Campus Dining and the Deli

Ken Whitacre

Campus dining is actually best thought of as not just a feeding operation, but also an educational one.

One of the great joys of parenting is getting the privilege and the pleasure of taking your child off to college. My eldest daughter enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and this proud Poppa has been driving up with her to check out the town while Shea, an award-winning percussionist, has been trying out for marching band.

For a father, to see one’s child go off to college is an emotional moment. The enormous sense of pride of all Shea has done, and all her broader family and community have done to help her arrive at this day, is meaningful, even a bit overwhelming. There is also the great truth of parenting: that we can only be successful as parents if we’ve brought our children to the place where they can go off on their own.

Well, no problem with Shea on that point. She is ready, willing and able to go off to school and plunge into a new world of academic and social success.

When we visited the campus this summer, we saw so many young people raring to go. Of course, sustenance is still required, and with meal plans not yet open to summer students, alternatives had to be found. Having a supermarket deli within walking distance of campus is a surely great option.

Visiting the Publix store located at University Village Market, we were confronted with a long line of students and families buying subs. How could there not be a line? The student in front of us ordered six completely different custom-made subs, and it was not an atypical order!

We asked the deli worker, who was making the subs, what the best-seller was and, hands down, she told us it was the fried chicken tender sub, which, I confess, I didn’t even know was a thing! The deli worker suggested we try it with bacon!

To observe the kids and listen to the workers is a dose of realism; if you just read, listen and watch the consumer media, you might think everyone is ultra-concerned about health and seeking out nonfried and healthful alternatives. My daughter is well-aware of healthful eating, but after marching around carrying a drum for many hours and knowing she is going to grab her dad to hike a few miles next, she – and apparently most of the UF students – is focused on taste, flavor and filling up, and the Fried Chicken Tender Sub fits the purpose.

In a few weeks, of course, Shea will be living in a dorm and on the University meal plan. Though she will occasionally buy from the Publix deli, she will mostly get the food we already paid for in the many University of Florida dining halls.

Of course, the school has its own sub shops and many other dining options and, in time, of course, she may move off campus, and her dining hall plan may be reduced. Yet the situation shows the dilemma for retailers in general as more and more people are in school, in hospitals, in prisons, in retirement homes, etc. – where, in fact, retailers are unable to compete for the food dollar of these consumers.

Campus dining is actually best thought of as not just a feeding operation, but also an educational one. Part of it is exposing students to different dishes and cuisines, and part of it is teaching how different food combinations and cooking techniques can make an individual feel.

Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining, has shared the story of how he was often eating poorly combined foods, and how, with the guidance of culinary experts, he realized the importance of offering composed salads and curated meals to students. Indeed, Yale’s “salad bars” look nothing like what one thinks of in a supermarket where the shopper chooses which ingredients to assemble.

Though the pandemic led to the closing of most supermarket salad bars, reopening these sections will represent a boost on short-term sales. Still, one wonders whether more composed meals, put together by people with expertise, won’t result in more satisfied consumers, suffering less indigestion and enjoying meals more and whether this won’t result in both higher consumption and more sales in the long term.

In a few weeks, I’ll be dropping Shea off for the semester. I hope, of course, she will excel at her academics. But grades are not the only things of importance. She will learn to engage with peers that come from different places and hold different values; she will learn how to allocate time between school and extra-curriculars and social engagement.

Without her parents to guide her, she will also decide what to eat, when to eat it and how much to eat of it. Oddly enough, long after she has forgotten what she learned in some of her classes, Shea will be eating foods she tried for the first time while a college student, eating in the dining hall, going out to restaurants at night, and visiting homes with newfound friends.

The food industry would be wise to think hard on what it can do to expose Shea, and countless like her, to new and exciting things to eat, now, and for the rest of their lives.                      DB


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