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Keeping Food Relevant to Today’s College Students

from Sheryl Fox, Senior Director of Business Development, Le Duff America.

Not long ago, college students wanted more bang for their buck when they went out to eat. If they could pay minimally for the maximum amount of food, they were happy.

Today’s college students are a little more nuanced. They’ve grown up with the Food Network on continually in their living rooms. They are better educated and more concerned with where their food comes from and how it will affect them.

It’s no secret that millennials are imperative to trend development across different industries. The age group – generally defined as people born from 1981-1997 – is made up of highly influential trendsetters, embracing decadent offerings like Nutella, bacon and macaroons, alongside healthier and more socially conscious options. College students are excited about experimenting with their food options and branching out.

Additionally, Nielsen Research estimates that 33 percent of millennials think that healthy attributes are “very important,” – and 29 percent are willing to pay a premium. Coincidentally, many members of this age group are also attending college or planning to. This age group and how best to serve them was a popular topic at this year’s annual Canadian College and University Food Service Association (CCUFSA) conference in Kelowna, British Columbia, June 27 through July 2. So, what can we learn from this influential age group and what are they looking for when they go out to eat?

Health-Conscious, But Still Willing to Indulge

First, college students are more health conscious than, say, their parents ’generations. They understand and favor fitness, or the appearance of it, and both think and care about the ingredients in
what they eat. Many colleges cater to this trend toward health with on-the go options for busy students such as smoothie or juice bars.

However, we’re talking about the same generation that has inspired Nutella bars to pop up in cities around the country – millennials are still willing to indulge from time to time. The best strategy is to combine both: give college-age customers venues for healthy eating with the occasional option to indulge. The French café concept Brioche Dorée has successfully walked this line in many non-traditional locations, including colleges and universities. The café offers customers healthy grains and salads alongside tempting sweets, both of which stay true to their French heritage.

Socially Aware

The theme of this year’s CCUFSA conference was Fresh. Wild. Local. These words were meant to characterize the changing priorities of today’s onthe- go dining customers, and many of the speakers at the conference spoke to this trend of sourcing food locally and ethically in addition to keeping it healthy.

One speaker in particular who stood out to me was bee expert Helen Kennedy. Helen oversees over 250 beehives on her farm, in addition to fields of fruit, berries and vegetables. The bees she looks after and the crops she grows are interconnected, and she talked about how keeping food healthy and sustaining ethical food practices are also linked for today’s socially savvy consumer.

This age group is much more sensitive to animal welfare, more interested in the local food movement and display a preference for all things natural and simple. Colleges and college dining locations need to be able to follow and influence current trends without losing sight of supply chain and quality. This is how you stay relevant. Bruegger’s Bagels has attracted millennials on and off college
campuses with its natural, five-ingredient bagel recipe that uses wheat flour, water, eggs, malt and salt.

Explore and Innovate

Earlier, I mentioned that millennials have grown up watching Food Network, which gives them a leg up on their ability and willingness to experiment with food styles and flavors. Yes, the previous generation had Julia Child, and she helped shape their taste and independence in the kitchen, but that was only one show. Having an entire channel devoted to food has given today’s college age students an entirely new way to view the industry.

This has bred some truly incredible cultural food mashups – the Sushirrito (handheld sushi/burrito hybrid that blends Asian and Latin flavors), Korean barbecue tacos and ramen burgers, just to name a few. Typically perceived as “healthier,” the fresh flavors of different spices and herbs provide a reprieve from their usual fare. More than any other generation, millennials are willing to try
new things – not just by themselves in the kitchen but in restaurants. They want to be a part of the next big trend, and your restaurant can help them make it there.

Millennials are an influential group, and, given the fact that many spend four years pouring time and money into a single college or university, it can be very profitable to consider what makes them tick in order to move more readily into this huge nontraditional sector.

Sheryl FoxSheryl Fox is the Senior Director of Business Development at Le Duff America, the North American subsidiary of the world’s second largest restaurant company in the café-bakery sector – Groupe Le Duff SA. Fox is responsible for growing Le Duff’s la Madeleine Country French Café, Brioche Dorée and Bruegger’s Bagels brands in highly-trafficked, non-traditional foodservice venues such as those in airports, universities and healthcare hubs. Prior to joining Le Duff, Fox served in two different roles at Yum! Brands Express, most recently as senior marketing and development manager following a promotion from business development channel manager. Most recently at Yum! Brands Express, she oversaw the marketing strategy and analysis for KFC Express, Pizza Hut Express and Taco Bell Express – all non-traditional takes on the Yum! collection of QSR brands. Fox led the implementation of strategies that ensured the successful growth of the Yum! Express concepts while supporting the brands’ licensees through product marketing programs.