5 strategies for keeping students on campus for meals

Schools around the nation get creative to drive students to spend more of their time—and money—in campus eateries

You can fill the dining hall with tasty hot entrees, DIY cooking stations and vegetarian meals; stock grab-and-go snacks; and partner with popular national chain restaurants—and students will still skip the dining hall in favor of meal deliveries or off-campus options.

Students are more apt to eat meals on campus when classes are in session, but it’s challenging to lure them to the dining hall after hours.

Only 19 percent of students were more likely to purchase dinner on campus than off campus, and just 16 percent said the same about late night (after 8 p.m.) dinner and snacks, according to FoodService Director’s 2017 College and University Census published by Technomic.

So how do you get students to spend more of their time—and money—in campus eateries? Here are five creative strategies adopted by schools around the nation.

Menu for a successful dining program: Click to view infographic
Menu for a successful dining program: Click to view infographic

Clemson University (S.C.):
Smart location choices

Looking at the campus map helped Clemson officials determine locations for its two newest dining halls.

Incorporating a dining hall into the $212 million, 1,500-bed residence hall at Douthit Hills, which opened this year, was an obvious choice. With the community located across a major street from the main campus, administrators didn’t want students to have to walk too far for meals.

The $90 million Core Campus building, completed in 2017, also includes a dining hall. It sits at the intersection of residence halls, academic buildings and athletics facilities, about a mile from Douthit Hills. And a connected pedestrian promenade helped Clemson achieve its goal of making the campus more walkable.

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The location not only gives students access to food all day long, but also serves as a social hub, increasing the odds that students will eat and meet on campus.

“Once students leave their residence halls, we don’t want them to have to go back across campus between classes to eat,” says Kathy Hobgood, assistant vice president of housing and dining.

“Mapping where students spend the majority of their days helped us to see where there were clusters of academic buildings with no options for meals. We never want there to be an island where students have no options to fuel their days.”

Duke University (N.C.):
Variety in seating

A 2016 renovation of the Brodhead Center dining hall ensured that students would see it as much more than a space to eat meals.

“At most restaurants, the goal is to turn tables as fast as possible,” says Chris Roby, assistant vice president of student affairs. “We took a very different approach. We wanted people to bring their laptops and sit here all day. The design encourages people to [spend time] in the space.”

The Brodhead Center houses 14 different local and national restaurant concepts. Students don’t just have a range of choices for their meals; the 1,400-seat dining hall also offers several seating options.

A student who needs a comfortable space to write a paper can sink into a sofa or armchair; a group working on a project can spread out at a traditional dining table; and students who want to socialize over supper can grab seats at a booth or bar-height table. When the weather is nice, patio seating is in high demand.

The inviting atmosphere has contributed to “growth in our cash and credit [transactions],” says Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services.

Operators conduct up to 9,000 transactions daily, and the number of post-renovation visitors has increased by more than 14,000 per week.

“There is no delineation between what is a lounge space or what is a nonfood service location,” Roby says. “We didn’t want you to feel like you were in a food court, sitting in one space that was designated as the location to eat. The whole building really was designed as a space for people to enjoy food.”

Fairmont State University (W.Va.):
Round-the-clock options

The dining halls at Fairmont State University close at 7 p.m., often forcing students with evening classes or late night cravings to head off campus in search of something to eat.

This fall, food service partner Aladdin introduced a 24-hour cashless market at the new 345-bed University Terrace residence hall to ensure that students have round-the-clock access to grab-and-go meals and snacks.

“We’re always looking for ways to keep students on campus and increase revenue for our dining operations,” says Alicia Kakla, director of housing and residence life, adding that the main dining hall’s operating hours weren’t meeting student needs.

Students can use debit or credit cards, flex dollars, or cash preloaded onto their dining cards to purchase deli items, salads, fruit and snacks. The market operates on the honor system. Students must scan their IDs to enter, and cameras are located over the door and self-checkout. This eliminates the need for paid staff.

The university has high hopes for the 378-square-foot market. If the new concept is successful, the college may expand it to its other four residence halls.

University of Michigan:
Food experiences

The University of Michigan capitalized on popular dining trends to get students excited about eating on campus.

In 2016, dining services started hosting pop-up dinners—that is, one-night-only menus in rotating locations on campus and covered by the meal plan. The events have ranged from a vegan taste fest (in association with the local Humane Society) to a seated meal for 400 (complete with linens and waitstaff).

This fall, students can enjoy brunch on the second Sunday of the month. Erich Geiger, director of residential dining, describes it as a rotating hotel-style experience. “It’s our way of keeping students on campus throughout the weekend,” he says.

Though students have access to nine dining halls and 21 retail shops, cafÁ©s and restaurants on campus, surveys showed that students wanted more.

Administrators responded by adding continuous dining to seven dining halls, keeping them open during the hours between lunch and dinner—all without increasing meal plan costs.

“We’re never going to get students consuming 100 percent of their meals on campus, but we can get them eating here more often by providing awesome food experiences,” says Steve Mangan, senior director for Michigan Dining.

Tulane University (La.):
Flexibility in venue

In addition to its traditional dining halls, the New Orleans institution partnered with local food trucks and national restaurant chains to serve students on campus as part of their meal plans. In 2005, Tulane partnered with Loyola University, its neighbor, to create a combined meal plan that is accepted at both schools.

“We added 30 percent more dining options for students without increasing our costs,” says Rob Hailey, senior associate vice president for university students.

To capture revenue from students who want to eat off campus, Tulane worked out deals with 25 off-campus outlets, including national chains such as Pizza Hut, The Halal Guys and Mellow Mushroom, to accept the college meal plan.

Hailey admits the college generates limited revenue from these transactions, but believes providing more choices helps students see value in their meal plans.

Convenience is important, too. This fall, Tulane launched TU Go in partnership with Hangry, an app that lets students order meals from campus dining outlets and pick them up without waiting in line.

“Our dining operation is completely customer-driven,” Hailey says. “What students want is variety, variety, variety and more variety.”

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.

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