The goal is to keep students eating on campus.
By VICKI LEE PARKER
RALEIGH NEWS & amp; OBSERVER
Call it a billion-dollar food fight. Catering to college student's finicky appetites has become a big business, as universities across the country try to lure undergraduates with java houses, sushi bars and rotisserie chicken. Schools are spending millions gutting old-style cafeterias and building sleek, state-of-the-art food courts to help maintain enrollment and keep students' disposable income on campus.
And recently, the competition has gotten spicier as a number of private companies have started to offer off-campus meal plans that include nearby restaurants and food services.
To keep students on campus, institutions are constantly evaluating their food service and making costly improvements such as adding all-you-can-eat buffets and made-to-order food bars, increasing room delivery service and adding brand-name food chains. A few have even hired top-name chefs to train university cooks.
"We try to find that thing [students] are doing off campus and put it on campus," said Ira L. Simon, university food service director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We constantly have to earn the business."
And quite a business it is. Duke University earned $22 million off its food service in 2002.
But schools have had to spend mightily to attract those dollars.
After spending $13 million in 1997 to increase seating by 30 percent and add a buffet at its campus dining hall, the University of North Carolina spent an additional $800,000 in the summer of 2001 to add a smoothie operation, a Subway and a Mexican menu to the same facility. At the same time, on the south side of campus, the school forked over $150,000 to completely remodel a campus convenience shop.
At Duke University, a $50 million student village is being discussed. It would feature a new food hall and movie theater, said Jim Wulforst, director of dining services.
To stay on top of students' likes and dislikes, schools have created sophisticated market-research programs.
Wulforst said he meets with a 12-member student committee every Monday solely to discuss Duke's food services.
If the students have a complaint about a vendor, Wulforst quickly meets with that management team to correct the problem. If the issue continues, Wulforst doesn't renew the contract.
"If we are not aggressive and offensive, we lose," he said.
But so far, it appears that universities' hunger to satisfy students' ever-changing tastes might be paying off.
Duke, at which plans range in cost from $1,275 to $1,970 per semester, says its dining-service revenue has almost doubled in six years. Before the University of North Carolina renovated the main dining hall in 1997, 2,200 students bought its meal plans. Now, about 4,600 students are on the plans.
But just as the schools are finally having some real success pulling students back onto campus and away from fast-food restaurants, they face another challenge: Private companies are starting to offer students off-campus meal plans.
Generally, these plans operate like a debit-card system. Students put money on a debit card that they can use at certain restaurants. In return, stores offer occasional discounts and freebies, and students don't have to worry about carrying cash or paying for meals with interest-generating credit cards.