When Andrew Leontarou visited the United States from Australia, he noticed a few striking differences—aside from the fact that America had 2,474 four-year universities and Australia, 39.
Leontarou, general manager of Tertiary Access Group Co-Operative Limited (TAG), prepared a full report for his organization’s board upon his return in late 2013. TAG, based in New South Wales, Australia, is a nonprofit buying cooperative in the tertiary (post high-school) market, representing more than 60 campus organizations servicing close to 200 campuses each year. There was much to tell.
“It would be fair to say that, on the surface, American campus services are very similar to those here in Australia: catering, retail, bookstores, etc.,” he wrote. “However, the operational manner in which these services are delivered could not be any more different.”
Leontarou, who attended the NACAS conference in Anaheim that year, made 10 campus visits while in the country, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to Harvard University. What stood out was the fact that in Australia, most campus services are delivered by student unions, guilds, or other organizations rather than auxiliary services departments. But in the United States, Leontarou wrote, American schools have divested themselves of operating services such as catering, retail, accommodation, parking, and transportation in an effort to reduce labor and training costs. The great majority of catering services nationwide are provided by large-scale institutional operations, as are the bookstores.
And the differences only begin there.
Travel to any other country, and cultural contrast will appear in numerous places. But perhaps none as apparent as at the table. Do diners rush through a meal or linger? Are traditional meals favored or popular franchises? Is dinner served earlier, later, or at whatever time might be convenient?
Regardless of the country and its idiosyncrasies, however, one of the biggest distinctions between U.S. dining services and those elsewhere is a matter of numbers. One university in Michigan, for example, has some 28,000 students on its meal plan, Leontarou said. “But in Australia, the most we have on any specific campus residential meal plan would be about 1,000 students.” Now, those students would have similar experiences to U.S. students, including the options of meal plans, card systems, and the ability to purchase food throughout campus. Refectories are falling out of favor, more likely being replaced by food courts, standalone cafes, and franchises. Breakfast and lunch are the most common meals purchased at Australian universities, with lunch being “a major business point for campuses,” and breakfast being mainly “a grab-and-go thing in the morning, perhaps a coffee and pastry.”
With thousands of students on meal plans in the United States, there’s much more incentive for third-party caterers to bid on the handling of school services, and “competition is fierce.”
As for the presence of franchises on-campus, it’s a rapidly growing trend, Leontarou said. From his report:
“The American franchise model is mature and well established, with hundreds of recognizable franchise brands entrenched in the marketplace. Many have moved on from the burger, pizza, and chicken chains of the past, and now focus on specific cuisines and concepts. In today’s busy world, students have grown up with these brands; they have displaced Mum’s cooking as comfort food. They have been brought up in a world where it is the norm for families to grab dinner at a quick service chain on the way back from football practice, or on the way to dance lessons. These brands are the ones that they now ask for and expect to see on their campuses.
“In comparison, the Australian franchise industry is only in its adolescence. Certain brands such as Subway have been around long enough for this current generation of students to be comfortable enough with it to want it on their campus. The ‘home cooking’ of the refectory is no longer relevant to them. Other brands such as Guzman y Gomez and Taste Baguette are rapidly gaining favor.”
The geographical spread of Australia “mutes the impact of new franchise brands as they battle to find relevance and acceptance in our far-flung urban centers,” he said, unlike in the United States, where they can more easily spread from town to town and region to region.
It’s not the only area in which geography plays a part. Leontarou also notes the “glaring” difference in college sports infrastructure between the States and other nations. “Here in Australia,” he said, “we do have population centers that are sizeable. You have 4.7 million people in Sydney. But the next major city is 10 hours away by road, and that’s Melbourne, with 4.2 million. There are very few large population centers in between.” That means there are far fewer intercollegiate competitions, and much less opportunity for schools to engender alumni fan loyalty and garner funds. “We’ll never see a 100,000-seat stadium on a campus here,” he said.
As franchises continue to gain ground in Australia, what’s coming next in the United States has more to do with technology than anything else. Kerwin Higashi, vice president of quality of life services provider Sodexo, said online ordering for students is definitely on the menu.
“It used to be that you’d go into a facility, and dine in,” Higashi said. “But that’s changing.” Sodexo partner Loyola Marymount University, for example, recently rolled out an ordering app for a Jamba Juice on campus.
“The second day we started it, I was there observing,” he said. “I was in line, because every Jamba Juice has a line, and here comes this co-ed in a robe, running in the door, saying ‘I’m sick! Don’t come near me!’ And she runs right up to the counter, grabs the Jamba Juice she ordered online, and runs back out. That’s how the world is today. … And what’s going to happen next is delivery. It’s always going to be about that instant. The challenge to the industry is how you cater to that experience. How do you manage that? And on the other side of the coin, how do you maintain costs? There’s a big trend out there concerning value in higher education as a whole.”
Leontarou has one other concern to add: The question of whether online ordering or the process of taking food back to a dorm room to eat will cut away at a school’s sense of community. Only time will tell.
New York-based St. John’s University, meanwhile, incorporates the idea of “community” for students on its international campuses in a different way.
“In Rome and Seville, students are given vouchers for the ‘Ticket Restaurant’ network, giving them access to participating restaurants throughout the country,” said Matthew Pucciarelli, St. John’s University associate vice president for global studies. “In Paris, students eat many meals in our campus dining hall but are also provided with a meal card to be used in local student cafeterias where they will have an opportunity to interact with students from various universities in Paris. We feel that providing them opportunities to sample local eateries allows the student to experience the city as a local might.”
In addition to offering the vouchers, St. John’s also holds orientation sessions where the intersection of food and culture are discussed, “all the while introducing students to some of the most ‘typical’ foods of the country,” he said.
Leontarou, while visiting the United States, also saw contrast in residential services. In Australia, he said, less than 3 percent of the country’s 1.25 million students live on campus. (There are, for comparison, 20.3 million tertiary students in the United States, with a significantly higher percentage living on campus, especially in freshman year.) As such, residential services often are outsourced to companies such as Campus Living Villages (CLV). Working in partnership with educational institutions, the Sydney-based CLV owns, manages, or is developing 9,000 beds across Australia, most of them on campuses. Globally, there are 61 CLV properties with more than 40,000 student beds, adding New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States to the list. These facilities, according to the company, are designed to “maximize the student experience” with central communal areas, sport and entertainment areas, study centers, and spaces for village events.
Regardless, Leontarou said, “accommodation on campus is currently just not a major part of university life, as it is in the States.” And with a third party in charge of those accommodations rather than the school, the services “don’t vary too much from campus to campus.”
In days to come, as the globe continues to get smaller and the college generation increasingly seeks a balance of familiarity and uniqueness, it will be anyone’s guess where dining services and accommodations will go. Leontarou noted in his report that TAG could well see changes ahead. With more franchises on Australian campuses, “there is not only no requirement for our buying power,” he wrote the board; “there may very well be no requirement for student organizations to operate any catering on campus.”
That offers plenty to chew on—whether in an on-campus dining hall surrounded by the student community, or in an individual dorm room all alone with a smartphone.
Global trends in dining services
Regardless of the location, dining services is changing. Here are a few of the most noteworthy trends, as seen by Scott Lemperle, director of auxiliary services operations at St. John’s University, a private, Roman Catholic, co-educational university based in New York.
- Healthy by design. “There is still conversation about stealth health in many segments of the food service industry, but young consumers have had nutrition education and want to be empowered to make their own choices,” Lemperle said. “The idea of hiding healthy ingredients is going by the wayside as full disclosure and allergen awareness take on greater importance.”
- Wellness as a way of life. “Wellness policies have been in place for many years in public schools, and in a recent Ypulse study, 82 percent of colleges and universities stated that their campus has a wellness policy or program in place. Of the other 18 percent that did not have a formal policy, 45 percent said a program was pending. Successful wellness programs in colleges and universities take a holistic approach including health services, athletics, recreational sports, counseling, and residential life in addition to food service.”
- Culinary nutrition on campus. “There is a true collaboration among chefs and dietitians who are becoming a greater force in bringing healthy eating ideas to kids and young adults. Chefs are in the kitchen and not just to offer advice; they are fully engaged, understanding the realities of school food service and delivering on the promise of delicious, healthful meals.”
- Technology-enabled connections. “In a Ypulse study, 95 percent of food service directors in college food service said they use social media to connect with their food service customers. Food service directors are also handling customer feedback in real time to continuously improve the relevance and satisfaction of their food service programs. Campus dining apps are popping up everywhere as operators look to connect their offerings with student lifestyles and social media habits. These new apps allow students to track calories and evaluate menus across campus in real time.”
- Community building. “Food connects people and creates a sense of community on all types of campuses. Whether it is new construction or mindful renovation, dining areas are being designed to encourage gathering and personal connections among students. Community tables are growing in popularity across all segments.”
- Refining the dining experience. “Customers want an experience, whether it is at an independent restaurant or a school dining room feeding the same customers every day. Today’s consumers enjoy watching meals being prepared. Barriers between kitchen production and food service are coming down. Connecting customers with the dining experience before they even enter the dining room is important. Display kitchens allow customers to enjoy the experience of seeing their meal being prepared and feel more of a connection to those preparing it. Bringing the kitchen out front has the added advantage of building esteem for the kitchen staff by bringing them out of the back of the house to center stage with customers.”