In this piece I’m going to describe how to sell a food and beverage product or concept into the College and University (C & U) food service market.

The C & U food service market is all the cafeterias, retail outlets and convenience stores that are located on the roughly 3,800 college campuses throughout the U.S.  Virtually all colleges have a food offering of some kind.  And large 4-year colleges have an enormous range of food offerings from the all-you-can eat dining plans that first and second year students are often required to sign up for, to student union building food courts, coffee shops and food trucks scattered throughout campus.

College dining has evolved significantly over the past two decades.  Many of the present generation of students, raised by baby boomers, have developed palates and are discriminating about the creativity, quality and sustainability of their food.  And colleges have responded by bringing on highly talented chefs and culinary management teams.

Selling a food product whether it is an ingredient that campus chefs would use in their culinary offerings, all the way to a branded coffee available in retail outlets, to a full-fledged retail brand that might be franchised for the college to operate or lease space from the college for an independent franchisee to operate.

College foodservice

So, How do you Access this Marketplace?

The answer depends on which of two ways the college is using to offer its food service; self-operated, meaning the college does it themselves, or outsourced, often known as ‘contract-managed’, to a third-party food service contract management company.

Self-Operated

The world of self-operated dining services is a community of highly talented and professional food service managers and chefs.  They procure their ingredients through national and regional food service wholesale/distributors such as U.S. Foods and Sysco.  So, it’s a complicated process – read more about the process of working with wholesale distributors here – not only of selling into the college and also into the wholesale distributor at the same time. But these decisions are made at the campus level, so it is relatively easy to find the right decision-makers.  In addition, the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) is a trade association set up to serve this community.  NACUFS holds regional and national conferences and trade shows and participating in these is probably one of the most direct ways to introduce your product to this marketplace.

College foodservice

Contract Managed Dining Services

The other way this industry is organized, is through outsourced food service contract management companies. The three leading food service contract management companies are Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark.  And there are smaller, regional companies as well. To see a list of the top 50 food service contract companies, click here (you may have to subscribe to their publication, to get full access). These companies, because of their size and buying power and hard to access. Your ability to do so will depend on whether your product or brand provides something that these companies, and ultimately, students, want and need.  And in addition, as in the self-operated side of food service, you will need to persuade the wholesale distributors like U.S. Foods and Sysco and other smaller, regional companies, to carry your products.  You may be able to meet these companies through the National Association of College and University Auxiliary Services (NACAS).  This is a trade association with national and regional conferences and trade shows, similar to NACUFS, described above, where the largest food service contract management companies exhibit.

Conclusion

The C & U market is a significant and valuable channel for your food product or brand, so it is worth understanding and marketing to, for the right types of products and companies.  And it is worth knowing that the C & U market is itself part of what is known as the ‘non-commercial’ food service market, which also includes other dining channels like hospitals, the workplace and the military. All of which may be worth exploring for your product. To learn more about the non-commercial foodservice industry download my eBook, here.   And call us, we’d love to help.

Panini sandwich