I have been in the campus dining arena for the past 20 years, and pizza is still one of the more popular items on the menu. Most schools have some sort of brand that's either regional or national in the student union or campus center operations and concessions, while house brands are more prevalent at the dining commons. A good pizza program can easily grasp a full 10 percent of retail sales on campus. Consistency, temperature and good flavors are important to students -- and pepperoni pizza is still the all-time favorite.
But the business isn't exactly easy. Campus dining is not what it used to be; it is getting better. Some of the food served in colleges and university rivals the fare from the finest restaurants in the nation. Campus operators have a captive but demanding audience. Students want food that offers variety, is flavorful and healthy. That's not an easy task, as the students eat with us several times a day, seven days a week.
Still, even during these economically challenging times, very few campus dining services have been affected adversely; in fact, quite a few of us are thriving, in spite of the times. A new crop of freshmen arrive each year, and there are more people going back to school for additional education or to upgrade. Whatever their goals are, they all have to eat. Many of us have experienced business growth 5 to 10 percent stronger than the national business segment.
But there are specific trends those operating pizzerias – or any other kind of restaurant on campus, for that matter -- need to heed for success. As you might not know, there are three hot buttons on campus nowadays: sustainability, healthy options and world cuisine. So more and more pizza operations on campus are switching to thinner New York-style dough, while the thick dough style is still popular in the Midwest.
We, as operators, must be able to change our business strategies to meet these needs, otherwise we will not be in business for long. I can see many opportunities ahead of us to grow our business. For example, in response to providing more choices and healthy options during the breakfast period, we rolled out a breakfast pizza program last spring and it was a hit. The Morning Glory pizza, served on whole wheat dough, is the more popular one. It is a vegetarian pizza with ingredients like broccoli, sweet potatoes, low-fat cheese, and low-sodium tomato sauce, cooked in extra-virgin olive oil.
Cutting-edge pizza does well on campus – but the university systems need those pizzerias as well for the well-being of their business. For a great dining program not only enhances campus life, but also assists universities in recruiting new students. The Dining Services department is now viewed by many in senior administration levels as not only a revenue generator, but also a department that can bring lots of good publicity and goodwill to a school.
Eating is a serious business on campus and having a strong pizza program, for instance, can enhance the overall dining program. That is a topic I will discuss more about in my next blog. On the other hand, there are so many concepts that most schools now offer. Their pizza programs must be exciting in order to continue to grow. This is already happening on and off campus in the burger industry with its recent upgrades to trendy sliders and even gourmet fare.
Ken Toong has been the executive director of UMass Dining at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for the past 11 years. UMass Dining Services is the third largest campus dining operation in the country with 14,500 students on the meal plan and annual revenue of 60 million. Under his leadership, Toong has transformed the UMass Dining Services into one of the most talked about foodservice programs in the nation.
Toong also is the founder and chairperson of the Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference for college culinary professionals, now in its 16th consecutive year.