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How colleges shape customers

Tunisian vegetable stew and Szechwan tofu stir-fry. Certified organic salad bars. Made-to-order panini sandwiches. Bento boxes. Mediterranean tapas and Asian small plates. The restaurant offerings of a good-size city? Not exactly. This is Cal Dining, the foodservice arm of the University of California, Berkeley, where the new Café 3 dining hall offers all-you-can-eat sushi, build-your-own pho and Asian noodle soups, dim sum and such daily specials as pad Thai noodles, Korean beef stir-fry and chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce.

And that’s just one of the school’s more than 30 on-campus dining locations.

“Some people might call college students a captive audience, but we’re trying to create a customer who will be loyal to us for their entire academic career,” says Cal Dining director Sean LaPean, who presides over the $41 million, 3.5 million-meal-a-year operation. “The more choices we give them here, the less they’ll be tempted to eat off campus.”

Say hello to your next customer base. There are approximately 17.5 million students enrolled in some sort of higher learning institution, according to 2005 census data. And by the time they graduate they will have been spoiled rotten.

“College and university foodservice has become one of the most innovative segments in the industry,” says Greg Drescher, senior director of strategic initiatives for The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. The schools, he adds, “are in one of the best positions to adapt food trends and implement new concepts, because they don’t have the time constraints and systemwide operational needs of the chains, or the ego of independent chefs.”

College and university foodservice represents an $11 billion industry, and is considered to be every bit as important in attracting new students as the quality of the library and the credentials of the professors. And it’s getting to be more sophisticated by the day.

“These Generation Y students have seen it all, and it’s getting to be a real challenge to wow them,” says Jodi Smith, marketing manager for The National Association of College & University Food Services. “They grew up going out to restaurants with their parents, and now they’re being catered to on-campus with everything they could possibly want, from authentic ethnic food to vegan alternatives.”

“You wouldn’t believe what’s happened to the college cafeteria,” says Paul O’Connell, chef-owner of Chez Henri, a contemporary Cuban-inflected French bistro in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hard by Harvard Yard and within an easy drive of dozens of other schools. “These students [are] extremely adventurous diners.”

Colleges no longer view foodservice as a loss leader: Today it’s part of the academic experience, and a source of additional revenues. “Food is a tool that can be used to educate people about global culture,” says Ken Toong, director of dining services at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And it’s also a $50 million profit center, a significant portion of which is generated by sales of meal plans, which have increased by more than 45 percent since Toong joined the school eight years ago. Only freshmen and sophomores are required to be on a meal plan, explains Toong, “but if the food’s good they’ll stay on.”

That means trained chefs—executive chef Willie Sng comes from Westin hotels—in each of the school’s five residence dining halls and 18-plus retail facilities, with menu selections that range from comfort foods and deli fare to the food of Oaxaca, Singapore, Thailand and Japan. “Many students had their first taste of sushi with us,” says Toong. Freshness, on-demand and display cooking, customized options and great variety are par for the course. “Students have told me that when they go out to restaurants, they can tell that processed foods have been used, or that they can’t get a burger done the way they like it. I think this generation is going to be pushing restaurants very hard.”

“I’m definitely going to miss eating here,” says Kim Ong, a graduating Amherst senior and student ambassador, a group that functions like mystery shoppers for the dining services department. “There are a lot of healthy foods and vegan and vegetarian options on-campus. Some of the restaurants in Amherst are starting to catch on, but there’s nowhere near the variety of choices. My tastes have really been broadened in the last four years.”

David Zebny is one entrepreneur who’s getting ready for it. Last fall, he opened Z Square, an all-day cafe with a downstairs bar-restaurant at Harvard Square; there’s already a location in Marin County, California, and two more are in the works. The menus are diverse, hip, fresh-focused and very reasonably priced, geared to 18- to 25-year-olds with high expectations and a taste for something more substantial than a Panera Bread but not as expensive—or as formulaic—as an Applebee’s or Chili’s.

“These college-age kids are some of the most demanding customers we get,” Zebny says. “Dining experiences are definitely part of their lifestyles.”                           

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