The start of the coronavirus meant the swift end of self-service in college and university dining halls across the country. Prior to the pandemic, students were able to select a multitude of varieties and customized choices.


For example, the University of Nebraska’s salad bar dropped from more than 100 combinations to just 25. Navigating that abrupt shift has been a challenge—but it’s also brought about fresh insights and some welcome change.


While fewer choices may seem  like a negative across the board, students and operators alike have experienced a lift in enjoyment by interacting face-to-face as staffers now plate and assemble food.


With the unpredictability of 2021, Foodservice IP analysts (as well as segment operators) recognize the challenge of prediction with Covid-19 restrictions still in place.


From our work in the segment and the preparation of a new study for 2021, we were able to identify a few trends and changes that manufacturers can expect from the channel as permanent fixtures as a result of Covid-19:


Five Trends Expected to Impact College and University Foodservice


Covid Trend “Staying Power” Post-Covid Description Implications to Stakeholders
Mobile Ordering High Facilities have converted space into cloud or ghost kitchens to produce meals that students can pick up when they’re ready. Different pack sizes, smaller shipments and similar requirements of segments such as retail.
Back to Basics Comfort Food Low Eating “green” and social consciousness is important in this segment, yet for now, colleges are seeing students seek more foods like French fries, burgers and mashed potatoes. Formulations that are healthy (and socially conscious) but also taste very good and remind students of “home.”
Staff Serving High Pre-Covid-19, students were becoming accustomed to build-your-own stations, but plexiglass and masks put an end to it. With fewer self-serve, manufacturers may have the ability to explore recipes that require professionals but are craveable and easy to make.
Less Variety Moderate With fewer students on-campus, operators have significantly reduced the abundant choices to meet the whims of a particular group of students. This has become too wasteful. Ideas of back to the basics type of recipes and offerings. Variety is not expected to be limited for long, particularly with the diversity of a student population.
Death of the Dining Hall Moderate The Covid-19 outbreak forced college and university dining directors to shutter dining halls. While communal dining will not disappear, expect to see courtyard or other spaces outside of the conventional dining halls. There will likely be little impact to the way manufacturers approach new dining spaces when working with foodservice directors. 


Once Covid-19 has passed and students begin to return in full force, a new set of trends may emerge. At this point, however, these are a sampling of ideas from our work and research that we believe have staying power.

Tim Powell is a Managing Principal of Foodservice IP. Tim serves as a trusted foodservice adviser to management at several food companies.

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