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Dining Do-Over

September 2017

By Nancy Mann Jackson

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As dining facilities grow into social hubs, institutions are revamping these spaces to increase on-campus interactions, attract new students, and provide access to more food options.

As most traditional colleges and universities face increased competition, changing student demographics, and flat or decreasing enrollment, every area of campus must be re-examined. The areas that were once considered simply necessities—such as dormitories and dining facilities—can now become tools for creating a vibrant campus culture that will attract new students and keep current students plugged in and engaged.

Here’s how three universities overhauled their dining programs to meet current student needs and create a richer quality of life on their campuses.

Kutztown University

Boosting Student Satisfaction

Over the years, Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pa., had made many tweaks to dining program offerings, but students continued to express below-average levels of satisfaction with the program, says Gerald L. Silberman, vice president of administration and finance at Kutztown. To pinpoint the issues, the university engaged an independent dining services consultant to assess the program and provide recommendations for a complete program overhaul.

“We were able to secure a large amount of student input, which suggested to us that our students were very concerned with program accessibility and flexibility and did not feel that our current program met their needs,” Silberman says. The institution’s existing dining service provider was willing to help revamp the program, agreeing to significant contractual modifications to reflect the requirements of the new program.

Phased Changes

When the revamping plan was in place, it included making several facility changes to campus dining venues, most significantly, converting Cub Café, a retail facility, into a meal plan facility. This required relocating a very successful Chick-fil-A franchise to another area on campus, along with upgrades to the former Cub Café to accommodate access control and improve seating. Leaders divided all the facility changes into three phases:

Several academic departments, and student clubs and organizations were accustomed to using the Student Union’s multipurpose room for their events. In planning for the renovation, Silberman’s team reviewed its room scheduler software to see which groups had used the room in the past, and notified them more than a year in advance that the room would not be available that fall. The Student Union staff offered assistance to the groups in finding alternative spaces across campus, and in some cases, reconfigured the room after the lunch period to serve evening programs for those who had no other alternatives that could work for their events.

A New Meal Plan

In addition to facility changes, Kutztown revamped its dining program choices—and these changes had the greatest impact on student satisfaction, Silberman says. For instance, the university began offering “MyTime Dining,” a program that allows any student with a meal plan to gain unlimited access to meal plan facilities during operating hours. With the rollout of this plan, leaders also increased operating hours for all dining venues, including offering the new 24-hour venue. While staffing costs increased for the food service vendor, food costs actually decreased after implementing the new program, Silberman says.

“Although it may seem counterintuitive, students at KU eat and waste less food even though they have access to it throughout the day and night, as often as they like,” he says. “Our consultant had told us to expect that. The thought is that students with the new meal plan don’t feel like they have to stuff themselves or take more than they might eat because the next meal block isn’t for a few hours. Under the new plan, they can have a bowl of soup before a class, stop in after that class, and have a sandwich or a salad, and maybe have dessert later. Or not. Some dieticians say that slowing down food consumption gives your body a chance to feel full; perhaps that is also what is happening.”

With MyTime Dining, there are no limits on the number of times the student can visit the dining facilities, Silberman says. “This change to our dining program dramatically improved its value to the student and led to a large increase in student satisfaction after we implemented the new program.”

Student satisfaction increased largely because the design of the renovated space is much more welcoming and conducive to students who want to socialize and visit. The philosophy on the previous space was to get students in and out quickly, and while many students are still in and out quickly because of their class schedules, the renovated space is an ideal place to hang out and stay awhile, mimicking the environment of Starbucks or other familiar upscale retail locations. “When we introduced the new meal plan program, a semester after the new space was opened, it was icing on the cake for students, and just added so much to their meal plan value,” Silberman says.

Although student satisfaction with the dining program has increased, Kutztown leaders continue to talk with students to refine and improve the program. For instance, the program didn’t initially include takeout options, but after implementation, a group of student leaders met with administrators and mentioned that many students had difficulty accessing the dining facilities during lunch because of their class schedules. As a result, leaders implemented a takeout program and now provide a large number of takeout lunches to students who have challenging schedules.

University of Georgia

Implementing Flexibility

Almost 70 percent of students live off campus at the University of Georgia (UGA), Athens, and although the university had a successful dining program, it largely overlooked these off-campus students. “UGA has always had a strong dining program, but it lacked flexibility,” says Robert Holden, associate vice president of auxiliary services. “The department was focusing on the success of the current meal plan and not looking to meet the growing demand for change.”

When Holden arrived on campus in late 2014, he began meeting with students to learn what they wanted. In his first meeting with leaders from student government, Holden realized that their expectations were very limited because, previously, student requests had not been considered. “They started off by saying, ‘We know we can’t have … ,’” Holden says. “I stopped them, asking, ‘What is it you know you can’t have?’ From there, we started to reach out and discover what the students and the campus would like to see and discussed what we can do. The students started by asking for a lunch-only option for commuters, mostly because they had limited expectations; and we ended up providing much more.”

Students Offer Input

To help meet the needs of commuter students, Holden and his team turned to retail dining. “Retail had not been a focus [in the campus dining program]; it was there only because of an obligation, not an opportunity,” he says. “Our retail facilities were very dated and were not meeting the needs of our students. By listening to the students, we were able to identify important issues and to adapt both our retail and residential programs to better fit the growing demand.” For instance, before changes were made, many students left campus to frequent popular retail dining locations. Campus dining options were simply places to grab a quick bite rather than hang out and socialize or hold a study group.

Bringing new retail platforms proved to be transformational for the campus. For instance, in the past year, Starbucks, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Caribou Coffee, Panda Express, a university-branded pizza concept, and a food truck have opened on campus. In addition to new options, the branded concepts are open longer hours, offering more opportunities for students to eat around their class schedules and to gather together.

Positive Results

Overhauling retail spaces has helped boost dining plan revenue, but it has also contributed to a more vibrant campus life, leading to richer opportunities for student interactions, group gatherings, and enabling students to stay on campus to eat, rather than leaving campus for popular retail dining spots. This year, retail program revenue has doubled from last year, and meal plan sales, which are all voluntary, have gone from 8,600 to 11,000 in two years.

“Our results have been amazing,” Holden says. “The areas reflect our focus on students. The locations are vibrant and welcoming, and traffic in the Student Union has increased. It has enhanced student life and recruitment and retention.” At orientations, students and their families talk about the food, its quality, and the offerings, Silberman says. Students have more opportunities to hang out together, which is important for building a community. And while the changes are fairly recent, the university’s data show significant increases in the number of returning student purchasing meal plans, including both residential and commuter students: At UGA, campus meal plans are completely voluntary and the growth after implementing change has netted nearly a 30 percent increase in students on meal plans.

To keep campus dining programs on the cutting edge, Holden recommends staying well connected, listening to students—not just through surveys, but also one-on-one interactions. Even though UGA had a financially stable program to begin with, it also had significant requests for change from the students. “There were several people in administration and dining that were challenged by the idea that we needed to change,” Holden says. “Our program hadn’t gone through change in a very long time, so getting people comfortable with that change was the first challenge. Also, there were some attempts for change in the past that were pulled back, leaving staff unsupported and leaving them with a feeling that if they resist, this, too, would pass.”

To overcome that resistance, Holden focused on talking to the team about moving forward. If the plan needed to be tweaked, he made it clear that any course corrections would continue moving forward rather than reversing actions. “As with any change, buy-in helps and we took the opportunity to implement small wins to help people move to the next step,” he says. “Change is hard and there is always resistance, but if you can show the small wins, every additional step becomes easier.”

University of Kentucky

Improving Campus Life

With expanding student enrollment, the University of Kentucky in Lexington had been building new residence halls to support that growth. Between 2013 and 2015, the university spent or committed more than $2.3 billion in construction of new campus living, learning, research, and quality-of-life spaces. Cutting-edge dining facilities were the missing link to the ideal campus life.

“We had been self-operating our dining program up until 2014,” says Penny Cox, associate vice president for administration at the University of Kentucky. “But most of our dining facilities were more than 40 years old and we needed a capital infusion to update them. We wanted new facilities, lower costs, improved options, and increased variety; and we wondered if an outside partner could help us achieve that.”

Meal Plans Cost Less

The University of Kentucky issued a request for information to several vendors, and when vendors showed interest, followed with a request for proposals. Leaders met with the district managers with whom they’d be working on a regular basis and visited other institutions that use the vendors they were considering. Eventually, they selected Aramark as the university’s new dining partner, signing a 15-year agreement that includes a $200-million Aramark investment and covers student dining as well as athletic concessions and catering.

That capital infusion has refreshed the university’s existing dining facilities and supported construction of a new, 85,000-square-foot dining hall with all-display cooking that seats 1,000 people. Brands that are new to campus such as Steak ’n Shake; Brioche Dorée; and Freshii, a health-minded brand, were added in existing facilities. K-Lair, a campus eatery with a long tradition at the university, had closed in 2013, and was rebuilt, enlarged, and reopened. And the price of an all-you-can-eat meal plan decreased 26 percent in the first year.

An Important Criterion

In addition to cutting costs and providing more options, revamping the dining program is a tool for student recruiting and retention. “We look at our projects in terms of quality of life,” Cox says. “Families base decisions about where to attend on academic programs first. And when they look at institutions that are equivalent on that front, they look next at the overall campus experience. Our quality-of-life issues are housing first and dining second.”

NANCY MANN JACKSON, Huntsville, Ala., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer. 

Related Topics

Although student satisfaction with the dining program has increased, Kutztown leaders continue to talk with students to refine and improve the program.

Students at the University of Georgia have more opportunities to hang out together, which is important for building a community.