University Menus Make the Grade
University menus are changing. Students no longer want a diet of purely British cuisine, they’re looking for authentic food which takes inspiration from cultures around the world. With students now placing greater emphasis on a university’s facilities than its reputation Take Stock spoke to Phil Rhodes, executive chef at Manchester Metropolitan University – home to four kitchens and six coffee shops which cater for 35,000 students – about the big challenges facing university caterers and how his team is rising to meet them.
Keeping it fresh
“Instead of having a big change once a year, our menu constantly evolves,” explains Phil. “I keep an eye on what’s selling and what’s not. So, if an item hasn’t sold well over a period of around four weeks, then we take it off and replace it with something else – equally it works the other way round too.” One example of this is their Korean chicken dish. “It used to be on the menu once every three weeks but we kept receiving emails from students saying how great it was so now it is on once a week.”
Gone are the days of traditional British dishes like pie and chips or sausages and mash being the big hit on menus. “We have a cottage pie on the menu once every three weeks and that’s as British as it gets!” said Phil. “We asked the students what they wanted and they said ‘world food’. Currently, jerk chicken, Cuban roasted chicken and Indonesian beef stir-fry are among Phil’s most popular dishes. “Because students know this food and eat it outside of university, we have to make it authentic – they can’t be fooled,” added Phil. “Years ago we’d tone down spicy sauces, but today people’s tastes have changed dramatically so they expect the flavours to be what they should be – hot and spicy! If we don’t achieve this, we are not only letting the students down but ourselves too.”
“We have to keep the students interested so they will choose to eat here rather than on the high street,” said Phil. “We had a redesign of our main restaurants to make them look and feel more like a cafe than staid refectories.” Replacing old-looking furniture and changing the structure of the old fashioned counter helps them compete with the high street. “We wanted to appeal to the students – and it worked,” Phil added.
Despite students craving world flavours, the nation’s favourite still has a place on the menu. “We sell around 300 portions of freshly battered fish and chips every Friday,” said Phil. “It’s really popular!” And another regular good seller is breakfast. “We start serving breakfast from 8am and it’s always busy,” added Phil. “We serve a traditional breakfast so students can have a full English or a sausage sandwich, then we also have a yoghurt and fresh fruit bar too, as well as cereal.” The university kitchen hub is its biggest seated establishment where students can come and have a hot meal, whereas the coffee shops are more popular with grab and go items like paninis.
Phil and his team held a roadshow last year to gauge what students wanted to eat. “Students are more aware of what they eat than they used to be,” said Phil. “As well as being conscious about health and dietary requirements, they know what food is supposed to look and taste like.” Phil took all the valuable feedback they gathered from the roadshow and put it to good use. “The main thing that stood out was the lack of vegan dishes on our menus,” said Phil. “We always had a token dish, but this clearly wasn’t enough.” There was also a lack of gluten-free options available. “We had to be more creative with the ingredients so those students following a vegan or gluten-free diet didn’t feel forgotten or left out,” added Phil. “Now, we have a hot vegan main course available alongside a vegetarian and two meat ones. We have also opened a gluten-free pasta bar that has different sauce everyday.”
“Gluten free is here to stay so we have to get on board with that and tweak our menus accordingly,” said Phil. “With every new product, I now consider whether it can be served gluten free, or even vegan.” Another popular choice that shows no signs of slowing down is the burger. “We offer a burger choice once a week and with sales close to 200 it’s proven it isn’t going anywhere fast!” said Phil. “We do a ‘build the burger’ every Monday which works really well with the students because they can chose their own options and sauces – it’s similar to something they’d chose to eat when they dine out.” And for Phil that is crucial for the success of university catering. “We have to mirror what is happening on the high street or what students see and eat when they go out and about,” said Phil. “If we can match that offer, I think we’ll be alright.”
Matt White, chair of The University Caterers’ Organisation TUCO and director of catering, hotel and conferencing services at the University of Reading, said: “Social media has undeniably impacted the food and drink industry and will continue to do so as shareable and picture-led content shapes online conversations. For university caterers, who are directly providing for the Instagram generation, this doesn’t have to be a complete change in approach. It means finding simple and cost-effective ways to update menus in-line with evolving trends. And it’s the ability to do this and adapt to the changing market which makes the higher education catering sector one of the most exciting and creative fields to work in.”
Click here for Phil Rhodes recipe: Aubergine, Butternut Squash & Chickpea Tagine