Turning up the heat

Keri Beckingham looks at the ways that unis are adapting their catering offering in order to compete with big-name brands

When it comes to university catering, not only are institutions competing with each other to ensure that their offering attracts the next cohort of students, but they are also competing with high-street brands too – with some even located just a few steps away from campus. Today’s students are savvier than ever, and when it comes to choosing where to grab lunch on the go or dine with friends after a hard day’s studying, institutions need to ensure that their offering stands out to avoid them going elsewhere – but what can they do to ensure they hit the mark? 

Keeping your key stakeholders in mind

Charles Manners is a Director at Turpin Smale, a team of catering consultants who have carried out extensive projects in the HE sector. He believes that it’s important for institutions to keep all of their stakeholders in mind when giving their catering an overhaul, saying: “It’s really important to have a good understanding of both the student and staff requirements and to benchmark your estate against best-in-class operators – this means looking at your available space, student flows, where staff are working and looking ahead to the future impact of estate and campus developments.”

Matt White is Chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) which has 130 members from HE and FE across the UK, and he thinks that keeping student satisfaction in mind is also key, saying: “For students, the course is no longer the only thing they look at when considering which university to attend. 

Now that they are paying over £9,000 per year to go to university, when it comes to catering they demand a high-class service and excellent products – catering is very important for student satisfaction.”

David Russell is co-founder of The Russell Partnership, the UK’s leading strategic food consultancy. Taking the idea of maximising student satisfaction further, he adds: “Universities need to know their students – this means utilising digital solutions to investigate their preferred meal options, ascertaining whether global food trends will flourish on campus and understanding their unique flavour palates and preferences.”

Flexibility is key

Alongside his role as Chair of TUCO, Matt White is also the Director of Catering, Hotel and Conferencing Services at the University of Reading. He believes flexibility is essential in avoiding menu fatigue, and ensuring that a university’s catering offering is kept fresh. He says: “There’s the big risk of thinking that as you have a captive audience you do not need to keep your offer fresh, but this certainly isn’t the case as it’s important to ensure that kit and menus can be changed and updated easily. 

“Variety is key for students as they get bored quickly, and menu cycles are a thing of the past too – you’ve got to keep up with demand.”

Charles Manners also believes that it’s important for university caterers to be flexible with their pricing to try and encourage a higher usage rate from students. He says: “Aston University have chosen to use in-house brands, but they also have a Costa and a Starbucks – however, they price products between 10% and 15% below the high street to encourage students to stay and use their facilities.” 

In house vs high-street brands – who has the advantage? 

When it comes to an institution deciding whether to invest in their own in-house offering or use the services of a high-street brand, David Russell says it’s important to remember that universities will always understand the needs of their students better. He comments: “Universities have the advantage over national brands in that they know who their demographic is from the start of the semester, so they are able to tailor offers and undertake research to gain valuable results – something national brands will struggle to do effectively.”

University of Wolverhampton

The University of Wolverhampton has recently unveiled a £4m redevelopment which included refurbishing the food court at their Millennium City building. Emma Furnival, Assistant Director, Estates and Facilities, explains that the business case for the redevelopment was heavily centred around improving the student experience and increasing dwell time in the catering/social areas. She says: “We wanted to provide excellent interaction social space supported by an improved catering offer for the whole university community. This included increasing seating from 307 to 511 and developing the outside courtyard to allow for additional external social space that features bench seating and accessible grass areas. We also zoned the food court area to create intimate areas that would appeal to different types of eating and socialising. 

“Another key part of our strategy was to open a fully licensed Starbucks coffee shop bringing the high street directly onto campus. As part of our commitment to student employability, we employ our students in the Starbucks and catering areas.

“Importantly we wanted to create an environment that is appealing to students and creates a wow impact, and feedback from our University community has been overwhelmingly positive.”

University of Reading

Matt White, Director of Catering, Hotel and Conferencing Services at the University of Reading, talks about how his team have been able to contribute to the commercial success of the institution: “Eight years ago our catering department was losing money, and the University agreed to invest to try and turn things around. Since then, our contribution has turned into an excess of half a million pounds every year for the University, which they can then use to invest in teaching and learning. 

“We also recently had a cinema built in the bar of one of our halls, and now run a cinema club for local children. Although there was initially hesitation from the local community to having a student bar in a residential area, we have been able to minimise their concerns and work with them. 

“Offering commercial opportunities, such as birthday parties, go a long way in helping to ensure that the town and the gown get on, and at Reading we think that community engagement like this is a great way to bridge the gap and help residents see what goes on behind closed doors.”

Durham University

Hooba, a food manufacturer that caters for vegans and vegetarians is delighted to be working with Durham University to bring their range of meat-free products to students. 

 From January 2017, students dining in Durham University’s many eateries can now enjoy sausages, sausage rolls and meatballs alongside a bespoke vegetarian ‘mushroom Wellington’ made using Hooba mince and created exclusively for the University. 

 Durham University’s aim is to be recognised as one of the most environmentally sustainable universities in the UK. By choosing to serve Hooba products the University is able to reduce its environmental footprint and co-operate with the wider community; both core aims in their environmental mission statement. 

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