Model behaviour

TUCO research provides insight for university catering growth

With many higher and further education facilities based within easy commute of the high street or major shopping centres, university caterers are constantly needing to evolve their offer to keep the draw of competing food and drink outlets at bay.

Millennials (18–30-year-olds) are a tough but very rewarding consumer audience. With their love of technology, appreciation of speed and convenience, and tendency towards less conventional or more specific dining habits, they are often-seen as the trendsetters of the hospitality industry, keeping everyone on their toes.

To help university and college caterers maintain pace with this most discerning of diners and build customer loyalty, The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) recently undertook its annual business models research.

Matt White, Chair of TUCO and Director of Catering, Hotel and Conference Services at The University of Reading, said: “Universities are under a lot of financial pressure and catering services can provide a much-needed revenue source. In fact, our recent business models research shows that more than half of organisations generated a surplus through their food and drink provision last year. 

“Working with The Litmus Partnership, we commissioned our Business Models in HE Catering research to help HE and FE caterers stay ahead of the curve and create an environment which enhances the student experience, whilst also generating a profit.”

The key findings from the report, include:

In-house catering models achieve better commercial results. Seventy-three per cent of those surveyed manage all their catering in-house, with 23% using outsourced suppliers. Of this, 64% of in-house teams achieved a surplus in the previous financial year, compared to 44% of those with a mix of in-house and outsourced provision. 

Experience is key

University and college catering facilities have a vital role to play in enhancing the student experience. They are much more than just a place to ‘refuel’ and can be vibrant hubs where students can mix with their peers, academic staff and the broader university community. Matt White continued: “Education caterers are increasingly aware of this and we see many of our members maximising the true potential of their spaces by creating sociable, multi-use outlets suitable for relaxing, studying and working.

Coffee shops are leading the way

“Eighty-five per cent of participants have introduced a new hot beverage offer in recent years, which includes creating strong identities and brands, partnering with local vendors, the use of technology and investing in special purpose vehicles. However, the most popular new initiatives are coffee shops, with 71% of openings involving cafés.” 

It’s all about grazing

Millennials – the current generation at university and college – are the most engaged with food trends and sharing on social media. As such, speed and convenience hold the most value for students when eating out, as well as the desire to eat healthily (although they don’t always achieve this!). This has resulted in less of an emphasis on conventional meal times and more of a preference for regular grazing throughout the day. This is changing the landscape of HE and FE catering as operators seek out opportunities to refresh their menus regularly throughout the day, providing a variety of meal and snack items that encourage repeat custom.  

Knowledge is power

Understanding the customer is essential and one of the most effective ways to do this is by listening closely to their feedback. You can gather precious data through everything from dedicated student surveys to capturing immediate feedback on electronic tablets or via mystery shopper schemes but it’s acting upon this information and spotting gaps in the market, which can make a real difference to the success of a catering operation. 

Taking influence from the high street 

“The high-street food scene is fast moving and, to compete, HE and FE caterers need to closely monitor the marketplace and come up with similarly innovative responses,” explained Matt.

Some key foodie movements we’re seeing include:

The rise in international flavours from small specialist operators either via pop-ups, street-food markets or fixed restaurants, with an emphasis on authenticity and innovation

Smaller, core menus that focus on quality ingredients and healthy foods like bone broth that are packed with vitamins, collagen and keratin 

Smart technology in the form of online or app-based ordering, payment and delivery, to increase speed-of service 

‘Third-wave’ cafés offering ethically sourced items such as locally roasted coffee.

Staying true to the culture and ethics of your university

“Students have shown that they appreciate authenticity and ethically sound brands, and catering should look to reflect these values wherever possible. Key to this is the need for HE and FE caterers to be more mindful of the sourcing, ingredients and broader brand identities of the companies they work with.

“With many groundbreaking ideas sweeping the sector and increasing competition from the high street, it’s an exciting time for HE and FE catering. 

By using valuable insights, like the business models research, operators can effectively evaluate their facilities and find an approach which best meets their strategic ambitions.” 

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