Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis
Value-Added Answers Desire To Do Things Quicker, Without Compromising On Quality
By Sharon Olson, Executive Director, Y-Pulse
As Millennials are growing up and moving to the next chapter of their lives, college foodservice will face the exciting challenge of welcoming a new demographic of students: The Gen Z consumer.
Chicago-based research and consulting firm Y-Pulse has tracked thousands of interviews with college students for more than a decade. Here are some of the key ways college consumers’ tastes are setting the pace for tomorrow’s menus.
Rise Of The Omnivore — Even as “flexitarian” and Meatless Monday trends waiver, more young consumers proudly identify themselves as omnivores. Vegetable-centric cuisine doesn’t necessarily mean vegetarian, but it tops the list of menu items that feed college consumers’ desire for fresh and healthful food. The Gen Z consumer is accustomed to robust and adventurous flavors, as well as more innovative cooking methods like smoking and fire roasting.
Mindful Dining — According to a recent study by the Culinary Visions Panel, a Chicago-based food-focused insight and trend forecasting practice that develops and tests new ideas that connect with modern consumers, Millennial consumers care more about ethical factors in foodservice compared to the general population. When surveyed about the factors that most influence their food and beverage choices, the top three responses were a simple ingredient statement, a company known for ethical standards, and sustainability.
More than half of the 1,200 young consumers surveyed also noted the following claims as important in their food decisions: grass-fed/pasture-raised, hormone-free, antibiotic-free protein, free range/free roaming, non-GMO, sustainably caught/raised, fair trade, heirloom fruits and vegetables, cage free and organic.
Snacking provided no exception, with 83 percent considering healthfulness an important criterion for the snacks they choose.
Living Well — Ideas like “stealth health” are on their way out as younger consumers increase emphasis on full ingredient disclosure and allergen awareness. Transparency matters to young consumers who have had nutrition education and want to be empowered to make their own choices.
Wellness programs on campus are also taking on a more holistic approach. A Y-Pulse study noted that 82 percent of college and university operators said that campus wellness programs were a collaboration of many campus services, including health services, foodservice, athletics, counseling and residential life. Seventy-seven percent of students said they were satisfied (or very satisfied) with the campus wellness program available to them.
Community Building — In addition to dining spaces specifically designed to foster community, students are reacting positively to platters that evoke a shared experience. Traditional steam table service is, more often than not, regarded as institutional.
On campuses, foodservice workers and consumers are often one in the same. Foodservice directors must be mindful on how important it is that workers want to eat the food coming out of their kitchens and share it with their friends. When it comes to design, eliminating barriers between food preparation and service connects those preparing the meal with those who are enjoying it in a powerful and positive way.
Gardens are also becoming part of the culinary landscape due to the continued momentum of the farm-to-table movement.
Cooking On Campus — Food television has captivated and enabled an entire generation of consumers. As a result, cooking classes and chef demonstrations on campuses are well attended. Many classes have an inspiring and practical nature. One example of a practical cooking class is chefs and dietitians demonstrating recipes where all of the ingredients have come from the campus store.
According to a Y-Pulse study, 26 percent of college students say that a registered dietitian is available on campus for personal consultation.
Connected Consumers — College consumers expect to have the information they need about food and beverage choices available instantly and their opinions taken seriously. According to a Y-Pulse study, 95 percent of foodservice directors in college and university foodservice say they use social media to connect with their customers.
Campus dining apps are also becoming more widely available as operators look to connect their offerings with student lifestyles and social media habits.
The Global Kitchen — Today’s college consumers are more diverse and aware of global cultures and cuisines than any previous generation. Most students expect to see ethnic foods on the menu, regardless of their background.
South American cuisines are becoming popular because of the diversity of agricultural products, from tropical fruits and vegetables to cocoa and coffee. Foods from the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa are gaining interest as the allure of the Mediterranean diet expands. Some of the classic ingredients in these foods include olive oil, dates, sea salt and exotic spices and herbs like za’atar.
What’s next? Much of what’s next on campus menus is building momentum for fresh and sustainable offerings and more flavor exploration. Campus foodservice also needs to find ways to satisfy students’ growing interest about the people and processes behind the food they eat.
Y-Pulse (ypulse.org) is a research and consulting firm headquartered in Chicago that focuses on consumers in the education segments, specializing in helping companies in the food business better understand tomorrow’s tastemakers today.
Meal Plans Allow Students To Demand Fresh And Sustainable At No Cost
It has been said that democracy tells us what most people want, whereas capitalism tells us what people want most. When thinking about university foodservice, the comment is worth keeping in mind. One would think that what college students prefer while at university would set a powerful trend going forward as they move into adulthood. After all, we know food habits are stubborn things, and so we would expect once established, these habits are likely to stay with people as they move on from university to single life, married life and family life.
In college, most students confront meal-purchasing situations they will rarely encounter again in their lives. Those students on meal plans — which is most of what we are talking about here — have had their food prepaid. This allows the students to both request — even demand — things from their university foodservice programs without any financial consequences. If they want cage-free eggs, organic produce or fair trade coffee, they can make that clear to the administration. Certainly, within the choices presented, they can choose based on whatever criteria — environmental, ethical, culinary — they may wish to utilize. If there is any cost to any of this, it is obscured and will show up in a higher overall cost of a meal plan a year later.
In contrast, people outside of universities are confronted with specific choices most of their lives. Do I buy the organic produce and pay more, or conventionally grown and pay less? Do I buy the fair trade chocolate and pay more, or do I buy conventional chocolate and pay less? And, for many, the choices translate into other choices. Do I buy the ethically sourced product and be late with the rent this month? Do I skimp on the organics so I can enroll Julie in gymnastics this semester? On and on.
By reading the consumer media, one can easily come away with the conclusion that Americans are obsessed with eating everything local, organic, ethically sourced, sustainable and what not. And, indeed, these may be highly effective marketing angles, as they may well express the aspirations of consumers. But it is sometimes useful to take a reality check and remember fresh produce consumption is flat. The largest grocer in America is Wal-Mart; the fastest growing grocers are deep discounters, Aldi and Lidl; and the poster boy for all of today’s trends, Whole Foods, has a market share of about 1.2 percent of the U.S. grocery market! And Amazon, well it represents about one-fifth of 1 percent of the U.S. grocery market.
Some of this attention is about something more than money; it is about culture. New York Timescolumnist David Brooks attracted more than a little attention when he wrote an article addressing class divisions in America, claiming there are “informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.” What could represent these divisions, Brooks explained, was that food was a big part of it:
Recently, I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly, I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Brooks may have chosen a poor example. It is not clear Italian names on sandwiches are all that intimidating. But he also made a larger point:
To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.
Which is another way of saying that to fit in among certain circles, one has to at least feign an interest in veg-centric eating, ethical sourcing, transparency, community-building, cooking, “know your farmer” and food source, and ethnic cuisines.
Culture, of course, shifts and there is no guarantee that what is perceived as upscale and sophisticated today will be thought of that way in 10 years; even more, it is not clear what percentage of the population will actually buy into these values. Add to this the reality of choices that lead many consumers to decide that saving for a trip to Disney World is more important than getting drumsticks from free-range chickens and we see the conundrum.
We may know what most college students want, but until they are actually paying the bill, we can’t know what they want most.