Those long-time dorm favorites like pizzas, chicken wings and hand-held mini-sandwiches continue to be among the leading choices for college students when patronizing the campus c-store’s frozen foods section. But also increasingly gaining favor are premium items that advertise themselves as vegetarian, authentically ethnic, gluten-free or off er some sort of new-fangled packaging, say college c-store managers.
Spiros Vergatos, assistant director of retail operations at Vanderbilt University, says that Bagel Bites is probably the number one seller on the Nashville campus, but the trend is toward items that promote themselves as “all-natural, gluten-free, soy-free, vegetarian kind of entrees.”
At Purdue University, sales of more traditional items have receded in recent years, says Diana Thompson, coordinator of retail sales and marketing.
“We’re seeing a lot more sales in Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice type items,” she says. “Of course,” she adds, “sales of these kinds of meals tend to go up just before spring break,” when students are preparing to vacation in places where they will have to look their best in bathing suits.
At San Diego State University, “our frozen entrée sales are mostly in comfort food type items like Hot Pockets, Bagel Bites and California Pizza Kitchen pizzas,” says Associate Director Rick Barber, who notes that frozen entrees represent the fourth largest category in terms of campus-wide food dollar sales.
SDSU c-stores sold over 26,000 units in just the fi rst couple months of the current spring semester, he reports. The sales were further boosted by a price decrease following a distribution channel shift.
“The product was expensive when we procured it through the c-store distribution channel, but we were able to reduce the price by getting it through our broadliner instead,” Barber says.
Some other frozen entree trends…
Gluten-free, vegetarian and kosher are not just for the gluten-intolerant, vegetarian and religiously observant any more. As students become more conscious of the health eff ects of their meal choices, they are becoming more discriminating in what they choose to eat, even in the case of frozen convenience products. Helping this trend along are the signifi cant advances food companies have made in making such items more palatable.
“What we’re seeing now increasingly is students buying gluten-free items who are not gluten-intolerant, and they do that because the items taste good,” says Vergatos. “The same goes for kosher items.”
Choices in traditionally limited categories have expanded. With sophisticated meat analogs and more authentic spicing, meatless and even gluten-free items now have expanded way beyond their traditional restrictions. One niche supplier of Vanderbilt off ers items like burritos and noodle bowls that are gluten free, and with no fl avor compromise.
Packaging is important. Thompson says several niche frozen entrée brands have made signifi cant inroads among Purdue students with attractive graphics and exotic names. “I think a lot of the newer aseptic packaging also attracts them, at least initially,” she says. “I think pastas and vegetarian items in aseptic packages sell better than those with meat, though, because the idea of meat sitting at room temperature—even in an aseptic package—seems to turn some customers off .”
A big hit at Vanderbilt is exotic packaging that implies that the heated product will have a better taste and nutrient profi le, Vergatos says. He cites several products featuring sophisticated retherm packaging that steams the product rather than simply reheating through microwaving.
Convenience is still a big factor. The traditional rationale for buying a frozen entrée rather than a freshly prepared meal still holds. Busy students who can’t spend the time required to stop in a dining hall for a meal will choose frozen entrees that can be rethermed quickly.
This is is one reason why sales patterns show that the late afternoon, after classes, and late evening and even overnight are the prime times for sales of frozen entrees.