This is the first of a series of point/counter-point discussions between Jim Matorin and Lionel Binnie, both experienced food industry consultants and marketers. The first one is about the College and University sector of food service.
Recently I was approached by a West Coast start-up that was looking to introduce in foodservice their grain snack bowls which they were currently selling in select Northern and Southern California Whole Foods stores. I told them I would get back with some recommendations of how my company, SMARTKETING, could assist them with their potential foodservice initiatives. My first thought was to closely examine the College & University (C&U) segment which I have had success introducing new products in the past. Rationale: Kids are now officially out of their nests and forming their own eating behavior. Whether they choose healthy or non-healthy foods, based on their busy lifestyles they are constantly on the go, thus snacking. In addition, more kids are gravitating towards plant-based foods either because they follow a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet or want to save the planet.
Lionel, I would value your opinion. But before you jump in, I did look at the latest Technomic numbers for C&U. I always start by looking at Retail Sales (Food, All Beverages and Non-Foods)– $16,996 billion for the segment; a 2.0 share of the Foodservice industry that is projected to grow (real change) at 1.5% compared to the entire industry at 1.7%. As first pass the C&U segment does not appear to be a significant target market, but if you break the sales down by the 4,470 contact points, you are looking at $3.8 million per institution. That compares to Retailers/Restaurants; Limited Service (LSRs), Full Service (FSRs), Bars & Taverns at approximately $318 thousand per operation. Focused targeting, potential easier path to market execution. What do you think Lionel?
I think the college and university segment has a lot of good features and reasons for food companies to explore this channel. There are two sides to the college foodservice equation; contract-managed and self-operated. Contract-managed foodservice companies are hired by colleges that don’t wish to operate their own dining services; the big three leaders in the space are Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark. And there are just a handful of smaller regional players too. The remaining colleges operate their own dining services (self-op). According to Foodservice Director magazine, about 60% of colleges are self-op and 40% are contracted.
The difficulties of the self-op segment are that food brands need to go and sell to lots of different decision-makers. And getting your food product into the distribution system these colleges like to buy through, such as U.S. Foods or Sysco is an additional sale that needs to be made. The advantages of the self-op colleges are that many of the more prestigious and larger colleges are self-operated, which if you can gain traction in, will allow you to build your brand. If you can gain traction in just a few colleges, word will spread, as the chefs all talk amongst themselves through organizations like NACUFS.
Conversely, the contract-management companies, have tremendous scale if you can become a supplier and then you have a shot at being distributed through all their accounts. But the process to become an approved or preferred vendor to these giant companies can be long and arduous.
The critical issue for breaking into the college foodservice market is the most obvious one; it’s the consumer! If the consumer wants, needs, has to have your product, then all the other players, whether they are self-op or contract-managed colleges or their distributors, will get on board.
I like your point of view about the two sides of the college foodservice equation; contract-managed and self-operated. Personally, I have experienced both sides. I live in Philadelphia, thus I have had my fair of success with Aramark, but it can be a tedious, semi-bureaucratic process with huge results. On the flip side, I am very wired to the C&U members of NACUFS; I frequently attend/speak at their conferences (Regionals and National). However, as you stated, there are usually multiple decision makers — sometimes the ‘head of the fish’ (FS Director) will delegate the final decision on bringing in a new product to someone on their team. Either path, it all comes down to relationships — the supply chain management team at a contract-managed account or key players at an Independent C&U account. Let’s face it Lionel, foodservice has always been a relationship driven business.
In closing, you mentioned the consumer which I think we should make the topic of our next discussion. What do you see as some of the key consumer touch points manufacturers should address when selling to the C&U segment?