How university catering services are changing

University catering services are adapting to food trends and student demand, Keri Beckingham finds out how.

University canteens act as a place to grab a coffee on the go, a casual study space and somewhere to eat lunch with friends or colleagues. There’s no denying that university catering facilities are an intrinsic part of a university campus. But with spaces shifting from a traditional canteen structure to something far more dynamic, we asked experts from the university catering industry to explain why the design of catering facilities is changing.


Changing university food trends

Julie Barker is non-executive director for CUBO and former chair of TUCO whilst director of accommodation and hospitality at Brighton University. She observes the creation of more flexible catering spaces that allow architects to consider how different food trends can be met through an alignment with spacial design.

Barker says: “This might see a site being themed to world foods – say, Mexican – one year, but then being repositioned several months down the line to a noodle bar.

“It illustrates the need for agility. It’s all about using the space wisely.”

HE catering stats:

73% manage all catering in-house

23% use outsourced suppliers

71% of new initiatives involve coffee shops

£238 the average annual spend per student

Richard Pearce, UK sales director of BaxterStorey has seen catering facilities designed in a more flexible way, which allows switching between different uses during the day to meet a range of needs. He says: “There has also been a recent shift towards chameleon-style facilities, for instance a bar that has a deli offer during the day and a liquor bar in the evening, predominantly in response to the significant downward trend of alcohol consumption in universities not warranting solely dedicated space.”

Space optimisation is under pressure across campuses. Tom Laskey, sales and marketing director, schools and universities, for Sodexo UK and Ireland thinks that universities need to make their catering facilities work harder by creating shared communal spaces with flexible seating configurations for study, socialising and group working. “This is vitally important as the lines between learning, dining and socialising become increasingly blurred and dining becomes less formal and time-specific,” he says.

Prof David Russell, chairman and founder of the Russell Partnership Collection agrees: “As lifestyles accelerate, ‘multi-purpose’ expires and ‘all-purpose’ spaces come of age.”

Matthew White, chairman of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) has seen universities tapping into the immersive eating trend by offering experimental pop-up supper clubs, multi-sensory food events and interactive dinners in their catering facilities. He says: “Our Global Food and Beverage Trends Report 2018 found nearly six in ten of consumers aged 18–34 said they like to take pictures to share on social media.

The lines between learning, dining and socialising become increasingly blurred – Tom Laskey, Sodexo

University Space Catering Design

When it comes to designing a ‘good’ catering space, Barker thinks it’s important for universities to be aware of building consent limitations which may impact their catering design plans, especially if the facility is in a listed building. She says: 

“One solution has been to factor-in ‘small spaces’ and create boutique breakout or pop-up areas.”

Charles Willoughby is business development director for CH&CO. For large universities that have several catering outlets across one campus, or where campuses are close together, he believes that creating a central production kitchen should be considered in order to maximise efficiency, and that an existing facility could also be adapted to do this rather than creating one from scratch.

university space catering facilities
Queens Uni Belfast: Clements Coffee

In addition, Laskey believes that universities should seek input from their students before planning their catering facilities, in order to ensure that they meet their changing needs and wants. He adds: “They need to listen to what students want and need today, rather than rely on the models of the past.”

Competing against the high street

With many UK universities located within walking distance of the high street, and some choosing to introduce coffee shop brands such as Costa Coffee and Starbucks into their campuses, how can institutions compete with the big names of the catering world?

Willoughby thinks that by adapting their catering facilities to give students more choice, such as creating ‘theatre’ cooking stands, universities can have the upper hand over their high-street competitors. He says: “Students love choice, just look at how much is available on the high street for them. 

“You need to rival that to keep them on campus.”

One solution has been to factor-in boutique breakout or pop-up areas – Julie Barker, CUBO

Pearce reckons universities need to look to their high-street competitors for inspiration, and ensure all their catering spaces look and feel like a high-street brand in order to meet customers’ expectations of both familiarity and innovation. He says: “This in turn influences the ambience of a space as they tend to have brand-standard designs. Any spacial design needs to complement the food offering.”

On the other hand, Laskey thinks that universities should be learning from the high street, rather than competing with them. He said: “The way that customers move around spaces, interact with them and use different furniture configurations is well-researched in the high street and universities can learn from studying these elements of spatial design.”

Further opportunities for revenue

Universities have long opened the doors of their sporting facilities to the public to generate further revenue, but what about the possibility of opening up their catering facilities in the same way?

Barker thinks this provides a great option for universities looking to grow commercial revenue streams at weekends and outside of term time. She says: “It makes total sense and is a great way to share excellent facilities by putting campus services into the public domain.”

university of edinburgh catering
University of Edinburgh Catering – Levels Cafe

Willoughby agrees, and thinks that universities can diversify their catering offer by hosting the likes of children’s parties or corporate bookings. 

“A sports hall makes a great training venue for a health and safety course or fun-filled themed party.”

What does the future hold?

Looking ahead, what do our experts think the future holds for university catering facilities? Laskey thinks fluctuations in student numbers on a year-to-year and term-to-term basis will force universities to adapt their catering offer accordingly. “Universities will have to be able to scale their catering offer up and down and allow for flexibility in the way that spaces are used while remaining commercially viable.”

Pearce believes universities will look to improve the experience by maximising the use of catering facilities for social activities such as quiz nights, barista masterclasses or external speaker events. He says: “It’s a cost-effective solution not having to outsource an event space, as well as encouraging food and drink spend within the facilities.”

Willoughby has seen universities start to make use of catering areas for student-lecturer interactions, and believes this trend is set to spread. He said: “This is a whole new way of thinking and one that is incredibly exciting.”

University Catering Services

University Catering Services – Case studies

University of Edinburgh Catering

The University of Edinburgh has taken an innovative approach in the redesign of its catering facilities. As Richard Kington, director accommodation, catering and events, explains: “We no longer use a traditional architect to design the space, but have turned instead to specialist high-street design consultants who have experience in creating an environment that creates energy and is a place that people want to come to.”

Canteen Catering Nottingham Trent

Matthew White has seen Nottingham Trent University innovate its catering offer in response to customer demand: “Head of catering and hospitality Ivan Hopkins saw a particularly strong trading following a refurbishment of the Bonington Taste Café, where sales rose by 28% in the space of 12 months. They looked to create a theme based on independent high-street coffee shops, as opposed to mirroring the major brands.”

You might also be interested in: The science behind event catering

University Catering Trends on College Campuses

Food Trends on University Campuses

For more on university food trends for 2019 read our articles: University Food Trends 2019 and University Food Trends on Campus.

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