Culinary Development Q&A: Campus Menu Options Meet Changing Student Trends

WRITTEN BY: Scott Zahren


At Aramark, we developed a robust culinary development process to satisfy changing student needs in the more than 2,000 food courts and restaurants we manage across the country. This has become quite a challenge with increasing demands for authentic flavors, ethnic recipes and healthier food options. Here’s what Chef Scott Zahren, our Director of Culinary Development, had to say about understanding students and providing options to meet their needs.

What do you do as Director of Culinary Development?

SZ: Along with a team of chefs and dietitians, I oversee the development of the menus and recipes used throughout Aramark.

What are students seeking from their campus dining experience?

SZ: According to Aramark Insights, more healthy options are the most commonly requested. The higher education consumer seeks new and on-trend choices. Right now, it’s healthy foods. Vegan, vegetarian, gluten alternatives, whole grains, low sodium and calorie counting are all in high demand. We began focusing on gluten alternatives about two years ago, taking into consideration those with celiac disease and those who make a lifestyle choice to follow a gluten-free diet.

We are also focusing on allergens to make sure we communicate and identify our foods properly. Everything we develop these days has a healthy aspect to it.

When you create menus and recipes, what are the top things you take into consideration?

SZ: Based on student demand, especially for Gen Z, we make sure nutritional elements are incorporated into everything we create. Whether low calorie, low sodium, and/or gluten-free—we want to offer nutritious foods while making sure students can avoid or are informed about certain food types and allergens based on their dietary restrictions.

We also want our menus to be operationally feasible and efficient to produce. We work hard to ensure our recipes are authentic while taking into account operational considerations, like differences in kitchen equipment or labor availability, so our chefs can execute consistent quality. We have parameters for cost, availability or substitutions to ensure we deliver a consistently high-quality and exciting dining experience.

What is another trend you are seeing more of lately?

SZ: The desire for personalization and customization. We always try to give our customers a choice and try to guide them to choose healthy options, as well. Most of our dining stations offer customers the option to customize their meals by choosing the ingredients they want and omitting what they don’t.

Any other trends among Gen Z students?

SZ: The demand for ethnic choices is increasing. We have always had residential and international menu selections, but now we are seeing that students would like to see greater variety. Authenticity is becoming more important as micro-ethnic cuisines like Vietnamese, Korean and Thai are becoming more prominent. We are piloting a range of new menu items based on the ethnic foods students are requesting to test demand and operational feasibility. We’d like to include street foods and new ethnic cuisines like Indian dishes that are becoming common in restaurants and other off-campus dining options.

Convenience has always been essential on a campus, but with Gen Z even more so. Because we know that the typical student will walk three to five minutes for dining, we strive to provide students with quick options and also sit-down options in key hubs on campus. We continue to add “convenience” products in alignment with student feedback and purchase behaviors.

What do you find are the greatest challenges in providing students with the breadth of dining options needed on college campuses?

SZ: There are many challenges, particularly because we have locations with a variety of layouts and kitchen and equipment capabilities. In my position, our team must be able to provide scalable solutions, which can be challenging.

As we add more ethnic options, getting authentic ingredients on a national level can be a challenge. With the number of campuses served by Aramark, we are generally able to work with our distributors to stock all types of ingredients and products.

Also, the broader the menu, the more skills our employees need to execute. We work hard to adhere to strict nutritional guidelines and are aware of any allergens in the ingredients.

What would you say are the benefits for universities to offer ethnic, customizable and healthy options?

SZ: For the most part, I think universities know we provide these options because their students are asking for it. Some schools focus more on ethnic options than others based on their demographic composition or preferences. The demand for healthy choices has been increasing every year. Also, many universities have experienced shifts in the taste profiles of entering freshmen. Whether students are foreign or domestic or simply exposed to more authentic ethnic foods before entering college, we continuously monitor their needs and wants and address them to ensure we increase the level of participation and satisfaction. After all, we have food expertise, which is what our clients hire us for and expect.

How do you think healthy, sustainable options affect students’ educations and their lives in general?

SZ: If a student doesn’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or if the food will fit into their healthy lifestyle, that removes a barrier. Knowing you can find what you want on campus when you need it helps fuel the body, which provides more energy and makes you healthier and better able to perform academically.

What is your recommendation for schools not up-to-date with student trends?

SZ: I would hope universities are listening to their students, and if they have a foodservice partner, they can rely on that partner to bring the insights and feedback that inspires ongoing innovation. At Aramark we place a priority on understanding the student consumer and receive feedback from over 200,000 students annually. We utilize proprietary insights tools for dining master planning, annual state of the program, and daily operational feedback. All of this information ensures that we stay ahead of trends that help us innovate and bring unique offerings.

As student needs continue to shift, Aramark keeps its finger on the pulse of student trends. This behind-the-scenes look shows how Aramark works to enrich the students of today and tomorrow by providing exemplary dining experiences.

Chef Scott Zahren began his culinary career 35 years ago as a cook at an Italian restaurant. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he worked with Hilton Hotels before joining Aramark’s Healthcare Division in executive-level catering. In his 28 years with Aramark, Scott has excelled in several positions, including Regional Chef for Higher Education and his current position as Director of Culinary Development. He has been certified as an Executive Chef through the American Culinary Federation since 1997. Scott has two sons in college and enjoys the outdoors and training his Weimaraner, Ellie.

Topics: dining services

What Do Gen Z Students Want from On-Campus Dining