Bring on the Artisan Pickles: How Generation Z’s Preferences are Changing Campus Dining

By: Barry Telford
Aug 31, 2016 4:00 PM ET
Barry Telford, CEO Universities, Western United States and Canada, Sodexo North America

Bring on the Artisan Pickles: How Generation Z’s Preferences are Changing Campu…

This is the third blog in an ongoing series examining how colleges and universities can understand and address the expectations of Generation Z college students. We’ll explore some of the most significant issues, including academic interests, housing expectations, ideological tendencies, dining preferences, and spending habits. The goal is to provide valuable insights that can help guide campus decision-makers in creating an environment that supports student success, well-being, satisfaction, and achievement. 

The students arriving on college campuses today and in the coming years are part of a new generation, known as Generation Z. Born after 1996, many of these students have grown up with a wealth of dining options and cultural influences, which have shaped their eating habits and dining preferences. Offering the right dining options for this new generation requires understanding what they’re seeking from their dining experiences and identifying ways to deliver it.

Generation Z will continue and even expand upon some of the dining trends that were popular with the Millennials before them, such as mobile food trucks and artisan/house-made items. They’ll also bring a few new expectations around food and dining, as well.

Local and Sustainable Options

The push for local and sustainably grown food will continue to gain speed as Generation Z reaches adulthood and begins to represent a greater portion of the consumer population. In a recent survey, 58% of students said they were more likely to purchase food that was sustainably grown/humanely raised, and 32% would be willing to pay more for locally sourced food(*). Students have expressed concern for the environment, health and wellness, and social issues. They want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced, and they place a premium on food that adheres to their values. They are also interested in understanding how their food is prepared, furthering the trend toward open kitchens and stations that allow customization (*).

Food with a Side of Technology

Gen Z’s intense focus on technology is shaping dining trends. Just as they have integrated technology into nearly every other aspect of their lives, they expect their dining experiences to utilize technology as well. Mobile payment and ordering capabilities are excellent examples of this. When it is available, 97% of students use mobile payment technology, and 81% use mobile ordering. They also expect technology to be available within dining venues, with 82% of students looking for free Wi-Fi access at dining locations(*).

Meals have always been social experiences, but Gen Z takes it a step further by sharing their experiences with their virtual networks through social media sites. Instagram is an especially popular avenue for sharing dining experiences. In cafés, restaurants, dining halls, and even home kitchens across America, diners can be seen capturing photos of their food before taking their first bite. They share these images online, often tagging dining venues in their posts. Illustrating how large this phenomenon has become, Instagram, which boasts more than 75 million daily users, experienced its highest level of traffic ever on Thanksgiving Day in 2015 a.k.a Thanksgivukkah.  Thanksgiving and the first night of Hanukkah shared the same date and people flooded the network with images of their holiday meals.

Heightened Focus on Nutrition and Wellness

Studies have shown this to be one of the least healthy generations in American history. Generation Z grew up in a fast-food world plagued by unprecedented levels of childhood obesity. Perhaps it is in response to this that some members of Gen Z have begun to express a heightened interest in nutrition, health, and wellness. They want to know what they’re eating, with 65% preferring to see nutrition information on menus(*).

There is also an increasing focus on special dietary needs. Since 2013, the presence of gluten-free menu items on college campuses has grown 21%, while vegetarian items have grown by 13%. The demand for kosher and halal stations is also increasing in popularity(*).

Addressing Generation Z’s interest in health and wellness is also an excellent way to enhance student engagement and promote student performance. Balanced nutrition often leads to improved academic results. The campus dining program also serves as an opportunity to educate students about health and wellness. Many Generation Z students want to live healthy lifestyles, but they don’t always know how to do so. Programs like Sodexo’s award-winning Mindful, which focuses on making it easy for students to select healthier food options that contain more fiber and protein and less calories, fat, salt, and sugar, can be invaluable tools in enhancing students’ campus experience and meeting their expectations. From unique artisan items handcrafted on-site to an expanded selection of locally and sustainably sourced foods, campus dining venues should offer the latest in culinary dining trends among students.

*Source: Technomic (2015). College and University Consumer Trend Report. Chicago: Technomic.

Barry Telford is the CEO of Universities, Western United States and Canada, after most recently serving as president for Sodexo Canada. A strong advocate for the new performance frontier: Quality of Life, Mr. Telford believes that great performance is driven by strong, inclusive leadership based on family and community-centered values and a commitment to serve others.   Mr. Telford serves on the Board of the Sodexo Stop Hunger FoundationToronto’s Second Harvest and the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB).