has worked with a number of universities to produce bespoke stainless steel kitchens, and has seen a number of changes in the design of university catering spaces.

Gareth Davies, director of DSM, says: “Dining areas, over the past few years, tend to merge with social areas. This means that they’re used for both dining and a common room area rather than separating the two.” 

Payment processing

Cash no longer plays an essential role when it comes to paying for products and services, and there are now a wide range of payment options available. Mr Lee’s CTO, Martin Verspeak, explains: “The great benefits of card payment, especially contactless and mobile phone payment, are being enjoyed more than ever before, with the likes of Apple Pay receiving a 450% increase in transactions across all sectors in 2017.”

Going cashless

Cashless payment is something Mr Lee’s is keen to utilise for its noodle kiosks, which exclusively accept contactless payment in order to eliminate queuing and reduce the required maintenance that goes with cash payment, and therefore offer a far more seamless, interactive experience for the consumer. Verspeak says: “It seems over the past six months that most vending machinery companies are jumping aboard the cashless train, with coinage and notes very quickly becoming a thing of the past.

“You’ll find most consumers jumping for joy at the discovery of a contactless panel, and shaking their heads in disgust when met with cash payment being their only option.”

Blood money

An example of a modern payment solution that is transforming the way consumers pay for goods and services is Fingopay, a payments system that lets customers pay with just a scan of their finger.

The award-winning technology, which uses Hitachi VeinID scanning, allows customers to link their vein signatures with their payment cards to pay using just their finger at a network of merchants. At tills, the unique pattern of the customer’s vein is scanned, verifying biometric signatures and payments in seconds through its cloud-based matching system. 

At Brunel University, Fingopay worked with Costcutter to install readers at points of sale in order to help the university move towards the goal of a cashless campus, and at Copenhagen Business School thousands of students use Fingopay in their canteen in order to pay for self-service food and drink. By removing the need for cash, cards and mobile, Fingopay has been described as the fastest and safest payment method on the market with no need for PIN or passwords and no transaction limits.

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