University caterers must ‘constantly evolve,’ warns TUCO chief executive

Mike Haslin, TUCO chief executive
14/08/2018 - 07:00
As the authoritative voice of further education catering, it’s safe to say that The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) knows a thing or two about the sector.

With its annual Conference coming up this winter (5 December), the national body has recently published the second edition of its ‘Student Eating and Drinking Habits Report,’ looking at the preferences of 1,500 pupils across the country.

Designed to give catering operations the ‘inside track’ on everything from how often students eat out to their favourite meals and crucially, just exactly what they think of the quality of food universities offer. It also provides insight into how they can improve to essentially ‘help win even more custom.’

Following on from the first survey, which was likewise conducted with QA research four years ago, TUCO chief executive Mike Haslin said the latest findings suggest ‘quite a bit has changed since 2014.’

He added: “In-house university catering operations must constantly evolve and improve their offer.

“I’m sure you will want to draw your own conclusions from the findings but there are a few I’d like to highlight.

“Firstly, the positives – of which there are many. Most students are happy with the quality of food on offer…but there are challenges.

“Understandably, students are concerned about day-to-day living costs and some remain to be convinced that university outlets offer them value for money.

“I hope this report will enable you to gain a deeper understanding of students’ habits and help you to win even more of their custom.”

Among others, key findings from the 2018 report include:

  • More students now describe university food as ‘healthy’ (up from 11% to 14%)
  • 11% meanwhile describe it as ‘unhealthy’ (compared to 15% in 2014)
  • The number of students limiting their meat or fish intake due to a ‘controlling diet’ is up 4% (from 6% to 10%)
  • Popularity of vegan and vegetarianism has also risen, especially among girls
  • ‘Significant’ increase in those worried about sugar (up from 35% to 40%), with concern over fat decreasing by the same amount (45% to 40%)

With three-quarters living away from home and providing all meals for themselves, it leaves students a lot of mealtime decision making – especially since 56% claim to cook from scratch ‘most days.’

That said, the number of people eating out (be it on or off campus) and ordering takeaways – the latter up 9% to 27% this year - has also ‘significantly’ increased.

And as takeouts become more and more popular, it begs the question: Why?

A landslide 76% blame ‘lack of time’ as their main reason for not cooking a homemade meal, which is down just 1% from 2014.

A further 19% admit to not knowing how to cook a variety of dishes and 18% said they cannot afford to.

This suggests that while there is certainly scope and indeed, demand, for catering operations to make food less expensive – some 34% say university food is ‘poor value for money’ – global cuisine and foods students wouldn’t typically cook at home should also play a prominent role on menus.

Pasta of any kind however continues to be their go-to dish – claiming the top spot and 57% of votes for ‘foods consumed regularly’ at lunch and dinner in both years’ surveys.

Interestingly though, students are opting for meat-based dishes significantly less - down from 52% to 27% - while ethnic food has increased by 4% (23 to 27%).

According to TUCO, catering operations should pay particular attention to their lunchtime offering (10am-2pm), as this is when students ‘tend to use’ university-based outlets the most.

  • 71% visit university canteens at midday (10am-2pm) compared to 15% at breakfast and 12% in the evening
  • University cafes are also most popular at midday (68%), as are on-site vending machines (47%) and franchised outlets (58%)
  • The only two venues to be more popular at other times are: student union food outlets (afternoon) and campus convenience stores (afternoon)

‘Perception’ of outlets - including cleanliness, atmosphere and friendliness of staff - is still very much key, too.

On a positive note, the word students most associate university food with is ‘tasty’ (40%), followed by cheap (29%), fresh (26%), healthy (20%) and conversely, processed (19%).

But there is always room for improvement.

While 90% rate the food on offer as ‘fair’ or ‘good’ – very good is also up 5% – cost is a growing concern for pupils and cited as their ‘biggest negative issue.’ 39% rate value for money as either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor.’

Other critical concerns include whether food is fair-trade, ethically farmed of free range (27%); while 6% believe availability of food and drink that meets particular dietary requirements is ‘very poor’ – the second highest percentage after cost.

For university catering operations, TUCO said the main takeaways to help drive custom and encourage greater usage of on-site food and drink establishments, are:

  • Offering a greater variety of meals and establishments (6%)
  • Healthy but tasty dishes need to feature more prominently (3%)
  • Alternative options, such as veggie and halal dishes (3%)
  • Overall better quality food and drink (1%)

As TUCO’s second ‘Student Eating and Drinking Habits’ report highlights, world cuisine and healthier foods have, and continue, to become increasingly popular among pupils in higher education. In-house catering and hospitality operations must constantly evolve their offering to keep abreast of trends and growing demand.

While chief executive Haslin praises universities for the ‘many’ positives presented, he does warn that there is ‘significant scope’ for change to keep in-line with modern-day student habits.

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