College and university catering is big business and also a big challenge. Competition from the High Street is fierce and on-site caterers face a daily battle to engage with potential customers and keep them on campus. As the new academic year gets underway, we identify the biggest food priorities and trends to consider when catering for students.

Mimic the High Street “The beginning of the academic year provides HE and FE institutions with the opportunity to create a strong first impression and set themselves apart from the competition,” advises Matt White, chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and director of catering, hotel and conference services at the University of Reading. “To stand out from the get-go, it’s imperative that the food and drink offer on campus reflects – and in many cases, goes beyond – that available on the high street.”

TUCO’s Global Food and Beverage Trends Report 2017 provides new sources of inspiration to help university caterers differentiate between foodie fads and long-term influences. The three core themes are:

• Health for All – whether that’s catering for a gluten-free, low-sugar, vegetarian or vegan diets. Research highlights the growing popularity of this trend, with a third of Brits purchasing free-from products. This is astounding when you consider as little as 5% of the population need to avoid certain food groups for medical reasons.

• Conscientious Consuming – there’s no doubt that more people, especially the younger generation, are considering how their individual actions have an impact on the wider society. In fact, research shows that 72% of Gen Z are willing to pay more for products that have a positive social and environmental impact.

• Experiential Dining – driven by consumers’ insatiable need to share their experiences with friends and family, whether that’s physically or virtually. HE and FE caterers are exploring ways to make future and existing menus and dining concepts more exciting and shareable on social media.

Keep food sociable Campus cuisine should be interesting, quick and sociable, says Olivia Shuttleworth, brand manager for Prep high performance frying oils. “Some students will want to grab and go, while others prefer to hang out and eat in groups, so an ideal menu will include foods that can become takeaway snacks, small dishes or sharing platters. Tempt passing customers with food they can talk about, like breaded mozzarella sticks, spicy polenta fries, deep-fried shrimp and sweet potato wedges. Mix things up so that there’s something for those who love spicy and punchy flavours, like sweetcorn and jalapeño rice balls or smoked chorizo rolls, along with plenty of food offering a taste of home, with comforting hash browns, chunky chips and fishcakes.”

And don’t forget the burgers and hotdogs! “With the traditional beef burger as we once knew it in decline, students are actively seeking out more innovative global options and international flavours. Middle Eastern and Korean, are creeping onto the hot dog and burger scene. Burritos and tacos should not be discounted either as growing contenders for top hot snacks,” says Willie Pike, Major’s consultant development chef for Scotland.

Globalisation In 2015-16 there were 2.28million students in further education at the UK’s universities – 127,440 were from the EU and 310,575 from non-EU countries – so it’s important to cater for this multi-cultural demographic. Indian cuisine has undergone a major shake-up and flavour influences have combined with street food trends, opening up a wider range of on-the-go options. With the increase in pop-up restaurant openings and rising popularity of street food, there is a great opportunity for university caterers to offer a wider variety of popular Asian dishes to help boost their sales. But as tastes evolve and students’ tastes become more sophisticated, chefs need to adapt their ethnic offering so they can give consumers newer, more interesting experiences. Unilever’s Go East Hello World guide is packed with tips and recipes on how chefs can create delicious dishes from Japan, Korea and China. You can download a copy at: chef-inspiration/hello-world/go-east -recipe-guide.html

Cracking ideas Pizza remains a favourite choice on university campuses but toppings are evolving and becoming more adventurous. Stuart Jackson, sales director for Pan’Artisan, explains: “A top trend currently is using eggs in different meals, no longer will egg be just a breakfast dish it can now be used to make pizza look stunning and elegant.”

BBQ pulled pork has been joining the list of pizza favourites for a while now, and bold sauces are trending. Using pickled onions, roasted peppers, tomatoes, chicken and artichoke, then drizzle the meal with a vinegar-based oil to make any punchy pallet happy.

“With the use of dough, you can create many different meals, by making the dough into shapes and filling them with vegetables or spicing them with pepper, the dough creates the perfect appetiser or stunning side,” continues Stuart. “The trends that food is embarking on can be integrated into any dough to become modern and fresh.”

Pilot with pop ups In order to stay competitive it is vital that universities and colleges bring the high street in – and pop ups are a great way to trial new ideas. Fergus Martin, Major development chef, explains: “When it comes to trend verses fad, ‘pop up’ style specials are a great way to tap into the latest food innovations. Not only can you pilot new flavours and recipes, you can also test their longevity before adding them to your menu properly, and they reflect the way that students eat these days. “One week they might be diving into a Pan-Asian noodle bowl, the next diving onto Korean fried chicken or bibimbap. From a marketing perspective they can be a fun selling point too.”

Discovering other day-parts Research into student eating habits reveals, unsurprisingly, that lunch is the most popular day-part for on campus dining – so how can caterers lure more diners in at other times of the day? It’s worth considering offering a variety of nutritious grab and go options to students, says Aine Melichar, brand manager for Kerrymaid. “Breakfast wraps, bagels and all-day toasted sandwiches are becoming increasingly popular, as they are easy to customise to individual tastes and perfect for students who want to eat on the way to class. With healthier eating trends dominating foodservice, ingredients such as avocados, quinoa, beetroot, turkey and falafel are just some of the fillings making their way into breakfast dishes.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a la carte meals in the afternoon would be an appealing option for students looking for a main meal after lectures