Q&A: Plant-Based Menu Innovations Gen Z College Students Love

Colleges and universities are at the forefront of plant-based foodservice innovation as they reach out to Gen Z students who will help shape the future of menus.

For additional information, food institute spoke with Ken Toong, executive director of University of Massachusetts Amherst Auxiliary Enterprises, which includes UMass Dining, the nation’s largest on-campus dining operation.

How are Gen Z students driving plant-based innovation in the restaurant industry?

They stimulate innovation in two ways. First, today’s Gen Z students are the most diverse in history – Asian, Latina, and Indian students demand authentic, mostly plant-based cuisine. Second, today’s Gen Z students are focused on healthy cooking and how food drives performance.

In a recent study by IRB in conjunction with the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, students who had a high intake of plant-based menu items, for example dark leafy greens, had higher GPAs than students with lower consumption. To this end, Gen Z students understand the importance of a healthy plant-based diet and how it impacts their daily lives.

Could you highlight a few plant-based food and beverage trends that have been popping up on campus recently?

1. Late night dining: Students are demanding healthier, plant-based meals served until midnight and beyond. Student feedback indicates that they prefer plant-based menu items such as burgers, pomace (which we use to make classic dishes like Mapo Tofu), chorizo, pizza toppings, and broths. vegetarian curries with mung bean noodles, vegetables and spicy pomace. Additionally, plant-based proteins such as Maine kale (Atlantic Sea Farms) were also very well received by students. We incorporate it in many ways, from classic soups, pickles and pasta salads to vegetable tempura, stir-fries and omelettes.

2. Drinks: Students, especially during the midday, have little free time and drinks on the go are very popular. These include plant-based protein products such as white bean smoothies which are healthy and portable, plant-based milks (almond, oat, soy and coconut) for additions to coffee and tea, as well as Boba beverages such as maple milk Boba. made with maple syrup, soy milk, boba pearls and ice. We also use silken tofu to give the body a smoothie and a protein boost.

3. Globally Inspired Breakfast Products: Eggs, sausages, and plant-based pomaces are popular options for vegans as well as omnivores/flexitarians. Menu options such as quiches, scrambles, and breakfast sandwiches are common options alongside classic American breakfast dishes.

We also have a strong Indian breakfast program for our students who favor a more traditional and authentic Indian vegan diet which has been very well received by our campus community. Examples are Dosa, idli, poha, Aloo Gobi (cauliflower and potato curry), dhal and Sambhar. We also offer a plant-based version of JianBing, traditional Beijing-style pancakes.

Are there any salient trends for the potential adoption of a mainstream restaurant?

Globally inspired, culturally focused and authentic menus have significant potential for mainstream restaurant adoption. Customers understand the importance of in-person dining more than ever. They are looking for experiential meals.

UMass Dining surveyed over 4,000 students in Spring 2022, and the top three concepts they would like to see more of are Chinese, Latin, and Indian cuisines. Additionally, when asked what students would like to eat after college, more than 70% said their current habits would continue after graduation.

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