Although the American population may be graying, younger consumers still have a considerable amount of purchasing power in the food service industry. And right now, one of the hottest food industry trends is the movement toward menu options—or entire restaurants—that cater to the college student demographic.
Campus-bound college students structure their lives around a set routine: class, study, eat, maybe part-time work and leisure. They are increasingly interested, like many Americans, in healthy living and consuming fresher ingredients, but they don't cook much for themselves— especially those students who live in the dorms.
Companies like Chipotle, Which Wich? and Panera have flocked to college towns (and even some campuses) around America, seeking to tap captive audiences and a perceived gold mine. But it's not simply a matter of renting a space, throwing up a sign and dishing up food: the success of these companies is based on a strategy to engage and build rapport with their young customer base.
A free cup at move-in?
One way that Which Wich?, a quick service dine-in sandwich shop that builds its brand around unexpected, fusion-inspired tastes, is engaging its prospective collegiate diners is to provide incoming freshman on nearby campuses with a yellow, branded cup that can be used to get a free refill at any time. You wouldn't think that it would help the brand's profit margins to give away all those sodas and iced teas —after all, college kids consume a lot— but each time a student comes in for a free refill, it provides an encounter point… and a potential sale.
The point, according to Tiffany Kahill, one of the company's senior field marketing managers, is simply to imprint the brand on college students minds. To a college kid who is used to living hand-to-mouth on free food provided by his or her parents, a free refill cup isn't a gimmick, it's "indispensable."
Stand out among all the other businesses trying to grab a piece of the action.
Walk down your average college town's main street and you're going to see plenty of restaurant chains— many with menus that could be clones of one another— all trying to appeal to the same buyer. So how does such an outlet achieve success? Brand imprinting is great, but you still need that first attention grabber. College kids today aren't exactly known for having long attention spans.
You need to jump out ahead of the competition. Flashy food trucks and unorthodox delivery vehicles, effectively-managed viral marketing campaigns, and QR-based loyalty cards have all been trends in the food industry that restaurants have used to great effect to generate awareness.
But ultimately it comes down to your business model: do you have a product that the kids want, in a location that they can easily access and at the right price? And how, say, does Chipotle (Wall Street's fast-and-fresh golden child) get things so right while other, similar brands founder and sink? One word: simplicity.
Infinite taste diversity in limited ingredient offerings.
One way that successful fast-and-fresh outlets like Chipotle set the pace for food industry trends is that they use relatively few ingredients, but in such a way as to give the customer a seemingly limitless amount of ways to tailor-order.
Chipotle tapped what was once the comparative advantage of Ponderosa, Golden Corral and other smorgasbord restaurants — simple food prepared in bulk and offered in a choice line so that the customer perceives increased value — but trimmed things down to appeal to increasingly distracted young customers. Bombard a person with hundreds of choices and he'll short-circuit; present that same person with a finite number of choices that he can put together in his own unique way and he thrives on it.
Combine that model with accelerated service and witty, sleek marketing that speaks clearly to Millennial sensibilities and values, and you'll soon find your business on the cresting wave of food industry trends. That is, of course, until the Next Big Thing comes along.