Flavours of the month

What trends has the new year brought to universities’ catering? Simon Fry asks to see the menu

While eating and drinking never go out of fashion, universities must ensure their catering offerings are on-trend if they wish to maximise their appeal and income.

On-campus there is a need to offer dishes reflecting today’s changing lifestyles, served in a range of stylish environments from refectories to coffee outlets that are conducive to contemplation or creating good company.    

The bar is ever-rising; students expect excellence in their daytime coffee and a dash of decadence in their evening drinking.

Chopstick revolution: the facts

Chinese students represent UK HE’s biggest international market with numbers rising by 34% in the last five years

The University of Nottingham was the first to open a Chinese restaurant on campus; Man’s Gourmet

According to research from Brunel University London in 2018, Chinese students studying in the UK prefer home-cooked Chinese food and familiar global brands over local cuisine – which they rarely consume beyond a sample on first arriving

A training and information package on Chinese cooking has been developed by TUCO for use by chefs and catering managers at campuses across Britain

“Chinese people love their food and UK educational institutions that go the extra mile by literally catering to Chinese students’ needs will leave them with a much stronger impression of the UK,” David Martin, marketing director at the China-Britain Business Council has said

All a blur

The lines between eating and other activities grows ever hazier. The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO)’s Global Food & Beverage Trends report 2019 highlighted the emergence of ‘omni-channel blur’, a high-street trend for food in unexpected places, such as cafés in bookshops or fashion retailers. This blend has helped boost customer engagement and time spent in store, increasing store revenue and creating a positive customer experience. The speakeasy concept has also reappeared, with spaces acting as coffee shops by day before transforming into cocktail bars in the evening.

Staff and students are also customers of the high street and its many outlets – but just importing a ‘brand’ onto campus may not be the best approach. Unique to universities is the idea of ‘Community Cafes’ – not just a place to eat but also to meet and study; a destination in its own right.

The University of Edinburgh has already repurposed some old institutional outlets to provide impact and enhance the student experience, which in turn increases footfall, dwell time and spend. Unlike the average high street, they are multi-function spaces for collaboration, individual and group study and dining.

Vending is also making a comeback on campus, with innovative new machines offering hot food, healthy options, high-quality fresh coffee and even technology essentials like chargers and computer cables. These developments, alongside the introduction of cashless payments on vending machines, show vending remains a reliable and versatile option for providing supplies on demand in the 24/7 campus environment.

Credit: cardiffuniversity

Contactless catering

The way consumers shop and how they want to pay has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, directly impacting university catering. The growth of online shopping, self-service and cashless payment using cards and mobiles has raised the expectations of students, who now want a fast and slick buying experience at all points of sale.

For universities, being in tune with their students’ needs is key, and to compete with off-site competition and maximise sales, universities must offer more choice in not just food and drink, but also the payment types available, such as credit/debit cards, Unicard, mobile phone payment and QR codes.

“Today’s students are most likely to ‘tap and go’, but then how do you build loyalty and encourage repeat purchase?” said Laura Barwell, business development at smart payment providers VMC.

“By offering a range of payment options integrated into a one-account solution you can remove any potential barriers to the sale.”

VMC solutions can be tailored to universities’ exact needs, combining  their choice of payment types with additional system features like meal deals, virtual loyalty and automatic rewards across all points of sale. Universities can also benefit from integrating other campus services into a single scheme with VMC, and by including vending, ID, library, printing, student union, events and more, they can create a seamless experience
for students.

One is fun

But community dining isn’t for everyone – well, not all of the time. Solo dining is one of the biggest trends in university catering right now.

“It allows time for reflection and gives people a chance to be in the moment or take themselves away for a moment, removing themselves temporarily from their everyday lives,” says TUCO chairman Matthew White. “This can contribute to students’ positive on-campus experiences.”

According to TUCO’s groundbreaking Hospitable Campus report, such areas must be cleverly designed to not stigmatise solo diners and to allow students to enjoy contemplative states. Views of nature and green spaces bring pleasing visual aesthetics, but where this is difficult in campus foodservice settings, technology could help provide a similar experience. Artwork or landscape scenes shown via screens could create an immersive and also a positive wellbeing experience.

Deja brew

Five universities are aiming to recycle 1.2m coffee cups in the next year, thanks to funding from global coffee chain Starbucks.

The University of Northampton, York St John’s University, University of Westminster, Queen Mary University of London and London School of Economics (LSE) are all installing colourful, coffee cup recycling bins financed by The Cup Fund. The initiatives follow research released by environmental charity Hubbub, which revealed three out of four people wrongly believe that coffee cups can be recycled like other paper and card.

As disposable coffee cups have a plastic lining, they require separate recycling.

All cups collected will be recycled into new paper products manufactured locally.

The Cup Fund is financed by Starbucks, from the 5p charge that was introduced on paper cups in 2018.

Plates and the planet

Sustainability has been built into HE providers’ catering policies for several years, with healthy, seasonal, local and responsibly sourced food routinely expected from staff, students and visitors alike. SU-Eatable Life – a European project designed and delivered in the UK by the Sustainable Restaurant Association – is the most long-term and in-depth experiment to date to change the eating habits of thousands of students and employees, using creative menu design, rewards, data collection and social media.

Students at the University of Worcester and City, University of London will be encouraged and educated on the environmental impact of their lunch choices, in part using an app from tech provider greenApes. Engaging video content, easy-to-access information about focus areas, including the environmental impact of common ingredients, health, water and waste, monthly rewards and content-sharing opportunities are some of the ways the app will engage users.

“The University of Worcester has been working with students to support sustainable food for a number of years, through giving them access to local produce and providing them with opportunities to grow their own in dedicated allotments,” said director of sustainability Katy Boom. “This project is an ideal opportunity to extend this work.”

Faster progress is being achieved through widening not removing choice  – Richard Kington, University of Edinburgh

Feeding the flexitarians

The connection between food and health, where food is sourced, its welfare credentials, and impacts on health and food waste are of increasing importance to Generation Z.

The recent trend is toward more plant-based eating, and veganism is increasing, but providing meat eaters more opportunities to become flexitarians is the key. The adoption of more plant-based foods leads to a healthier diet and improves sustainability.

“The University of Edinburgh will by July 2020 have over 50% of meal options in catered halls and its 22 outlets vegetarian or plant-based. Faster progress is being achieved through widening not removing choice,” said Richard Kington, director, accommodation, catering and events.

“A key is to practice what you preach which led to a Campus Health, Food & Drink award in the Green Gown Awards 2019.”

Recent developments at Imperial College London include a new miso broth station and the university’s own vegan sausage roll range and exclusive premium ‘Imperial Coffee’ blend, only available on campus.

Kamil Khoury, head of catering operations said: “We’re seeing a huge increase in expectations from students and staff around what they can eat on campus, in terms of the overall offering’s quality and an expectation Imperial should meet all taste, dietary and cultural requirements. As the restaurant sector becomes more varied and accessible to all, a university catering department is expected to replicate the high street’s variety and quality.”

Solo dining allows time for reflection and gives people a chance to be in the moment or take themselves away for a moment   – Matthew White, TUCO

Imperial has over 27 outlets spread across its campuses, and the mission is to make each completely distinct, the vegan Plantworks Café, with handpicked staff bringing authentic vegan cuisine expertise, being indicative of this.

In the coming months, Imperial will launch ‘The Catering Conversation’ an ongoing project allowing staff and students to provide immediate feedback at certain outlets, and participate more directly in improving the university’s food and drink landscape.

While students will continue to expect impressive food and drink offerings from universities, their provision onsite and in marketing material will go a significant way to attracting the students of tomorrow. Looking forward, trends will continue to be imported from the high street, but universities which listen carefully to their students, delivering data-driven dining, will see their catering evolve with greatest certainty. 

Supply and demand

What should the catering procurement process look like post-Brexit?

“It’s no longer just about cutting prices, it’s also about adding strategic value through risk management, supply chain collaboration, and building relationships that deliver sustainable results for all parties,” says Ian Holliday, head of commercial development at Pelican Procurement Services.

“Key procurement process trends in 2020 include fairness, transparency and efficiency.

“Efficiency and transparency comes down to maximising automation of back-office processes and enabling all stakeholders to access the same information from one central location of ‘the truth’.

“Fairness in procurement ensures that the process delivers the best value and meets the specific needs of each organisation, while giving equal opportunity to every supplier. This means that smaller suppliers are not disadvantaged by lengthy procedures.

Sourcing sustainable products and reducing environmental impact is going to be crucial part, as sustainable procurement is here to stay.”

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