As universities across the country gear up for the start of the new academic year, it’s a time to review menus and current food trends to ensure you’re offering the best deals to tempt cash-strapped students away from the High Street.

Dissertations aside, many count their university days as some of the best of their lives. However, with unis now allowed to charge up to £9,000 in tuition fees, a three-fold increase on 2011, caterers need to be mindful that budget-conscious students demand even more for their money and will forgo eating out if they don’t feel like they are getting good value.

Here, five experts share their tips and advice on how to keep diners on campus.

Carry on Campus

Tempting menu ideas for students on a budget

Roy Shortland, development chef for Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s sauces

and rice from Mars Foodservice,

During Fresher’s Week, students are more likely to be open to eating ‘on the hoof’ rather than cook themselves, keen to make the most of this heady initiation into uni life. ‘Pop up’ food stands dotted around campus are a great way to draw in custom and offering free, little tasters gives students an insight into what they can get on menus throughout the year.    

In terms of what to offer, it’s worth considering that ethnic meal deals are most in demand from 16-34s and people in full-time education, plus the fact that many UK universities are now hugely multi-cultural in flavour, all food for thought for university caterers looking for ways to emulate the abundance of ever more inventive High Street offerings.

Why not have a stand selling dosas, a savoury Indian crepe or pancake made from rice batter served with fillings or dips? Half of out-of-home diners say they have not yet tried one, but would like to. Tex-Mex food, meanwhile, is described by Mintel as the playground of the younger consumer, but while they are now familiar with tortillas, burritos and tacos, the likes of tamales, which are made of masa – a starchy dough, usually corn-based – that is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper and filled with the likes of meats, cheeses, vegetables, chillies, even fruit, are a lesser known entity. Why not introduce students to something new?

There are lots of opportunities for caterers to appeal to students’ ‘want to buy’ mentality this new term, just remember good value is the key driver for the UK’s potential innovators.

Clive Williams, catering manager  at Leicester University

One of the biggest challenges of university catering departments is keeping students and staff on campus rather than them hitting the High Street for their meals.

Then it came to us; why try to take the horse to the water when it would be

easier if we just take the water to the horse! We’ve found that our deli van is incredibly popular – convenience is king it would seem – and customers are spending more per visit on average than most of our other outlets. For us, it’s proven to be a cost-effective way to capture audiences we might otherwise have lost and drive greater awareness of our overall catering services.

Amanda Shipley, catering and retail operations manager at University of Wolverhampton Our team have always said thatwe are a ‘fairtrade university in a fairtrade city’. Whether it’s supporting animal welfare, sustainable produce or our local suppliers, we remain dedicated to building our reputation as an award-winning ethical university.

Winning awards like the ‘Food for Life’ Bronze award, ‘Good Egg’ and MSC can appear intimidating to universities. Actively changing how you work can

be very challenging. Making sure produce is free from genetic modifications, welfare issues or additives takes intense diligence and learning what is or isn’t suitable can prove difficult at times. However, the rewards can be outstanding. The road to winning these awards has completely reinvigorated our catering team, who have been thoroughly inspired by the changes at our university. Staff have enthusiastically engaged with cooking fresh produce, they have enjoyed greater creativity with menu choices that reflect the commitment to healthy, fresh, sustainable food and they continue to be thrilled with the

highly-positive customer feedback.

Nick Pagett, business development director, Mom’s Fabulous Foods Ltd

We were delighted to learn from reports last year that hot dogs were leading the Americanisationof UK menus and had knocked scampi and chips from their top 20 ranking of themost popular dishes out of home. 

Research from Horizons also revealed that hot dogs, albeit with a gourmet twist, were featured on 85% more menus than they had previously. We have seen evidence of this too in the growth of our sales over the last 12 months and customer feedback tells us that they are realising the benefits of serving a top notch hot dog. If ever there was a time to introduce an innovative, gourmet hot dog concept, it’s now!

Neil Atkins, executive chef, Birmingham City University

Never underestimate your customer, just because they are in a university environment it is not to say they don’t know what they want. Engage with your customer and, as important, engage with the service staff.

If the whole team is confident with the food you produce and enjoy eating it

they will be your best advert to sell it!!! With this in mind I encourage all the

team to eat our food!

Perception of value for money is a vital part of cooking on campus as most students eat on a budget yet most are not afraid to spend money and eat on campus if it looks good, and looks value for money.

Pricing is a challenge, fillet steak is off the menu but I try to have some items,

one counter a day, at a low entry point, street food / grab and go / snack items

call them what you will.

I try to look at high street concepts and adapt them to work here at the university, what are my customers, the students, buying on the high street. Fish and chips is almost a standard on a Friday but we theme the whole counter to resemble walking in to your favourite fish bar, from fresh crispy batter cooked in small batches. The add-ons continue with the likes of battered sausages, battered scalloped potato to our own pickled eggs and onions jarred in house, and almost goes without saying served in the traditional newspaper.

The biggest thing is never stand still, go out there and be inspired before your customers do and you lose them from the campus.