Since the invention of the plough, or even the millstone, technology has always played an important role in what we eat and how we eat it. It has also had a significant impact on how our foods are prepared, stored and presented, and this can provide new opportunities for consumers hungry for the next big thing in food. If recent years have seen the advent of hybrid anomalies such as the Cronut, Turducken and the Megaburgerpizza, Barnes & Noble College campus stores around the country are taking full advantage of some of the benefits technology is now providing to offer students fresher food choices and greater convenience.
Mindful of the discerning tastes of her Millennial student customers, Lisa Shapiro, Director, Café & Convenience for Barnes & Noble College, doesn’t rate some of the recent food hybrid novelties, such as the Cronut, as a massive success on campus. “Some of those kinds of foods have limited lifespans and can be very regional in their appeal,” she says, acknowledging that the croissant-doughnut hybrid has enjoyed little success outside of its East Coast origins. And while she can point to some interesting flavor combinations such as the Snickers-flavored brownies, which are currently very popular items in campus stores, her main focus for the over 70 Barnes & Noble College cafes and convenience stores is to try to develop a well-established core of popular fresh foods and baked good staples.
This isn’t to say that students aren’t adventurous in their tastes. “At Rutgers, our students are always ready to try something trendy or quirky,” points out Rutgers University Bookstore General Manager, Len Oser. “One line that we’re really seeing sell well is a candy bar with Hunger Games packaging,” he says, adding that the success of the line can be attributed as much to the bacon infused chocolate as it has to do with the on-trend packaging.
Unusual hybrids aside, Shapiro maintains that food technology does play an important role in supplying her stores with a wider range of food options. “A lot of the technologies we’re seeing in the food industry now are more familiar in Europe where they’ve been established for some time, but it means we can now provide a wider range of shelf stable products and therefore greater choices for our customers,” she says. Examples of those kinds of products include items such as hummus or fresh pickles sealed in a bag for freshness, which represent both high quality and greater convenience for the customer. It’s a phenomena right on trend with student preferences, and research by Packaged Facts suggests that, with limited cooking skills, millennials are a group ‘most likely to consume pre-cooked yet fresh retail meals.’ “It’s all about the packaging,” Shapiro agrees, but adds that technology can also help with food display and presentation.
Barnes & Noble College stores vary greatly in terms of size and floor layouts, and enhancements in food technology means that a wider range of products can now be presented without the need of bulky refridgerators or temperature controlled displays. “It allows us to offer more food choices in a limited shelf space,” Shapiro points out. Improved distribution is also supported by technology. Rutger’s Oser points to a line of York Street Catering sandwiches, wraps and salads that are big sellers in his store. Upscale and high quality products, their freshness is guaranteed by regular deliveries throughout the week. And it’s not just local products that benefit from distribution technologies. “Students are also really taking to Asian products, such as Hi-Chu candies from Japan, and Panda and Yan Yan cookies,” Oser maintains.
Food technology can also support lifestyle changes and, as the hectic life of students has led to the growth of snacking habits at the cost of traditional mealtimes, it’s no surprise that one of the biggest trends in food technology is actually quite small. “It’s about anything bite-sized,” Shapiro says. Last year, one in five best-selling new foods were either bite-sized or handheld, a trend that extends to both sweet and savory and has even prompted restaurants to add bite-sized foods to their menus. What’s the next big trend in food retailing? While Pepsi-infused Cheetos or Teriyaki Burritos might grab the headlines, the most significant trend in food technology is likely to be all about greater freshness and more consumer choice.