Want to capture the hearts and stomachs of the millennial generation? Focus on customization.

“Students are all about creating the food—be it the dish, the meal or the diet—that is perfectly suited to them,” says Brent Beringer, Aramark’s Resident District Manager of University of Virginia Dining Services in Charlottesville, VA. “They want to enhance flavors, change ingredients and improve the nutritional profile of anything—and everything—they eat.”

Food-savvy and flavor-bold, today’s college and university students thrive on tailoring their eating experiences to their unique tastes.

Ken Toong, Executive Director of Auxiliary Enterprises at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, agrees.

“There are some top trends in college foodservice that we see unfolding across the country,” says Toong, who is known for developing and overseeing one of the college segment’s marquee programs. “Grazing, smaller portions, spicier foods, wellness, socially responsible and sustainable ingredients and authenticity are just a few.

“Within all of these trends customization is the constant,” he says.

At UMass, students can customize everything from their mac and cheese, sushi and oatmeal to their pho, panini and coffee.

“The millennial diner is much more adventuresome,” says Toong. “They resist anything that hints at mass production. They want authenticity. They want freshness. They want constant access. And they want high-quality food that is made especially for them.”

Similarly, U. Va. strives to offer concepts that are customizable without being alienating. (Beringer finds that too much customization can also be somewhat intimidating to the uninitiated.)

“In our residential dining rooms, we work in a kitchen-less approach where small batches of each dish are prepared in front of the customer,” he says. “In our retail operations we focus heavily on providing variety.”

U. Va. has 29 restaurants, cafes and convenience stores on campus that provide different styles of service and different types of cuisines.

“We have a couple of very flexible locations, especially ‘In The Nood,’ our gourmet noodle bar,” says Beringer.

In The Nood was designed as a student project that Aramark supported and funded for installation. It offers Asian, Italian and American pasta-based dishes cooked to order in an open kitchen.  

“While most students order from the menu, each dish can be changed by adding or substituting vegetables, sauces, proteins, or even pasta types,” says Beringer. “The best seller is our Pad Thai with shrimp, chicken or tofu.”

Burrito Theory is U.Va.’s made-to-order completely customizable burrito bar. This location builds a hearty meal-sized burrito using fresh ingredients with the customer making all of the choices each step of the way.

At its Fine Arts Café, where the focus is on sustainable cuisine, allowing students to customize their meals is the order du jour.

“One of the most popular sections of the menu at Fine Arts Café features rice bowls that the guest customizes by selecting proteins and sauces from an array of sustainable choices,” says Beringer.

Even the dishes on U.Va.’s food trucks are customizable.

“We subcontract the trucks to local vendors who create big, authentic street food flavors that can usually be changed depending on the diner’s tastes,” says Beringer. “Our current concept leaders are ‘Got Dumplings’ featuring Asian dumplings and ‘The Pie Guy’ featuring Australian sweet and savory pies.”

At UMass, Toong and his team have made it their mission to learn how their customers think so they can position the dining program in a way that attracts attention and keeps loyalty. As such, nearly every dining hall offers elements of menu customization.

“We take food seriously,” says Toong, who regularly surveys students to keep his finger on the pulse of their ever-changing dining preferences. “And so do our guests.”

Toong has found that by partnering with industry resources like farmers, manufacturers and commodity boards, he is able to further the school’s ability to bring new and innovative dishes and concepts to students. (Ones, of course, that can be fine-tuned to each individual’s tastes.)

“The benefits of allowing our students to personalize the way they eat is tremendous,” says Toong. “That’s what makes us a comprehensive dining program—we must be all things to all people.”