Big business is battling for the hearts—and palates—of students

MARCI McDONALD November 25 1996


Big business is battling for the hearts—and palates—of students

MARCI McDONALD November 25 1996



Big business is battling for the hearts—and palates—of students


At Brock University’s new residence cafeteria on the outskirts of St. Catharines, the menu looks as hip as the hall’s angular steel and glass design. Just inside the door, a hand-scrawled notice board announces the special of the day: chicken fajitas. But a visitor familiar with the sizzling Tex-Mex poultry strips could be forgiven for doing a double take: beneath the eerie glow of an infrared warming lamp, a heap of stringy dark flesh flecked with a sauce that might have been called Distant Memories of Tomato sits waiting to be shrouded in a limp tortilla. Clearly, it was for just such an occasion that the Mexicans invented salsa. But even liberal lardings of hot sauce, sour cream and assorted fixings have failed to convince Chris Keleher, a 21-year-old business major on a $2,500-a-year mandatory meal plan, to take more than a few bites. “Puppy chow,” he pronounces it, staring glumly at his plate. “On average, there’s one really horrible meal a week and usually you can do things to spice it up, but this time there was no saving grace.”

If that gastronomical verdict may scarcely sound new, these days it is enough to send tremors through university administrators and catering executives alike. At a time when schools find themselves starved for operating funds, feeding the student body as well as the

mind has become an increasingly urgent source of revenue—an estimated $250-million-a-year industry aimed at keeping both undergraduates, and their spending money, on campus. Nor is that preoccupation confined to the universities alone. In a setting once reserved for inducting young minds into the lofty realms of the intellect, they are also being targeted as recruits in the current multimillion-dollar marketing wars for brand-name loyalty. In fact, where once Keleher would have had no choice but to down cafeteria fare or escape to the nearest burger joint, he can now repair to Brock’s main academic complex where the unmistakable aromas from Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Tim Horton’s outlets waft through the hallways—and the university gets a slice of every sale. While those options might not warm the cockles of every mother’s heart, they have done wonders for administration and corporate catering

balance sheets. “There are so many competitive food organizations off campus, it’s forced universities to get away from the old stodgy style,” says AÍ Pedler, director of Brock’s administrative services. “If our food suppliers aren’t making a profit, then we don’t get to share it.”

But as fast-food franchises have invaded campuses across the country over the past six years, they have transformed the oncestaid corridors of academe into a landscape more closely resembling the local shopping mall. “Because universities are trying to get money from corporations, there’s been a lot of pressure to put advertising everywhere,” Pedler acknowledges. “Companies are really trying to get at that 19 to 25 age bracket.”

Not everyone in that target market is flattered by the courtship. Last year, when the University of British Columbia granted Coca-Cola 10 years of exclusive cold beverage rights on campus in return for a rumored $ 1-million annual contribution to its coffers—the exact amount remains a closely guarded secret—students organized a petition demanding a referendum on the creation of what one organizer dubbed “a Pepsi-free zone.” Others objected to the fact that, under the terms of the confidential agreement, even the fruit juice and mineral water offered at UBC counters must be brands controlled by one of the corporation’s subsidiaries. In the end, the deal sailed through the Alma Mater Society council on a 45 to 10 vote after Coke sweetened its offer with a donation to the council’s own Initiatives Fund, estimated at $100,000 a year for the decade.

But the uproar provoked the student union of Vancouver’s Langara College to vote against a similar monopoly. And already, in the wake of an announcement that UBC’s main cafeteria, Pacific Spirit Place, will close at the end of next year, there are rumblings of discontent over the prospect that it could become a food court contracted out to the usual roadside franchises. “People are starting to resent the corporate presence on campus,” says Joe Clark, a 21-yearold arts student who doubles as production co-ordinator for the campus newspaper, The Ubyssey. “There’s a real fear that a lot of factors are contributing to turn the university into a commercial development rather than an academic institution.”

That battle for students’ hearts and wallets has become both fierce and international. While a halfdozen universities such as UBC still run their own kitchens, most like Brock have handed over the task to one of a trio of conglomerates—two of them American—usually in return for a confidential share of the profits. In fact, Brock’s offering of chicken fajitas is better known as menu number TH34 in the standard 21-day revolving meal plan put together by an executive chef at the Washington headquarters of Marriott International Inc., the global hotel giant. Setting out every facet of the process for hundreds of continental colleges and universities in a plastic binder loftily entitled “Culinary Repertoire,” the corporation leaves nothing to chance: schools are shipped its frozen “chicken fajita blend,” complete with instructions for sautéing


Three companies control the lion’s share of catering on campus. Below are listed the universities at which they have a presence:

VERSA SERVICES LTD. Alberta Brandon Lakehead Manitoba McGill Mount Saint Vincent New Brunswick Ottawa Regina Ryerson St. Thomas Saskatchewan Toronto Western Winnipeg

MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL INC. Acadia Brock Calgary Carleton Concordia Laurentian Laval Lethbridge Moncton Mount Allison Prince Edward Island Trois-Rivières Queen’s Ryerson St. Francis Xavier Saint Mary’s Saskatchewan Simon Fraser Toronto Trent York

BEAVER FOODS LTD. Bishop’s Cape Breton Carleton Dalhousie Memorial New Brunswick Nipissing St. Francis Xavier Waterloo Western

with onions and green peppers, and a nutrient analysis that informs any dieters who might inquire that 27 per cent of the recipe’s calories come from fat.

With contracts at 550 campuses—21 of them Canadian universities—Marriott dominates the North American educational catering business, which accounts for 15 per cent of its $3-billion-ayear in non-hotel business. Under the banner of Versa Services, its chief rival, Philadelphia-based Aramark Inc., has won food and beverage rights at another 15 of the country’s campuses, while Beaver Foods, a subsidiary of Toronto’s Cara Operations Ltd., operates 10 university kitchens in the Atlantic region, Ontario and Quebec. Through periodic market surveys and focus groups, all three companies are constantly probing the student pulse and palate with an eye towards keeping sales plump and waste lean. When a bucket of spumoni ice cream lay untouched for a week in Brock’s residence dining hall, it was promptly replaced by flavors deemed more acceptable in an impromptu poll: chocolate chunk cookie dough and bubble gum. “There’s a lot more focus on the customer today,” concedes Michael Oschefski, president of Versa’s campus division. “It’s a big, big business.”

Just how big became clear two years ago when construction costs for Brock’s new residence dining hall soared beyond budgetary expectations. Marriott, which had already contributed $650,000 to the project, agreed to throw in another $200,000 in return for a year’s extension of its five-year contract. In gratitude, the university built a new suite of catering offices, complete with the corporation’s logo emblazoned on a huge scarlet marquee outside the cafeteria. While most universities prefer to keep their commercial ties more discreet, at Brock the Marriott name now sprouts on everything from the annual Halloween pumpkin-carving contest (“the Marriott Cup”) to the paper napkins handed out with sweets at convocation. Nor is the company unmindful of the stakes involved in that high-profile presence. “Students are a buying power,” says Christina Erridge of its Washington public relations department, “and we know we have them for a whole year, or four. But they could become a Marriott customer for life.”

That increasing awareness of students’ clout as consumers began a decade ago when they started shunning dining halls across the continent. “There was a period of time when some of the universities were having trouble filling their residences,” says John Douglas, vice-president of business development for Marriott’s Canadian operations. “Suddenly, there was a demand for a lot more flexibility and contemporary food.” Out went the traditional mystery meat and potatoes with albino broccoli languishing for hours on the steam tables; in came sandwich and salad bars, along with daily pasta specials and ethnic fare—now staples in every cafeteria.

Those innovations have proved a godsend for the health and calorie-conscious—above all, the growing number of campus vegetarians, who still complain of little choice. “I would have starved last year without the salad bar and the deli bar,” says Jess Barrie, a 20-year-old recreation management major at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “They saved me.” But neither were enough to keep her from moving off campus this fall, where she and her four housemates can eat what and when they like. “If I was

asked what were the reasons for moving out,” Barrie admits, “food definitely would have been one of the motivating factors.”

But in the effort to lure students back to campus cafeterias, not all of the focus has been on health. Seven years ago, when Marriott’s U.S. executives noticed carloads of undergraduates were decamping to strip malls for a quick calorie fix, they decided to shortcircuit that competition by licensing Pizza Hut franchises and installing them on university property. When its Canadian division followed suit with a Pizza Hut and Tim Horton’s doughnut kiosk on one campus, food and beverage sales jumped 82 per cent overnight. Now, every corporate caterer has hurled itself into what Marriott’s Erridge terms “the national branding fray,” vying with each other for new fast-food attractions. Two years ago, Versa imported the first outpost of a southern U.S. chicken chain, Chick-fil-A, to the University of Alberta in Edmonton—to mixed reviews. And this fall, Beaver Foods introduced Second Cup coffee shops at the University of New Brunswick and Dalhousie. ‘The students of the ’90s grew up in shopping malls,” says Oschefski. “There’s a certain amount of comfort for them in seeing these names.” Agrees Jason Tam, a 19-year-old human biology major at the University of Toronto: “The food in residence sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. This gives you more confidence in what you’re eating.”

Still, customer confidence is not the only consideration. As Oschefski points out, franchise profits tend to be fatter, underwriting the cost of the traditional steam table fare. “Preparing a hot meal is the most expensive thing you can do,” he says. “That’s almost a loss leader for us, but we

Corporate caterers vying for fast-food attractions

have a responsibility to provide them for students. What franchises do is help keep the other prices down in the cafeteria.”

But increasingly, today’s students are complaining that the cost of that subsidization is too steep. Two years ago, when Versa brought fast-food outlets to the University of Manitoba, the weekly Manitoban reported that the same name-brand doughnuts and tacos were nearly twice the price on campus as off—in part, because the university serving staff was unionized. “The difference was just huge,” says Derrick McBride, director of student relations. “They’ve lowered the prices a bit since, but, overall, people feel they’re spending too much money for the food that they’re getting.”

In fact, as students become more sophisticated consumers, increasingly impervious to brand-name blandishments, they are demanding—and getting—fresher and more made-to-order meals at the newest innovation on a handful of campuses: food courts with display stations like those in Huron College at the University of Western Ontario, where chefs will whip up a stir-fry or grilled special before their eyes. That “mass customization,” as it is known, has become the latest fashion in the catering trade. And even some student council snack bars are trying to cash in, attempting to give their own nosheries an edge over the corporate competition with a nostalgic twist on the trend. At Brock’s student-union-run restaurant, The Front Line, where a 63-year-old grandmother named Felecia Natale turns out the soups and pastas from scratch, a sign just inside the door trumpets her time-tested version of customization. “Shepherd’s pie,” it announces. “Just like Mom’s!” □