Industry Trends

College and University Foodservice Reinvention Attracts Student Customers but Poses Competitive Challenge to Broadline Distributors

Gone are the days of mystery meat and long cafeteria lines at college campus foodservice outlets, instead college students today have a variety of foodservice options available to them including access to on-campus restaurant chains, finds The NPD Group, a leading global information company.  Campus foodservice operations today are not unlike commercial restaurants in filling the interests and needs of their customers and their customers are responding. Traffic to college and university (C&U) foodservice outlets, excluding on-campus chain restaurants, increased in the year ending March 2016 to 1.6 billion visits.

Customers of C&U foodservice made approximately 20 million more visits in the year ending March 2016 compared to the same period last year, according to NPD’s ongoing non-commercial foodservice market research. Visits to C&U cafeterias drove most of the traffic gains in the period. In terms of dayparts, morning meal (breakfast and AM snack) traffic grew by 7 percent and PM Snack realized a double-digit visit gain. Traffic gains at morning meal and afternoon snack are attributed to an increase in commuter students and higher enrollment at 2-year universities. Visit growth at the morning meal drove incremental servings of breakfast foods, like eggs, and bagels. Many of the top growing foods at C&U were also snack-oriented or healthier in nature, like main dish salads, non-fried chicken, and fruit. Burgers and sides/appetizers were among the food categories that declined in servings in the year ending March 2016. 

Restaurant chains, usually quick service chains, are a growing component of C&U foodservice offerings. These chain units, which accept student meal cards, are changing the supply side dynamics of C&U foodservice operations. Case shipments from broadline foodservice distributors to colleges and universities decreased by 1 percent in the year ending March 2016 compared to same time year ago when case shipments also declined by 1 percent, reports NPD’s SupplyTrack®, a monthly tracking service that tracks every product shipped from major foodservice broadline distributors to over 500,000 commercial and non-commercial operators.  

“College and university foodservice operators no longer view students as a captive audience, they see them as customers and are giving them what they want,” says Annie Roberts, vice president, SupplyTrack. “With higher education budgets tightening, foodservice distributors and manufacturers can assist C&U foodservice operators by focusing in on their customers’ diverse needs.” 

The NPD Group is the industry’s leading source for foodservice trends and restaurant market research data. NPD’s CREST® service, which continually tracks consumers’ use of commercial and non-commercial foodservice, assists foodservice manufacturers, foodservice operators, and other foodservice organizations with strategic planning and positioning, product/menu development, and consumer targeting. For more information visit our website at