There was a time when the only sure thing about college dining was packing on the freshman 15. A typical dinner meant mystery meat or soggy pasta, then hours goofing off around a communal table. If dining halls were where memories were made, the recollections aren’t of urgency or good food.
But a funny thing happened from those generations to now. Health-conscious students raised on restaurant food are being plied with quinoa bowls and gourmet coffees prepared by cafeteria chefs and baristas. Quality not being enough, schools are taking things further, offering Starbucks-style apps for students to order ahead, grab-and-go gourmet meals to reheat in rooms, and cafeteria food delivered right to dorms.
Which explains why Kelsey Bishop, a finance and entrepreneurship major at Boston College, thinks it’s entirely normal to sit in her morning Financial Policy class and tap her order into an app for a veggie omelet for pickup at the school’s Hillside Cafeteria. The senior will use the app again to skip the line and order soup a few hours later. And sometimes picking up food can seem like too much work, so after late nights out, she and her roommates will tap their phone and, voila, breakfast is delivered from the dining hall to her dorm — like room service in a four-star hotel, minus the linen-draped tray.
BC is hardly alone on the frontiers of dining convenience. From Amherst to Cambridge, there are gourmet-to-go meal cases and online ordering for the dining hall grill stations. Last week, there was even a campuswide ruckus at Harvard when a glitch in the software system left students unable to preorder their grilled cheese sandwiches.
At Boston University, a school-sanctioned startup called Stoovy Snacks is taking on GrubHub, its distinguishing factor simply is that its couriers are BU students with campus ID cards, meaning they can cover the “last mile” and make deliveries directly to students’ doors.
“Any other food delivery can come to the lobby, but they can’t get past security. We’re offering door-to-door service,” said Aaron Halford, a Boston University sophomore who started the business last fall, inspired in part by his own lethargy. “I think there are a lot of wealthy, lazy kids that don’t want to go down the elevator to pick up food,” he said.
Put plainly, the national trend for simple, on-demand meals doesn’t stop at the campus green.
Universities facing budget shortfalls or pushback over tuition hikes are increasingly looking to dining halls as a way to generate revenue, according to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit media outlet covering inequality in education. The average school charges $4,500 for a meal plan for an academic year, or about 70 percent more per day than if students bought and prepared their own meals. But those numbers can go much higher: Wellesley College’s mandatory meal plan costs $7,442, or about $10 per meal.
Students who do that math and realize that they can find cheaper alternatives threaten to upend those profit margins. So being able to compete with a rising tide of quick delivery options not only keeps those dollars on campus, but is increasingly important to universities’ bottom lines.
“You have to try to keep up with everything going on and be attractive to students, and most of what they’re doing is ordering on their phone,” said Elizabeth Emery, the head of dining services at Boston College. “We’re benchmarking not by what other universities are doing, but at restaurants and quick casuals in the Boston area.”
Emery introduced on-demand ordering on campus last year and now handles about 200 mobile orders a day (she lured students into using the app by only offering smoothies through the service). She recently teamed up with a student startup to offer deliveries from dining halls; students pay a $5 delivery fee.
Emery says the tech taps into students’ natural digital habits. “We know students are ordering Ubers to go from Upper campus to Lower campus” — a distance of less than three-quarters of a mile — and are increasingly placing meal orders from outside restaurants, she said. “There is so much competition out there from Uber Eats and Amazon. And Whole Foods is now offering grocery delivery.”
For universities who are feeding sizable populations, like the 22,000 students and faculty served daily at UMass Amherst, new ordering technology can help manage the production of its kitchen staff.
“The millennial and Gen Z [student] wants convenience with everything,” said Ken Toong, executive director of UMass Amherst’s network of dining services, which is testing on-demand ordering. He anticipates that delivery will be introduced in the next few years and says getting creative with offerings can lead to new revenue streams.
Take, for example, the recent introduction of UMass Fresh dinners. Toong realized that 11,000 of the school’s students live off campus and weren’t buying dinners on site. So he looked to trends like Blue Apron meal kits and began offering heat-and-eat meals — think locally raised lemon-roasted chicken with honey glazed carrots and mac and cheese on the side — through the meal plan. The dinners typically cost about $10 and can serve two people, he said. They now sell between 75 to 100 meals a day.
The university also has introduced holiday meal kits, selling boxes stuffed with locally sourced fixings for Thanksgiving and other holidays that can feed a small army for $99.95.
These innovations reflect a growing emphasis on convenience, and succeed in that they “keep funds on campus and keep the community engaged,” said Patti Klos, board president of the National Association of College and University Dining Services, who also oversees the dining operations at Tufts University.
Yet even as schools push to create new offerings, they still must contend with an onslaught of startups.
“So many college campuses are really food deserts. My sister at University of Michigan would have to shop at Walgreens for groceries,” said Mackenzie Barth, cofounder of Spoon University, a website targeting the college-age foodie. “There are so many options, and there’s a higher bar now. It’s really important for universities and dining halls to focus on technology to basically play that game with college students. If they’re not there, they’re not going to pay attention to it.”
The food industry sees the student demographic as a key market, said Josh Evans, chief revenue officer for the meal kit company Chef’d, which in 2017 partnered with Spoon University, owned by Food Network parent Scripps Networks, to create a line of meals targeting the dorm-room diner. They now serve more than 300 campuses nationwide.
Further expansion could potentially siphon off a significant portion of meal plan revenue.
Evans said finding a way into the college market came with its own lessons. The original idea to send a week’s worth of food to students for $150 was upended when the company realized its boxes contained far more than a typical mini-fridge could hold. So it dropped the price to $49 and now focuses on recipes that meet students’ demands for constant snacking (apple pie overnight oats are a favorite). Kits sold to the 18- to 22-year-old age group now account for 10 percent of overall sales. “It’s a huge focus for us,” Evans said.
The company hopes to partner with universities to offer meal kits through meal plans, a concept that parallels Blue Apron’s own recent announcement that it would begin selling kits in grocery stores. And it’s seeking partnerships with back-to-school registry sites to enable parents and grandparents to buy subscription plans for students as graduation gifts. “If a grandparent signs up a student for a Spoon U meal kit, that’s a whole new set of buyers,” Evans said.
Such deliveries can lead to a whole new set of ancillary issues. The recent uptick in meal kit deliveries, said Tom Clarke, the system manager at Boston College’s mailroom, has meant his team must flag perishable items and send out e-mails reminding students to pick them up before they spoil. “We throw it away if it starts leaking,” he said.
Bishop, the BC senior, is often on the receiving end of those e-mails and says finding deals on meal kits has allowed her to opt for a lower-cost meal plan.
And having the flexibility to eat on her own terms is worth every penny. “After a while, you get sick of eating salads,” she said.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.